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Q&A with Roman Pichler about Strategize

| Posted by Ben Linders Follow 25 Followers on Jun 21, 2016. Estimated reading time: 9 minutes |

Key takeaways

  • Find out about Strategize, Roman’s new book that helps you create a winning game plan for your digital products.
  • Understand what a product strategy is.
  • Read about different product roadmap types and how the product strategy and roadmap relate.
  • Discover the role of innovation in shaping an effective product strategy.
  • Learn about the relationship between the product roadmap and the product backlog.

The book Strategize by Roman Pichler provides practices, advice, and examples for product strategy and roadmapping that you can use to create successful products.

InfoQ readers can download an excerpt of Strategize.

InfoQ interviewed Pichler about applying product strategy and roadmapping with agile, the role of innovation in defining the product strategy, eliminating features when defining products, the relationship between product strategy and product roadmap, different kinds of product roadmaps, and on measurements for tracking the product strategy and roadmap.

InfoQ: What made you write this book?

Roman Pichler: I wrote this book to help the reader make the right strategic product decisions. Product managers, product owners, and other product people are often so preoccupied with the tactics—be it dealing with an urgent sales request or writing new user stories—that they are in danger of not seeing the wood for the trees. While attention to detail is necessary to create a successful digital product, we risk taking our product down the wrong path and end up in the wrong forest if we don’t look at the big picture. My book wants to help the reader play a proactive game, get the product strategy right, and use it to guide the tactical work.

InfoQ: For who is this book?

Roman Pichler: I wrote the book for people who are in charge of digital products—product executives, product managers, product owners, and entrepreneurs.

InfoQ: To some people, product strategy and product roadmap may not sound as something that would support them when working in an agile way. Maybe they even feel that it might limit their flexibility. How do you view that?

Roman Pichler: Product strategy and product roadmap are neither agile nor anti-agile; it entirely depends on how we apply them. The challenge for any product is to first find a valid strategy—an approach that is likely to be effective—and then to review and adapt it on a regular basis so that the product becomes and stays successful.

It would be a mistake to think of strategy as something static that merely has to be implemented: As the product grows and as the market and technologies change, the strategy and the roadmap have to change too. In some cases, these changes can be drastic—think of YouTube, for instance, which pivoted from a video-dating site to a video-sharing product. In other cases, the changes are incremental. Take the evolution of the iPhone, for example. When the first iPhone was launched in 2007, it did not allow people to take videos. But the latest generation uses video to set the product apart from the competition.

Without a valid product strategy and an actionable product roadmap, I find it difficult to make the right tactical decisions and effectively manage the product backlog. How can we discover the right user stories if we are not clear on the product’s value proposition and market, if we don’t understand who the users are and why they want to use the product?

InfoQ: What are the elements of a product strategy?

Roman Pichler: When you look up the meaning of the term strategy, you will probably find it defined as a plan of action to achieve a long-term goal. While this definition makes sense, developing a successful strategy for a product involves two steps: finding the right overall strategy and deciding how best to implement it. I therefore work with a product strategy and a product roadmap.

The product strategy describes how the long-term goal or vision is attained. It includes the problem it solves or the benefit it provides, the market it serves, it stand-out features that set it apart from the competition, and its business goals—the desired benefits it should provide for the company investing in it, for instance, generate revenue or help sell another product or service. Take the first iPhone mentioned earlier. Its value proposition was to provide people with full Internet access while being on the move (“Internet in your pocket”); it targeted consumers who were able and willing to pay at least $399 for the device; it offered the key features iPod-like digital music player, mobile Internet, and touch screen, and has served as a major revenue source for Apple.

InfoQ: Can you give examples showing the role of innovation in defining the product strategy?

Roman Pichler: In order to generate value, a product has to offer something new; it has to innovate to a greater or lesser extent. Innovations range from small incremental steps, such as improving the user experience for an existing product, to big and bold ones—think of the Uber taxi service. The innovation strategy a product executes and the innovation type it represents impact its strategy, and it’s helpful to understand them.

I use the Innovation Ambition Matrix by Nagji and Tuff to distinguish three main types of innovation: core, adjacent, and disruptive. A core innovation optimises an existing product for an established market. An adjacent innovation creates a new product for an existing market, or takes an existing product to a market that’s new to the company. A disruptive innovation, like the Nintendo Wii, creates both a new product and a new market.

The innovation type influences the amount of strategy validation work, the success chances and the long-term growth potential of the product, and the process and organisation required to create the product. Take an adjacent innovation, for instance. It typically has a medium validation effort ranging from several days to weeks; its risk and growth potential are also medium compared to core and disruptive innovations; and it usually requires a dedicated, collocated product team that is loosely coupled to the rest of the organisation and has the ability to experiment and learn.

InfoQ: You propose in your book to eliminate features when defining products. Can you elaborate about that?

Roman Pichler: When you compare a product to the competition and determine what should make it special, it can be tempting to say: “Our product must provide all the competitors’ features, but be better and offer more!” Unfortunately, this can lead to an overly complex product that takes a lot of time and money to develop, has a vague value proposition, and provides a poor user experience.

The trick is not to blindly add features, but rather to explore which ones you can remove, thereby simplifying and decluttering your product. This helps your product stand-out from the crowd and it improves the user experience. I describe different tools and techniques in the book to simplify products, including the Eliminate-Reduce-Raise-Create grid by Kim and Mauborgne, the authors of Blue Ocean Strategy.

InfoQ; How does the product strategy relate to the product roadmap and vice versa?

Roman Pichler: I use the term product strategy to describe the overall approach chosen to achieve product success, including the problem it solves, the market (segment) it addresses, its stand-out features, and its business goals, as mentioned before.

The product roadmap shows how the product strategy is put into action; it describes how the product is likely to evolve; and it provides an umbrella for the product backlog—for discovering the right product details and making the right prioritization decisions.

It’s important to understand that the relationships between the strategy, roadmap, and backlog are bidirectional: product backlog changes can lead to roadmap updates, and product roadmap changes can trigger alterations of the product strategy. You should therefore keep the artefacts in synch and review and update them regularly.

InfoQ: What's the difference between feature-based and goal-oriented roadmaps? When do you use which one?

Roman Pichler: Feature-based roadmaps are built on product features, such as registration, search, and reporting. These are then mapped onto a timeline to indicate when each feature will be released. A cost-benefit analysis is often used to determine if and when a feature should be implemented.

Goal-oriented roadmaps take a different approach. As their name suggests, these roadmaps focus on goals or objectives. They state why it is beneficial to invest time, money, and energy in creating or enhancing the product. Sample goals include acquiring customers, increasing engagement, improving the user experience, and removing technical debt. Features still exist, but they are viewed as second-class citizens; they are derived from the goals and used sparingly.

I recommend working with goal-oriented roadmaps when a product is young and/or the market is dynamic. For mature products and stable markets, feature-based roadmaps are usually appropriate.

InfoQ: Where the product backlog contains epics and user stories, the product roadmap should provide the big picture. Can you give examples how you can do that in the roadmap?

Roman Pichler: A product roadmap should describe the journey you want to take your product on over the next six to 12 months. I find it helpful to work with major releases—releases that typically create value for the users—and to describe the goals these releases should meet, the key features or deliverables necessary to meet the goals, and the metrics or success criteria for each release. I also recommend adding dates or timeframes—unless the roadmap is visible to the customers and users. Make sure your product roadmap tells a cohesive story about the likely growth of your product; it should not be a random collection of features.

InfoQ: Which kinds of measurements are useful for tracking the product strategy and roadmap? 

Roman Pichler: Key performance indicators (KPIs) are useful to measure the product performance against its business goals, such as, revenue, cost, market share, engagement, and cancellation rate. These measures help you understand how well your product is performing and if the product strategy is working. Additionally, I recommend employing metrics on your product roadmap that help you determine if you are meeting the roadmap goals, for instance, if you have managed to improve the user experience.

Without the right measurements in place, you end up guessing how well your product is performing. It’s like driving with your vision blurred: You can’t see if you are heading in the right direction or getting closer to your destination. You may have a hunch or intuition, but how can you tell that it’s right? What’s more, using KPIs and metrics helps you balance opinions, beliefs, and gut feelings with empirical evidence, which increases the chances of making the right decisions and providing a successful product.

About the Book Author

Roman Pichler works as a product management consultant, teacher, and writer specialised in digital products and lean/agile practices. He has a long track record of teaching product people and helping companies improve their product management capabilities. He is the author of Strategize and Agile Product Management with Scrum, and he writes a popular product management blog. Find out more.

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