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Product Management Can’t Overcome A Lack of Strategy

Ryan Frederick | December 22nd, 2021

No function inside of a company can excel without a sound company strategy. Product is no different. I believe product is more impacted by a company’s overall strategy now than other functions. Why? Product now steers the ship for most new companies and likely should for established companies. With the advent of product-led growth, usage-based pricing, and products driving sales, marketing, support, legal, and other perspectives, product is the function that wags the rest of the dog. But, excellent product management cannot overcome a lack of or lousy company strategy.

Product managers at a company with a lack of or lousy strategy are asked to be miracle workers. These product managers are essentially tasked with creating and evolving a product that customers want, pay for, and continue to use inside a strategy vacuum. Companies that forgo strategy or do it poorly will often now make it the responsibility of product management to figure out. These same sans-strategy companies would have previously defaulted the strategy responsibility to a function such as marketing, sales, finance, or operations. Still, with the rise of the importance of product management, product managers now get asked to take on the lack of company strategy.

I was having a conversation recently with the CEO of a company that lacked a clear strategy. He was new to the company but not new to being a CEO. When I asked him about the company’s strategy, he said, “I am letting the product teams define the strategy, so they own it. Since they are speaking with our customers and are distilling the feedback, they are best positioned to develop our strategy. If our product people can’t develop the strategy, then who can?” I was surprised but not shocked by his response as I had sensed this was the belief at the company. I followed up with, “You realize that company strategy helps inform and guide your product team’s work and that good product management can’t overcome a lack of or bad strategy, right?” He got defensive and said, “Well, that’s how we are approaching strategy and product. Product first and then strategy.” I could tell any further conversation about it would be a diminishing return, so we moved on. The discussion and this CEO’s perspective have stuck with me, though.

Overall, business strategy underpins everything a company does, including product. Even excellent product management cannot and will not overcome bad or a lack of company strategy. Too many companies ask their product managers and teams to create successful products without a company strategy. If it works, it is dumb luck, but it won’t work most of the time. Just as hope is not a strategy, neither is relying on product for a company’s strategy.

It would be easy to think the absence of strategy would be reserved for startups figuring stuff out on the fly, but this isn’t true. Mid-market and enterprise companies are just as guilty of not having an overall strategy for the company, a business unit, or a product. Company leaders who leave a strategy void now expecting product managers to fill it are not leaders. The CEO I mentioned above leads a $200 million company. Although I suspect, based on his perspective around strategy and product, he may not be leading it for long, or they may not be a $200m company for long.

The CEO referenced above is just one example of a company leader doing this. Strategy is hard. It takes a deep knowledge of the business, industry, customers, competitors, and more. Strategy, vision, and culture are the most important things a company leader does.

Startup founders at least of a bit more of an excuse around a lack of strategy because founders are often learning how to be strategists for the first time. Product managers who join a startup should be mindful that the founders likely don’t have a fully baked strategy, might be new to strategy, and are figuring it out as they go. In many cases, founders rely heavily on product managers to help inform the overall company strategy. Product managers at startups should expect a different level of strategy involvement and dependencies than those at established companies. Product managers who want to have a significant voice in and play a key role in helping to define an overall company strategy might be a good fit at a startup with founders who are welcoming of other inputs and perspectives.

Mid-market and enterprise company leaders have no excuse not to define and articulate a strategy for the company. The strategy provides a north star for everyone to head toward and empowers easier and better decision-making and execution. Product managers get overwhelmed and burned out not from the craft of product management but from having to work with a lack of strategy at companies that should have a well-defined strategy.

A lack of strategy forces product managers to make assumptions and decisions against an unknown or loose destination and outcomes which causes thrashing, indecision, and anxiety. It also puts product managers in a situation to explain and defend decisions to the team that isn’t grounded in anything of substance. Product managers are forced to play a daily game of battleship but without knowing the underlying rules and feedback of whether they hit the mark or not. Product managers who are forced to guess whether a product’s roadmap, functionality, and outcomes are what the business needs are put in an untenable position that will eventually break them.

Excellent product management can cover up many ills, but it can’t overcome a lack of or a bad overall company strategy. Product management without a sound strategy is the metaphorical putting lipstick on a pig. There might be some short-term wins, and the company might feel good about getting some things accomplished, but in the end, it is just covering up cracks in the foundation based on a lack of strategy. Excellent product management can make a company and its leadership look good in moments that lacks an overall company strategy but not over a more extended period. The lack of strategy will eventually overcome and overshadow everything else.

I have witnessed and heard from too many product managers that they are being asked to come up with a company’s strategy as part of their work on a product(s). Product management is becoming the dumping ground by company leadership for lack of strategy. My advice to these product managers is to leave and go to a company with leadership that is at least strong and capable enough to give them a strategic foundation to work on top of. Product management is too hard of a craft to ply it in an environment where its expectations are unreasonable.