What is Product Strategy - explained by a Spanish conquistador

For years I had a hard time explaining to friends and to my mom what I’m doing.

It was like that: I define how digital products are developed and I oversee the implementation to be sure the team delivers features that solve real problems, are technologically feasible and are returning value for the company. Followed by an awkward silence or a kind of “Oh, interesting” 😴

For years, in conferences, articles, and informal discussions I saw topics that are coming over and over again: roadmaps, prioritization, product manager vs product owner role, product-led companies, product growth and, the most important and less well understood one, the mighty Product Strategy.

It seems that product management is the fuzziest and most confusing practice in the tech world. Oh well, not talking about quantum computing 🤓

During the time I tried so many ways to explain what product strategy is to myself firstly, then to the teams I worked with and to the clients I worked for. And I got frustrated because as I knew from practice, when I’m struggling to explain a product to an audience it’s a good sign that the concept isn’t mature enough yet. Similarly, if people don’t understand what product strategy is, is not their fault, is my fault because I don’t explain it well enough.

Or, as Albert Einstein said,

If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.

So I started to think of an easy way to explain what product strategy is. It was like an interview question I got a while ago: explain the API concept to your mom.

The Conquistador’s challenge

Let’s imagine you are a Spanish conquistador sailing uncharted waters, in the name of your King.

On your way back home you must conquer new territories. Your supplies can last for 60 days max. On some islands you might find food and water, on some not; some territories could be under the British Empire flag already and you don’t want to engage your sovereign in a war.

Your fleet comprises one heavy galleon that carries most of the supplies, soldiers, horses, and cannons, plus one light and fast frigate that carries small unit personnel.

Three months by now is the King’s anniversary. You have to be there and please him with your new conquers.

The first attempt

How you, the Spanish conquistador, will be approaching the challenge? Where will you be heading your fleet first?

The most obvious choice is to take no risks, head directly to East, get what you can get and be on firm ground in time, with no issues related to supplies.

So you decided for a time focused and a bit conservative approach.

That way, you won’t get too many outcomes from this trip, you won’t add many territories to the Spanish empire, but at least you won’t jeopardize your relationship with your King, nor your crew.

The first attempt it’s a safe bet - be in time, not exceed the expectations, not too good, not too bad and meet the objective.

The second attempt

What if you are a super-achiever? Maybe you are willing to take more risks, you want to sail more, with the chance to conquer more territories but with the risk to not be in time for the King’s anniversary, or even worse, to lose your crew by getting out of food and water.

For you, the calculations are simple: more territories = more happiness for the King = more money for future expeditions

So you decide to sail around and hunt for more. Unfortunately, there are some hidden dangers - you hit an underwater reef, the vessels are damaged and you lost ten precious days by repairing them. Also, some islands that you were thinking are unoccupied were already under the British flag. Although considering all the time you lost, you were lucky enough to find some food and water on a tinny island.

So, you arrived ten days later, you missed the King’s anniversary but you brought three new territories. Your sovereign could be angry because you weren’t there on time but could be happy for what you got… Last but not least, your crew is quite exhausted and is very unlikely to be willing to sail under your command next time.

The second attempt was a daring bet, with the aim of getting more. But because of the uncertainty that sits underwater, you missed the deadline. Now you are in a very weak situation at court.

The third attempt

Remember, you have two vessels: one big but slow galleon and one smaller but faster frigate? Why wouldn’t use the frigate as a scouting squadron which investigates, maps out the uncertainty and tells your main crew where to sail?

So, you’d empower the agile ship with a clear objective: identify the occupied territories, the potential dangers and the opportunities to re-supply.

The frigate will sail ahead, navigate fast and communicate often with the command center. That way you’ll know the right course, you’ll be aware of dangers and you’ll be better prepared to optimize your gains in terms of time and conquers.

Using the intel from your scouting vessel you managed to be right in time for the King’s anniversary with four new territories for your sovereign.

Mission debrief

Now, let’s try to see who is who in this story. Because yes, we used this metaphor to understand what product strategy really is.

Business goal —> expand the Spanish empire

Product objective —> please the King

KPI - be in time for King’s anniversary with a healthy crew and at least one new territory

Metric - no of territories

Attempt 1

  • took the safe path

  • sailed with the main galleon straight to the east

  • conquered one territory

  • arrived in time

  • delivery ok, KPI met 😐

Attempt 2

  • tried to get as many territories as they can

  • got some threats along the way (reefs —> aka blockers)

  • conquered 3 territories

  • missed the deadline

  • project status: partially failed ☹️

Attempt 3

  • used the speedy vessel for scouting and discovery

  • constant communication with the main ship

  • decisions based KPI and metrics

  • adapted the path according to the terrain

  • got 4 territories, arrived in time

  • king is delighted —> he got territories and a map 🤩

The metaphor

I know that you already identified all the analogies, but I’ll list them here just for the records.

A question still remains though: how the three attempts overlay the product management practice?

We had like this:

The first try was about time, meeting the objective and no unnecessary risks =>
Trip-1 = time-boxed approach

The second one was about maximizing the gains without a good mitigation over the time factor and the risks. Features (aka territories) were the most important aspect =>
Trip-2 = feature-boxed approach

The third attempt was more complex. With the same resources, you managed to learn and investigate and to adapt your course to the competition, time and resources =>
Trip-3 = a strategic approach

So, the right approach is….. Well, you might think that as a product strategy consultant, I’d say no 3 is the way to go. Even if I think the strategic approach has some advantages, especially when building new products or MVPs, I do consider that each product, company, project are unique, has their own particularities, objectives, KPIs, etc and the decision should take account of a complex matrix of factors. My role here was to explain a poorly understood concept, Product Strategy.


Because there is not any finalized work and I’d like to improve the way I’m presenting the strategy related concepts, I’d love to get your feedback - was the story well constructed around the actors? Are the analogies ok?… Any feedback is super well welcomed! 🤗


Post Scriptum and possible sequels, for further explorations and stories…

Competition

During the preliminary explorations, your scouting frigate estimates that all territories might be already under the British Empire flag. You are between two hard choices: to return home with nothing under your belt or to search more but putting you at risk, by missing the King’s anniversary.

What are you going to do?

Merging/acquisition

As part of an arrangement with the British Empire (a proposed marriage between the son of King James of Great Britain and Infanta Maria Anna of Spain), the Spanish Empire will no longer pursue new territories in this part of the world.

Are you returning home without anything or are you willing to see if there are some leftovers thought?

Team conflict

Cortes, another Spanish conquistador and one of your biggest enemies, is undermining your support at the Court. You have to act fast and be back home ASAP.

How are you handling this situation?