Last week David Heidt, the President of IIBA Chicagoland, and I were doing a webinar on the five factors that drive high performance product teams. As we neared the end of the material I was asked a question from one of the attendees regarding the difference between product strategy and a product road map.
Seasoned product managers might wince a little at the question but it’s becoming increasingly clear that organizations are not making a distinction between these two activities. In fact, industry data points to a growing problem. More organizations are relying on tactical product road maps and clearly defined milestones in the development process as the primary mechanisms to achieve alignment with the company’s overarching business strategy, goals, and objectives!
This is a worrisome development as the data indicates that 36% of organizations are relying on tactical activities as the primary bridge to attaining the product’s goals and objectives in support of the business strategy. And the facts actually get even worse.
The survey respondents went on to state that approximately 15% of organizations actually have multi-year product strategies defining the strategic path of their products worldwide. And when respondents were asked how effective this tool was only half said that their product strategies were effectively deployed – 7% of organizations! This is a staggeringly low number.
So it should not come as a surprise that there is confusion about the difference between tactical product road maps and multi-year product strategy. Based on the numbers it appears that the majority of organizations are struggling with not only the concept but with finding the right skills to successfully deploy the tool.
We believe that product strategy is not optional. It’s an essential element of ensuring appropriate alignment between your company’s business strategy and objectives and the daily activities of the product team. Before I explain why we feel so strongly that product strategy is essential let me explain the difference between product strategy and tactical product roadmaps.
A product strategy is not a list of capabilities, features, or functions. The components of a product strategy are aspirational and need to be directionally correct since very few individuals have proven that they can look into the future with any degree of clarity. There are some visionaries that have been successful at this, for example Steve Jobs.
Examples of things that might show up on a multi-year product strategy include how you intend to evolve your product from one size fits all, to a tiered product offering, and eventually multiple products. Or perhaps you envision your product moving beyond its current domestic positioning and you want to target international expansion via high probability international markets with an eye toward global availability. In each of these examples there is a clear progression from one strategic stage of product strategy to the next.
A tactical product roadmap by comparison will not chart the strategic course of your product into the future but rather document the releases or tactics (features, functions and capabilities) that you intend to bring to market over the next six to twelve months. The road map helps ensure that your team is focused on execution, that stakeholders know what to expect, and helps with resource planning.
Tactical road maps are limited in their view and tend to be more granular in their scope. Product strategies are aspirational in nature but act as the bridge between company strategy and tactics by explaining how the product management organization intends to stay on a course of continued growth in market share, revenue, or margin. The tactical road map should support, and move in unison with, the product strategy just as the product strategy should support the overarching company goals.
The facts are indeed troublesome since product strategy appears to have pulled a vanishing act, not by intent, but by the fact that successful product strategy requires product managers that have the ability to forecast the future with a degree of certainty, which requires skill. Additionally, resource constraints, product development process transitions and role changes, and hiring freezes have all adversely impacted the product management organization’s ability to think more strategically.
But without a product strategy to ensure improved alignment between the strategic and the tactical and to help the entire product team understand where the product is headed how will you know what the path to success looks like?
Greg Geracie is a recognized thought leader in the field of product management and the President of Actuation Consulting, a global provider of product management consulting, training, and advisory services to some of the world’s most well-known organizations. Greg is also the author of the global best seller Take Charge Product Management. He is also an adjunct professor at DePaul University’s College of Computing and Digital Media where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on high-tech and digital product management.
I completely agree with you with regards to the clear differences between strategy and tactics and that tactical execution is vitally important. The data also supports your point on focusing on the day to day versus the importance of forward thinking. And I don’t think the current economic situation has helped. Teams are leaner, hiring remains somewhat frozen, organizations are simultaneously deploying multiple product development methodologies raising complexity and requiring product managers to potentially learn new skills. All of these things, and more, are impacting the ability of product managers to have the necessary bandwidth to chart the strategic course.
I totally agree with your comments about products strategy and tactical product road maps. In response to Lisa’s earlier comment, I would turn the argument on its head and ask how can you be sure that you are aligned with your organization’s strategic goals and objectives when you are only looking 6, 9 or 12 months ahead?
I have always viewed the product road maps as being steps on the path to achieving the bigger product strategy goals – without the product strategy you are haphazardly guessing where your products need to go. If you have multiple products or product lines then, without the guiding product strategy, you can easily go off in divergent directions resulting in a product portfolio that is related and aligned in name only.
Having said all of that, the biggest difficulty I have always had in defining a product strategy is not the willingness or desire of the Product Management team to undertake the task, but the lack of ‘corporate vision’ from the executive team. Just as product road maps are tied to and aligned with the product strategy, I believe that the product strategy is aligned to the corporate vision. The vision is the “this is what we want to become in 5 or 10 years time” statement – preferably something aspirational to give the organization a target and an ideal to strive for. The product strategy then becomes the “and this is how we’re going to do it” part of the statement. (The product road maps being the incremental steps that we are going to take to ‘do it’).
If the executive team can’t set a vision (and frequently any vision that they do produce is something like “we want to be bigger and have more revenue”) then how can you set the product strategy – and hence the road map? Of course, you can set the strategy in the absence of the vision but, now, how do you know that you are achieving the organization’s strategic objectives?
Vague vision statements (“bigger and more revenue”) do not set parameters or guidance for the product strategy. I can grow company revenues by selling drugs or pornography – but that doesn’t mean that it is the right thing to do!