Ask the Experts: How do you manage the tension between strategy and execution in product management?

Balancing strategic and tactical work is one of the hardest challenges for a product team. Execution-focused activities are extremely noisy, generating a lot of day-to-day phone calls, emails, meetings and hot escalations to other line-of-business executives. You and your product team feel a pressure to respond to the noise, lest you be perceived as unresponsive by your peers. We’ve all been there.

But it’s really a lose-lose situation. If you always respond to day-to-day firefighting, the longer-term strategic work gets put off indefinitely, eventually forgotten as the team loses that muscle memory and turns into professional firefighters. But the truly insidious thing about responding to the fires is that the team starts to turn away from the market (no time to do outside-in research when you’re so busy being inside-out) and make decisions based on little or no market data. This will result in poor product decisions and lead to failure.

You must strike a balance. And although there is no perfect balance, the following techniques will help you get started.

Gap Analysis and Prioritization

Perform a gap analysis using the activities listed in the Pragmatic Institute Framework to determine where the team spends time today, compared to which activities are truly most important. Once you visualize the gaps, you and your team can see where you are allocating too many resources and where you aren’t allocating enough. Then you can use this information to prioritize and focus your work.

Role Definition

One way to take on the issue of firefighting is to redefine the roles on your product team. Make sure you have someone dedicated to focusing outside-in, scheduling NIHITO visits, setting product and portfolio strategy, business planning and pricing. Next, dedicate other people to focus on go-to-market activities, enabling the sales and marketing channels to understand the buyer and develop the tools and training to make the product fly off the shelf. It doesn’t matter as much who does what, as long as it’s clearly defined.

Negotiate with Other Departments

If firefighting takes up a lot of your team’s time, perhaps there’s a resourcing gap in another department. For example, if sales doesn’t have enough help in technical sales support, they may lean on the product team. If technical support lacks resourcing, the product team may become the de facto tier 3 escalation. When the product team fills these gaps for other groups, the rest of the business is rarely aware that a gap exists because the gap has been papered over.

To find a solution, host an executive-level conversation about the appropriate role of product management and the other teams. If the executives recognize the true role of the product team, and they recognize the work that their teams should be able to take on, you can negotiate where to put the right resources to fill the gap. Alternately, they may approve an additional resource with which you can fill the gap.

Testing these techniques will help you find the balance between strategy and execution that works best for your team.

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