23 Mar 2023
Product strategy is perhaps one of the most convoluted topics in product management. Often, it gets confused with product vision, can easily become garbled within an organization in terms of how it fits in with the larger business model, and can sometimes be absent entirely. The results of this can be catastrophic for a company - wasted resources, missed opportunities, and in many cases, failure for an individual product or the company as a whole.
Product vision is the “WHAT” that you and your team are trying to achieve. It is a picture of the future that you want to create by launching your product. Product strategy must fit into this larger vision - it is the “HOW” that will help you achieve this vision and is the approach that you will take to get to that future. (Marty Cagan wrote an excellent article describing the differences here).
Bad product strategy can come in different forms, some of which include
A “wing and a prayer” approach where the focus is on the building of the product without much thought going into what features should be built and why to achieve the larger product vision.
This could look like getting lost in the technical capabilities of your product without thinking about who your users are and how it fits in the market (its unique positioning in the competitive landscape), or the inverse - thinking only about positioning and ignoring details about the technical capabilities required to make the product function.
Rather than gathering inputs from many areas of expertise within a team (i.e. marketing, sales, user research, R & D, engineering, etc.), it is driven by a sole member of a leadership team without considering other perspectives.
Some strategies are effective on paper but when communicated fall flat. If a strategy does not light the way for a team in a very tangible and practical way to paint a picture of what the steps are that they will need to take in a given direction and explain why these are the right steps to take in the first place, it can be difficult for a team to understand what the strategy even means and how their work feeds into this.
A strategy that a couple of C-suite execs have backed but that also has clear holes and seems far-fetched - both of which act as a barrier for the larger team to buy into, resulting in poor internal alignment.
Many companies had to adapt their product strategies when the Covid pandemic hit for example, because the world, consumer behavior, and economic circumstances drastically changed. If a team does not build flexibility into their strategy, in circumstances like this where the inputs they are relying on change drastically the chances that their product will fail are increased.
Over-relying on “what-ifs” and pie-in-the-sky thinking can cause problems when the rubber hits the road and your team actually needs to execute. If your strategy is based on a resource plan that is not actually viable, you’ll run into issues when your team is trying to execute that strategy.
Here are 3 examples of how bad product strategy has played out in real life:
Glass was initially unveiled with much fanfare in 2012 - Time Magazine named it one of the best inventions of the year, celebrities demo-ed it, and it captured headlines and intrigue around the world. But the tech giant failed to include the basic needs of their target audience in their product strategy. Glass failed for a variety of reasons including social stigma (the term “glassholes” was coined shortly after launch as Glass was seen as a symbol of elitism and disconnectedness which made users uncomfortable to wear them or see them being worn in public), user privacy concerns (because they had a camera, the general public felt uncomfortable with the idea of being filmed or photographed without their knowledge), a high price point (Glass was priced at $1,500 so most consumers couldn’t afford it and it was seen as a gadget vs. useful everyday product), aesthetics (they looked very “techy” and stood out obtrusively on a user’s face vs. looking like regular eyewear), limited functionality (it lacked clear use cases for customers and functionality to support those use cases like extremely poor battery life), and questions about eye safety. Glass tried to capitalize on tech and hype vs. focusing on a clear value proposition for users.
The “revolutionary personal transporter” that was launched in 2001 was based on cool new tech to enable a self-balancing transportation device in the medical industry and was then brought to a mass-consumer market. It came with a high price point ($5,000) which was prohibitive to many, a strong focus on the tech but limited use cases and practical applications (it didn’t “fit” within a user’s typical daily life and became tied to a “dorky” sentiment), safety concerns (and high profile crashes resulting in numerous user-generated compilation videos like this), and poor distribution (it could only be purchased through authorized dealers). It ultimately failed because of a bad product strategy and failure to clearly define a target market and then adequately address the needs of that target market.
The rise and fall of General Magic can be seen in this documentary released in 2018. While the company laid the groundwork for the first iPod, iPhone, USB technology, the Android ecosystem, eBay, and more, the ultimate success of this all-star team’s original 1990s product - a handheld personal computing device and Magic Cap operating system - was hindered by a product strategy that relied heavily on the tech and failed to consider basic factors like market demand, its high price point, usability (it was bulky and the UX and responsiveness were clunky), limited software ecosystem (it was difficult for third-party developers to create applications for the device) and world ecosystem (wireless networks were slow at the time of launch, and people weren’t yet used to being constantly connected). Co-Founder Andy Hertzfeld is quoted in the movie, “We were too dazzled by what it could possibly do to realize that we were biting off more than we could chew.”
In contrast, here are some examples of product strategies that have proven to be successful for companies like Netflix, Superhuman, Twilio, Ikea, and more, including “picking a wedge”, reverse-engineering product-market fit, focusing on a specific part of the customer journey, choosing your focal points, and leveraging unique global positioning.
If you want to make moves toward creating a great product strategy for your product, all you need are tools like this checklist for crafting or improving your product strategy, and our ready out-of-the-box product strategy template. For a more comprehensive view, check out our Ultimate Guide to Product Strategy, and our product strategy eBook.
You can also ask clarifying questions along the way like:
Who are we building this for?
What is the main problem we are solving for them?
Is anyone else trying to solve this problem? If so, who? How are they approaching solving this problem?
How can we solve this problem uniquely (i.e. faster, more cheaply, more thoroughly, with fewer friction points, etc.) compared to other people trying to solve the same problem?
How much are customers willing to pay to solve this problem?
What resources do we have to bring this solution to life?
How will we market, promote, and distribute our product?
What does success look like? How can we measure this tangibly?
Going with no product strategy, failing to incorporate the right inputs to create a product strategy, having a static, inflexible strategy, not communicating it effectively, and not asking the right questions up front can result in churn within your company, resources going down the drain, and product failure. You can use these tips to help you avoid these pitfalls and create a winning product strategy - one that works with you rather than against you.
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