The Real Ideal: Strategy to Tactics and Back
from PRODUCT MANAGEMENT CHALLENGES
A Weekly Newsletter of Tips For Companies that Develop Software
Product Managers, because of the nature of their responsibilities, carry out the unique function of making strategies real and turning realities into strategy. Since they are often called upon not only to view the product from the perspective of management and competitive strategy but also to apply the software tactically, and with great mastery, Product Managers find themselves straddling the often gaping chasm between the great ideas and goals of the company, and the everyday tasks that the troops are working on in front of customers.
By gaining experience with both sides of the company coin, Product Managers have the ability to become an important catalyst that takes the strategies chosen by the management team and helps turn them into tactics through the use of the product. And their tactical abilities serve as a foundation upon which they can build more sturdy and enduring strategies because the ideals they advocate have been tested in real life situations.
Read on below for a discussion of the invaluable contribution Product Managers can make to helping the company apply its strategies tactically, and draw from tactics to make solid strategies.
Rolling Out New Capabilities
As Product Manager, you were a participant when capabilities were reviewed and analyzed in terms of the advantages they could bring your product over the competition. You have helped measure the appeal that new features could have for the topmost decision makers who would buy your product. Chances are you're very familiar with how a new module or feature can help your company strategically.
And chances are that much of the rest of your company is not only unfamiliar with the new functionality, but is unaware of its strategic purpose. The new area of the software must be introduced to the whole company and explained in depth. The time to make everyone's ideas gel into the form you want them to take is when the material is new and fresh, and it's important that the whole team clearly understand the strategic aspect of the new capabilities, so that the message they carry to prospects and customers, through demos, training, and customer support, reinforces your strategic intent.
Who better to present this material and get the various teams up to speed on the new capability than the Product Manager, the one who can speak extensively about the challenges in the market, the competition, and your company's intent, while at the same time being able to go into the practical depth necessary to show people exactly how it all works? Expounding on the strategy of a new feature won't do you any good if your audience walks away without a clear understanding of how to demonstrate it to a prospect or explain to a customer how to use it. So it becomes vital that a Product Manager help drive the team to an in-depth level of understanding of new capabilities, while reminding everyone of their strategic purpose.
For example, your new reports are, at face value, new documents that you can print out. But strategically they represent a merging of data that normally remains separate in your competitors' products, and the newly consolidated data provides valuable information to make decisions that previously had to be made without the support of hard facts. You want your pre-sales reps and trainers to be able to explain the value of these reports, not just the nuts and bolts of how to run them and what they contain.
Formulating A Strategy You Know Will Work
Product Managers can use the same position, occupying both sides of the gap between the broad and the deep view, to move in the opposite direction, beginning with tactics and creating a strategy based on what you know actually works in the field. Sometimes this is the least costly way to figure out the right strategy for your product.
We've all seen beautiful, symmetrical ideas, ideals really, that didn't hold any lasting appeal when people tried to put them to practical use. Yet all around we can find everyday activities being carried out to the great profit of the companies that do them. The challenge, sometimes, is to understand these activities strategically.
When Product Managers get deeply involved in the details of how customers make use of the software, they are in a position to detect patterns of use that translate upward to a much broader strategic purpose. They can identify strategies that are being put to good use every day, and which they therefore know will look good in the cool light of day.
For example, your product consolidates information from many disparate corporate sources to provide a data mart that you use for a specific purpose. It creates the data mart by reconciling data following time tested rules to judge which of two pieces of conflicting information is better. After seeing a number of resourceful users pull information from the product to create a list of rejected information that is used to go back to the individual sources of less-than-desirable information to clean them up, the light bulb goes off: this product isn't just a data mart, customers can buy it to serve a strategy of cleaning up their existing data so that it's consistent across multiple islands of information. Suddenly a new strategic use of your product is born, and it's one that has instinctive appeal.
Hard Won Competitive Insight
Product Management finds itself at the nexus of competitive information from many levels. This includes business models and management strategies, opinions of the analyst community, marketing spin and brand image, but also many scattered pieces of tactical intelligence from the sales force.
In the absence of good field intelligence, theories must feed competitive tactics, and that's often the way you have to start for new capabilities. But as the sales force, over time, reports its experience with specific tactics, Product Management can point to the best competitive strategies and push these with the sales force. At the same time, Product Management can winnow out, or at least clearly identify, the secondary strategies, and present them as such.
For example, your initial marketing push may strongly emphasize advanced analytics in your product, which plays well with the analyst community. But experience may show that because all your competitors are also pushing the same thing as a strong point of their software, what your prospects really notice is certain reports which have a very practical application. It's time to bring the feedback full circle and push the practical appeal with your sales force, and perhaps conduct a marketing campaign around just that ability.
The Power Of Real Benefits
As Product Management works with Marketing to paint a picture of the benefits of the product, you want to build a vision that sounds thrilling and cleanly consistent. It makes for much prettier marketing copy and slide presentations.
But sometimes the benefits that pack the most wallop are the ones that are very down to earth. For example, to go back to the software that consolidates your data into a data mart, it may be a nice idea to have a single view of your customers, but it's even nicer to have a way to clean up the incorrect and incomplete information that different departments in your company have to use every day. By paying attention to practical activities at the front lines, you may uncover the most valuable and impressive concepts to push in your marketing brochures, ones that speak for themselves because they have been tested in real life scenarios.
Bridge The Gap And Reap The Rewards
I know that as a Product Manager, on days when I find my activities too idealistic, or conversely too heads-down in the details, I draw courage from the fact that I can cross the chasm between breadth and depth, between strategy and tactics, to the great benefit of the product and the company.
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