Last week S., the Director of Product in one of my customer companies, presented the product strategy for a new product they were working on to the CEO.
I first heard about the new product a few months ago, when we started working together. In our first meeting, S. told me that the CEO wants to go down that path (of the new product), and there was already a launch date set.
When I started asking the strategic questions like why this is the right thing to do, what they are hoping to achieve with it, etc., S. didn’t have all the answers. He also told me that when he asked the CEO the exact same questions, he didn’t get a clear answer.
S. didn’t feel very comfortable with the situation, but he was still expected and committed to moving forward with the new product, and got right to work.
In our work together, I did what I always do with The Next Level customers — we worked on finding the answers to these strategic questions (typically without the CEO’s direct involvement). We outlined the fundamental assumptions behind this product as we understood them, and connected the dots into one coherent story, explaining where we were going with this product and what results the company could expect from it. After a few iterations (including market feedback, research and a number of other things we did in between) we felt the product story was ready, and to our knowledge, there were no missing links.
It took us a while to get there, but eventually, it was a perfectly logical story. The product strategy was fully backed by either facts coming from market research or specific assumptions which need further validation and were declared as such.
Our Product Made Sense
Finally, S. had a good feeling about this new product, with a good understanding of its value proposition and where it is going to help the company (and also where it is limited). All of which were laid out explicitly in order to align everyone at the company on the strategy.
The big day arrived and S. presented the strategy to company management. It was a good meeting. People mostly agreed with what S. presented (because it made sense, remember?). Some of them argued with specific points, which were now discussed openly and not left in the dark for anyone to understand later it as they saw fit.
After S. presented, the CEO’s response was: “well, I heard nothing new here.”
Think about it — S. put so much effort into making sense out of what the CEO said initially. He spent the time to find the answers to all of the very important and non-trivial product questions, in alignment with what the CEO said but without getting further guidance from him. He took the CEO’s general guidelines and formed a clear strategy around them. From the product perspective, there was a lot of “new stuff” in there.
But the CEO couldn’t see it.
Still, after the meeting, S. told me that the fact that he got the CEO’s blessing on the strategy — even if the CEO himself didn’t see anything new in it and thought it was obvious — meant the world to him.
He could now use this strategy both internally — for example with marketing and R&D — and externally with customers, partners and even investors.
Moreover, the alignment achieved across the management team was definitely new, and has a tremendous impact: it ensures everyone involved will now operate in the same direction — which is the only way to take the company to where it needs to be.
Product Ideas Are a Legitimate Component in the CEO’s Ability to Lead
S.’s story is not unique. I see it time and again with the people I work with, and with others — both product leaders and CEOs — who want to vent and share their side of the story.
All CEOs have ideas about where their products should go, or which products the company should create. It makes sense — that’s a natural part of their leadership. Some of them do it more often and more bluntly than others. However, all of them typically only outline their ideas at a high level and are happy with dots connected only at that level.
Product leaders are struggling with this paradigm. We all know that to reach product-market fit with any product, you should listen to the market and build the product accordingly. Coming from an idea the CEO had, seems almost unprofessional.
But let’s not throw away the baby with the bathwater. The fact that the CEO has an idea which he can’t or doesn’t take the time to fully explain, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea. These ideas often come from strong intuition developed after talking regularly to a variety of stakeholders and ongoing touchpoints with the market the product is meant for.
In a perfect world, it could be the CEO’s job to outline their ideas more clearly, explain why they make sense, take them to the next level of detail and enroll their team into why this is the right thing to do.
In the real world, most CEOs can’t do that — but product leaders can. In many cases, however, product leaders don’t see it as their job — and that’s a fundamental mistake.
Without doing it, product leaders are left in limbo — on one hand, they are expected to move forward with the product as dictated by the CEO, but as product professionals, they don’t (yet) agree with this direction or even understand it. They feel frustrated, lacking real decision power, and most of all — don’t know how to proceed to the next steps. From the CEO’s perspective at this point, nothing is happening despite the clear guidance they gave the product leader, and they don’t understand why not. They are also frustrated and often disappointed. This type of interaction can lead to mutual distrust which cannot always be fixed.
Taking a Vague Product Idea and Making it Real
As a product leader, it is your job to build the product strategy. Product strategy typically takes the high-level, general ideas the CEO has and gives them roots. It takes them to the next level of detail, providing a market-validated interpretation of the high-level story, where all the dots are logically connected and the end to end product story makes perfect sense.
It is not a trivial task. Building a solid product strategy means opening up many questions that don’t have clear answers. It involves a lot of research — both from public sources and from talking directly to potential customers and stakeholders, and it requires a number of iterations to get all pieces to fall into place.
Because building it is not trivial, when the product strategy is ready it is actually a very powerful document. As in S.’s case, it helps to align everyone on where you are going and creates open discussions on the hard questions which are otherwise left aside. It creates better products — the ones which the market really needs and customers love, and it doesn’t include a single word about the specific features the product will include.
When the CEO hears it and says there is nothing new here, it actually means you are aligned and all the details make sense to them. It also usually means that they want even more details, like specific dates and product features. That’s an important next step — but don’t be tempted to go there without a solid product strategy.
Product leaders — start owning your product strategy. No one else can do it for you. Share this post with your CEO and discuss with them how they see it.
CEOs — give your product leaders the time to take your ideas to the next level of detail. Don’t push them to immediately discuss features and dates until they see the bigger picture and fully understand the product’s value proposition.
P.S. Most CEOs I know would be happily convinced that their ideas are not worthwhile, but only after you made a genuine attempt to build a solid product strategy around them which proves otherwise. Without this attempt, it remains an empty discussion about who’s right, and often only creates noise and frustration on both sides.
P.S. #2. Some people told me I should go deeper into the topic of CEO-Product relationships. If you agree, or if there are other topics you would like me to cover in my posts, let me know. Your opinion matters to me and I’ll happily write on the topics you need most.