Don't Neglect Your Product Strategy: How to Prioritize Strategic Initiatives in Product Development
Strategic priorities often don't receive the deserved attention
A strong product strategy is an essential factor for the success of any product. It acts as the crucial link between the product vision and the product roadmap. It outlines the overarching plan for how you meet the unique needs of your customers in a way that is better than your competitors.
When deployed effectively, product strategy can serve as a prioritization engine. It gives focus, it aligns everyone on the same goal, and helps to prioritize tasks towards achieving that goal. Unfortunately, in practice, product strategy often becomes a forgotten document, pushed aside by urgent issues or requests from various stakeholders. Customer requests, sales requests, and technical problems that require immediate attention often take precedence over the strategic items. When this happens, over time the product becomes a collection of features with no competitive advantage, and weakens its position in the market.
In my previous article, I gave some tips on how product managers can free up time from tactical activities in order to allocate more time on strategic work.
But even if you as a product manager or leader have developed a great product strategy and have clear strategic initiatives, how do you ensure that the strategic high value items do receive the deserved attention during the execution? In this article we explore how to prioritize high value items in product development.
Recognize what are strategic high value items
Strategic high-value items can make a big difference for your product. They go beyond building features that benefit only one customer. Instead they aim to improve the overall experience for many or all your customers. They might enable you grow and increase profitability of your business. When implemented well, a high-value item can set your product apart and even be a real differentiator.
For example, creating a mobile app version of the product could be classified as a high-value item, providing users with increased accessibility and convenience. This feature would significantly improve user experience for existing customers, but could also attract new customers who may not be able to use the web version of the product frequently. Implementing this feature would not only have a positive impact to customers, but also to your business, as this will likely lead to increased sales.
On the other hand, if a customer requests a specific feature that is unlikely to be used by other customers, it is not a strategic high-value item. If a simple design and great user experience is one of your product differentiators, but you are requested to build a feature that makes the product more complex, this request is not aligned with your strategy and is not a strategic item. Small feature improvements or bug fixes are not strategic high-value items as they only lead to small incremental improvements, without a significant visible impact.
How to Prioritize Strategic Initiatives
Prioritization can present a constant challenge, especially for product managers, as it involves balancing the varying viewpoints and interests of stakeholders. Customers may be eager for new features, the business may prioritize new initiatives, while the engineering team may require time to enhance technology and improve development productivity.
And prioritising strategic items just once is only a short-term win. What is more important is to establish a system in place, aligned with everyone in the company, that can help in prioritization. Such a system should be transparent, should capture the interests of various stakeholders and importantly should explain the rationale behind a specific prioritization decision.
To be able to prioritize strategic items effectively, the first step is to make sure that everyone in your company is well-informed about the product strategy and understands the significance of strategic execution. When employees have a clear understanding of the company's product vision and strategy, they are better equipped to comprehend why certain decisions are made. This understanding helps align everyone's efforts towards improving the current situation and elevating the strategic importance of their work.
Understand how time is currently spent
Next, spend some time with your product development team to understand how their time is currently spent. Categorize the items they're spending their time on. For example, you might define categories like bug fixes, feature enhancements, customer requests, and technical improvements. Next, define how the effort is currently distributed. For example, they might currently spend 20% on bug fixes, 30% on customer requests, 15% on technical improvements, 30% on feature enhancement and only less than 5% on high-value items. This picture will be different for every team. Add the buckets that you think are important and that you should be working on for improvement.
Gradually increase the time allocated on strategic execution
Once you have a clear understanding of how time is being spent, think about what you can improve. Your goal should be to increase the time associated to strategic items. However, it's important to recognize that you can't expect to do this overnight. You can't simply allocate 60% of your time to strategic implementation for the upcoming sprint, while ignoring urgent security issues already in production. To get to the state where you can spend 60% of the time to strategic execution, you need to work on some improvements. It's a gradual process that gets better over time.
For example, if you realize that currently 20% of your time is spent on bug fixing, it's a sign that you need to improve your testing process and test automation to release your product with fewer defects. If you're spending a lot of time on customer requests, evaluate which of these requests align with your own strategic plan and which don't. Discuss with the product board, and try to be strategic about how you manage requests. Decide on the border line between accepting or rejecting customer requests.
Over time, as you streamline and improve your processes, you'll have more time to allocate to strategic items.
Three critical principles for effective strategy execution
Strategic initiatives are where innovation happens. It is adding adding something new to the product that significantly increases its value for customers. However, achieving success in this area requires having effective processes in place. While we won't delve into the details of strategy execution in this article, we'll highlight three principles that are critical for success.
Every strategic item needs to be aligned with the product and company strategy. It's obvious but still important to emphasize, any strategic objective you set should be aligned with the product strategy and the broader company strategy. This requires good understanding on the users, the market and the differentiators. When the strategy is clear, you can work on defining objectives aligned to that strategy.
Define outcome-driven objectives. When setting strategic objectives, it's important to express them in terms of outcomes rather than features. The outcome is the benefit we aim to achieve for the customer, while features are the means to deliver these benefits. To track outcomes effectively, Objective Key Results (OKRs) can be a useful tool to help maintain focus on what truly matters.
Adopt experimentation approach. During the implementation phase, it is critical to have an experimentation approach. There are usually many assumptions, and it's important to start small and validate these assumptions continuously. This helps avoid spending valuable time on ideas that are not proven. By using validation, you can move forward confidently with the most promising concepts, while avoiding costly implementation mistakes.
Running out of time to implement strategic initiatives can be frustrating and feel like an endless cycle. However, there are pragmatic steps you can take to address the issue. By acknowledging the problem and making others aware of it, you can start taking small but impactful steps towards improvement. Over time, even small improvements can lead to significant progress. As a product leader, these steps can help your product stand out and gain a competitive advantage in the market.