How often have you heard: “But we have no strategy!” or seen teams working independently on initiatives that have no real strategic impact?

Perception is reality and when individuals or teams perceive that there is no product strategy, then there isn’t. That is their reality and it's in every sense real. If it's being called out then at least this can draw attention to the problem - silence is corrosive.

More than likely there actually is a strategy but people maybe don’t realize it or know what to do about it. Enabling teams to execute on a strategy with clear purpose and the right level of autonomy is one of the more challenging aspects of product leadership.

For many technology organizations, it's the product strategy that allows the business strategy to be realized. Even when the software engineering function of the organization is the largest and most formidable, it's still the product strategy that determines all others. Technology or user experience are no less important, but the product strategy is the one everything hangs from and therefore it's critical for the organization to be successful in business.

Why is it then, that so often, teams either fail to realize its existence or act upon it?

Everything a team is doing should connect to the product strategy. However, when they are in the weeds of product development it can be hard to realize how everything connects to the bigger picture. Levels of product hierarchy are there for a reason, not everyone can have context of everything, but sometimes the message can be lost.

So why is this happening?

From my experience there are four reasons why teams might believe that there is no discernible product strategy;

  1. … it doesn’t exist yet, but it’s being worked on in the shadows
  2. … it does exist, but it is hard to find and/or is rarely referenced
  3. … it is often referenced, but is not actionable by any of the teams
  4. … it is actionable, but no one knows who should do what or when

Firstly, for the strategy to be effective teams actually need to be aware that it exists or is at least in formation. Secondly, they need to be able to find it easily and reference it often. They then need to clearly understand how to act upon it and how they’ll measure what they do. Finally, everyone needs to be given the clear direction of which teams will work on each aspect of the strategy and when they should do that.

With some simple investigation it shouldn’t take long for product leadership to realize which of these reasons is causing their people to think their strategy doesn’t exist. Asking them to find and articulate the strategy or to explain how their work clearly ladders up, will make it pretty clear what is missing. This will prove how successful leadership has been in creating a clear strategy and communicating it across the organization.

Four steps to alleviate strategy blindness

  1. Existence: make sure there actually is a clear strategy, if it’s still being worked on then communicate that to the teams. The more people know what does and doesn’t exist the more they’ll feel comfortable that leadership is focused on the right things.
  2. Awareness: if there is a strategy that exists then make sure it is actually visible to everyone and it can be referenced. This has to be continual, product leadership can’t just ‘present and forget’, they must talk to the strategy continually using visual aids where possible.
  3. Action: even if the strategy it referenced consistently, it also has to be something that a team can do something about. An actionable strategy can contain a product vision and that’s great, but it doesn’t stop there. A vision will give the teams an aim to keep everyone on track, but a strategy needs focused areas that allow teams to achieve something to get them there.
  4. Purpose: the teams need to know how they link to the strategy and when they need to do something to progress it. Product Managers have their role to play here. Every time they talk about the customer problems they want to solve and the things the team are going to build, it has to somehow link to the large strategic picture. If it doesn’t… why not?

Taking each of these steps should make sure that the product strategy has been articulated in such a way that the teams know their focus area along with clear measures of success they ladder up to. The team can solve their identified customer problems in the best way possible, testing and iterating as they progress.

How the team actually executes on the product strategy should come down to them — this is where they start to make their own decisions. They now know it exists, they can find and understand it and have been given direction on when to act. What customer problems they find and what solutions they build and test is down to them.