Why Strategic Thinking Is So Hard for Product Managers

strategic thinking product manager

Daily standups. Planning poker. Estimates of time (or points). It is all collaborative fun and games until that new product launch lands with a customer thud. And then the big boss comes strolling down wanting answers: Why did this flop? Hm, good question. You were so busy working that you barely left the office. And the product development team was grinding — sprint planning, grooming, more standups, retrospectives, and then wash/repeat.

But while the details of the work may have been top of mind, no one took the time to clearly define why the team was working on it in the first place.

Strategy is the hardest part of being a product manager. And because of the demands of the job, it is also probably an area that you likely focus on the least.  

Thinking about strategy in a non-strategic way is not unique to product managers — it happens. A lot. In fact, research shows that nearly all leaders at work (96 percent!) say they lack time for strategic thinking because they are “too busy putting out fires.” You can probably relate.

But those day-to-day demands are only part of what is making it tough to think smart about the big picture. I asked folks on LinkedIn what they thought people should do to set meaningful strategy. The advice I got back was thoughtful. But it takes time and practice to put it into action. No methodology can do that for you instantly.

Yes, strategic thinking is hard. But it is not impossible. Here is how to flex and build that very necessary skill:

Write your vision
What are you trying to accomplish in the long run? Write this down so you can solidify your own view of the product — where it is headed and why. Tough conversations with the big boss are usually involved. But this is critical because it is up to you to share your vision with the team. If you do not take the time to understand it for yourself first, it does not matter how agile the team may be. No vision means nowhere to aim. You will probably not end up where you want to be.

Learn to spot patterns
For product managers, this starts with listening to customers — talking to them directly, reading reviews, or hearing feedback from the team. When you hear the same concepts two, three, a dozen times, take note. Better yet, use a tool like Aha! to tag feedback as it comes in. This way, you can quickly create a visual report and identify patterns that will help you gain those informed insights.

See the peripherals
Being uber-focused can result in blind spots. So, if you find that your head is too far down ticking off immediate to-dos — stop. Push yourself to see peripherals. Are there areas of the business that are not connected but should be? The best way to answer this question is to regularly meet with cross-functional teams, so you can understand how all areas of the business are working to serve customers and where the challenges are.

Challenge your thinking
Are you sure the vision you set is still on target? Are customers and the market sending you signs that you need to update your path? Strategic thinking requires you to question everything — both your own thinking and that of others. But that does not mean that you should be easily swayed. Be firm in your beliefs but not blind to those of others. Real value is created over the long-haul. When you see new information, make small course corrections as needed.

Make it a habit
Easier said than done, right? But it is possible. Block off time on your calendar each week so you have space to really think. This does not mean sitting alone and pondering the big questions of business and life. Instead, consider it a working session, decide what you want to review, what new reading materials will help, and set specific goals for what you want to accomplish. Hold yourself accountable.

Strategy is not easy— it is the toughest part of a product manager’s job.

And like anything demanding, it is not always the thing you jump to work on first. Maybe you are even expecting your boss or leadership team to step in and hand you clear direction. Obviously, company leaders should play a part, but the reality is that they do not often have time to set a clear vision themselves.

So, the team will ultimately rely on you, the product manager, to create a well-vetted and well-aligned strategy. This requires discipline, clarity, and the willingness to stop the day-to-day madness to see what is really possible.

What is one way you make space to think strategically when you are extra busy?

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About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product roadmap software — and the author of Lovability. His two previous startups were acquired by well-known public companies. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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