What Strategy Really Means for Product Managers

Black cat on scratching post

Working with product managers is the greatest job in the world. And at Aha! we talk to hundreds of product leaders each month. These are the individuals responsible for managing the future of the companies where they work. I am fortunate to be able to help them on that journey.

One theme from these conversations has kept jumping out to me over the last few months — the role of product leader requires strategic thinking. So I did a little research and here is what I found.

Study after study shows that the best leaders and innovators are not driven by impulse — they are driven by strategy. Here at Aha!, these drivers are confirmed in every conversation we have with our customers. At each level of the product team, it’s the leaders who recognize that great products require vision backed by a strategic, inclusive, and confident product process.

Product leaders exist in all levels of product management, from the chief product officer to a portfolio program manager or a scrum product owner. It is clear that strategic thinking is not something that you need a VP title to do.

Strategy — and ownership of strategic thinking — applies to everyone who guides the journey of a product.

In many businesses, strategy is all too often relegated to a yearly exercise because engaging more frequently is incorrectly perceived as “too disruptive.” But every product decision is strategic — as it should either be aligned with an existing initiative or help set the course for new ones. True innovators know that to be effective you have to think and act strategically each day.

A good product leader knows that all new information should be strategically considered within their product roadmap. A great product leader thrives on disruptions and conflicting opinions. Every disruption is a chance to re-evaluate strategy — and come up with something even better.

You might assume that strategic thinking requires years of experience and maybe even an advanced degree. You would be wrong.

Strategic thinkers share a few intrinsic traits. While many talented product managers may display one or two of these traits, truly strategic thinkers possess all three. Strategic product leaders are:

Curiosity did not kill the cat. But a lack of it will kill your product. The best product managers are driven by an irrepressible desire to learn, solve, and know. Being curious does not denote inexperience — rather, it demonstrates a mastery of engaging those around you in a vetted, confident product process. The more curiosity you have, the more discoveries you make.

Confidence is not the same as arrogance. Product managers who have a firm trust in their abilities are better able to gain credibility with other teams. It definitely is not about “knowing everything.” Instead, it is a genuine trust that your strategic process is comprehensive and well-positioned for the product journey you own.

The only way to know if a solution is the right one is to poke holes — many, many holes — in the approach. On the surface, that critical thinking may be perceived as taking a contrarian or opposing stance. When you dig deeper with product leaders on this aspect of their work however, they do not view it as contrarian at all. In fact, they see it as inclusive. Product leaders bind differing perspectives together in order to achieve a brilliant total vision. They sideline single-opinion thinking and include key opposing views to achieve a strategic balance.

Without strategic thinking, you lose the ability to look and plan ahead. You become mired in tactical superficiality and never achieve meaningful results. Your product roadmap could end up being too static or fluid — and your product’s overall outlook will suffer either way.

Cultivate curiosity, embrace “contrarian yet inclusive” points of view, and exude confidence if you want to succeed — in product management and in life.

There is no secret formula for building great products. Even if your approach looks okay in the short term, without strategy your product will suffer in long-term distinction. Remember that the reactive approach is easy; the strategic approach takes time. But ultimately, the ability to think strategically is what delineates mediocrity from excellence.

What do you think are the hallmarks of strategic thinking? Share your experiences in the comments below.

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 roadmap software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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  1. Bo Tiderman

    Good article! I can only agree. I think that one trick to succeed with the implementation of strategy is to find a number of models and tools that help ensure that the many small decisions you take every day are in line with the overall strategy. To help set the perspective when making the decisions. One such tool is for me the product roadmap. Another a documented product value logic. I think that investing some time selecting and implementing these tools/models lay the ground work for the successful way of working that you describe in the article!

  2. Ben Thomas

    I have to agree with this article but would need to add another trait, integrative. A strategic thinker must be able to recognize valuable information and integrate it into the whole picture of their product knowledge. That information can sometimes be novel, unfamiliar and seemingly unrelated. Making that mental leap to perceive its value and weaving it into the product story will distinguish a great strategic thinker from a competent one.


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