Taking Your Digital Product Strategy from Vision to Execution
- Leadership /
- Product Management /
- Product Strategy /
Many great ideas and opportunities are never realized. You may have experienced this yourself working on a digital product that never came close to realizing it’s potential. One of the reasons that so many organizations fail at delivering valuable products and services is the lack of a well-defined strategy or the complete absence of a strategy.
Creating a digital product or service is complex. Identifying the right opportunity, selecting where to compete, and solving a problem for customers in a viable, unique, and sustainable way (a.k.a your competitive advantage) are the cornerstones of a successful strategy. If you boil all of this down it’s simple — create value for your audience and as a result you will create value for your business. In an interview, Jeff Bezos phrased it this way, “In the long term, there is never any misalignment between customer interests and shareholder interests.”
Unfortunately, strategy has become a buzzword for many, but it has never been more imperative than it is today.
There is significant confusion today about what strategy is. There is an overwhelming amount of information, fads, and academic resources. Harvard Business School Professor and leader in strategy, Michael Porter delineates the importance of strategy in his work. To summarize: the quest for productivity, quality, and speed have spawned a remarkable number of management tools and techniques. These tools and techniques have incrementally, and almost imperceptibly taken the place of strategy, but they are not strategy.
A strategy rests on making essential choices. To help you and your products be as successful as possible we’ve stripped away the noise. Let’s look at what a great digital strategy needs to include.
What is a digital product strategy?
A great strategy defines the value you will create in a succinct and tangible way; where to focus, why, and what it will take to achieve that value. This empowers your team to focus on the right things and determine how to facilitate the delivery of a great product or service.
Having a strategic foundation provides clarity. It promotes a shared understanding that organizations, business units, and teams must have in place to pursue, and ultimately achieve their goal. Depending on your business goals your strategy may be focused on a single product or it could guide a suite of products that become a cross-connected platform.
A strategic foundation is made up of five core elements: the product or service vision, the challenge that needs to be solved, its current impact, the target audience whom the challenge is being solved for, and the desired future outcome.
To be clear: a plan is not a strategy, which compounds people’s confusion. Plans are made up of tactics that define exactly what we’re going to do, when we’re going to execute them, and what will follow. Essentially, in following this plan and taking these steps, success will be attained moving forward. Plans don’t account for the unknowns, changes, prioritization, or provide a framework for critical decision making. A plan without a strategic foundation gives people a false sense of clarity and security that often leads to failure. When a solution is seen as a quick-fix, without understanding the complexity of the challenge that needs to be solved, failure will often be the result. Understanding the difference between complex things vs. complicated things becomes extremely important. (To learn more about this concept check out the Cynefin framework in this video.)
You will want to have a plan, but know that it will change, probably more than once. A plan needs to be adaptive, and built upon a solid strategic foundation.
Five Core Elements of a Digital Product Strategy
The vision is the long-term overarching goal the company or business unit is aiming to achieve and the reason for creating the product(s). It provides your team with a collective purpose, acting as the product’s true north, facilitating alignment, and effective collaboration.
The importance of vision cannot be overemphasized. You need to provide people with clarity of the big picture goals and how the product will help fulfill that vision. People also want to know how their contributions will make a difference, whether on the product team or working across the organization. A well-articulated vision is also of tantamount importance for people to know what does not require their time, energy and depletes limited resources.
For example, your product vision may be to provide a platform that improves the way people work, unlocking the speed at which they can collaborate.
The second core element is the challenge you’re solving for; providing context for what it will take to realize the long-term vision. By understanding the challenge we can then start to differentiate between symptomatic issues and the root causes.
This allows us to break down the large challenge into smaller manageable, specific, and actionable issues to focus on solving. Notice we’re not trying to solve the issue. We’re making sure we understand the complexity of the challenge. Breaking down a challenge helps to unveil essential insights that will inform the success of the product moving forward.
For example, the challenge you need to solve is subscriber retention. The most immediate opportunity is to address a poor on-boarding experience.
Next, we need to identify and understand the impact of the issues on the business and/or the audience. What is the baseline or current state? This helps to clearly understand (measure or delineate) the current business state and measure the progress as people work towards the intended outcome. Understanding the impact also allows you to highlight qualitative and quantitative metrics to support the business case by using a single variable or a cumulative effect.
For example, the impact of the unmet challenge is the high costs of new subscriber acquisition combined with customer service inquiries averaging a cost $650/user.
The foundation of a successful digital product is understanding the wants and needs of your audience. Whether your users are external or internal, your strategy must define who they are. You may have multiple user types that need to be considered. There is not a single solution that is perfect for everyone. With a full understanding of our audience, it is possible to align the focus of the vision with your intended outcomes.
For example, your ideal customer may be a small businesses with 10+ active users that can realize the full benefits of improving the way their employees work.
The fifth core element of your digital product strategic foundation is identifying the desired outcomes you are hoping to achieve by addressing the issue(s) that make up the larger challenge.
Another way to look at it would be what is the future state or results(s) you want to achieve. How will this feature, product or suite of products address the individual issues? How will this promote long-term potential benefits and enable other outcomes if done correctly? While the vision articulates the big picture goal, outcomes focus on the results of addressing issues in an incremental, measurable way that moves the organization forward. To build that forward momentum we need to understand the first step and take action toward realizing those outcomes. Often, this becomes invaluable in helping to identify an ideal starting point. Ultimately, this will also help to ensure everyone involved is on the same page, having a shared interpretation of success. It allows benchmarks to be established that will measure the progress toward the vision and desired outcomes.
For example, the desired outcome you are aiming for is an increase of 40% in the customer onboarding completion rate and a 25% increase in customer adoption within the first 90 days.
The shift from strategy to execution
Having a strong strategic foundation is imperative. It is essential in providing clarity, team focus, informing better decision making, accelerating the speed of delivery, and team collaboration. Conversely, poor execution of a great idea is as detrimental as not having a strategy at all. Shifting from strategy to effective execution is not an easy process. It requires alignment, excellent ongoing communication, often additional skills, and a culture that supports change. This is where proper planning comes into play. A plan that focuses on deploying the appropriate capabilities, processes, tools, and resources at the right time.
There are significant considerations in leadership, management, and across the entire product development lifecycle (i.e. waterfall, agile or a hybrid model). However, with a solid foundation in place, you’re forging the right path towards success.
As you and the rest of your team works to identify solutions to your prioritized issue(s) you will have the information necessary to ensure you are working on the right things. It enables you to do the right things in the right way.
You can now begin to understand who across your organization will need to be involved to create, execute, and support your product. Essentially defining a clear picture early on of roles and responsibilities.
In exploring each solution you can also start to map out and understand the interdependencies. Interdependencies in this scenario are the relationships between people, processes, and systems that will be necessary to bring your product to market. When business cases are developed prematurely in the process without this insight, things will often fall apart. When executed correctly, this is when business cases can be defined and outline the true potential investment ahead. This information brings potential complexities to the forefront that need to be managed, crucial to your product’s success.
As you define the solution, you can now also start documenting your requirements addressing key business, design and technical considerations essential to delivering your product.
A strong strategic foundation becomes a powerful advantage. It gives you critical insight, galvanizes our efforts into essential focus, and empowers our people to be at their best in any role. The market may decide who the next generation of winners and losers are, but you can take control of your own success, not skip the steps that so many do, and inevitably realize your opportunity.