July 16, 2020

You’ve just been promoted to Senior Product Manager. Now what?

There comes the time in the career of any product manager where the tools and trade you have been learning up until this point just do not cut it for you anymore.

There comes the time in the career of any product manager where the tools and trade you have been learning up until this point just do not cut it for you anymore. Maybe you have just been promoted to Senior Product Manager, you were put in charge of a whole product line or platform, or anything else along that line. What you realize is that until now you measured success based on your output: how diligently you were producing insights from user research, how effectively you would turn those into user stories, and how fast you could release your features. This is what is called tactical work in product management; your bread and butter, so to speak.

Tactical vs Strategic work for Product Managers

Recently having been promoted to Senior Product Manager myself, I started to look into what is now expected of me. Is it the same tactical work, just more of it? No. As your scope increases and you take up more responsibility for a wider array of features, an entire product or a vertical, or even product managers reporting to you, your success is not measured by output anymore, but by outcomes. It will be less your own day to day tactical work that drives the success of the product, but your vision and how you are constantly on top of your game ensuring that your stakeholders are informed and the entire organization is set up to support your product. For this, you need to be working more strategically. So how do you do that?

Tactical vs Strategic work for Senior Product Managers

A couple of years back I found myself in a position where I did not know how to do that when I was leading the digital products department for the global non-profit organization AIESEC. I was majorly struggling at doing what I had just described.

We had a vision for our products to pivot from a mainly offline driven business model, relying on the on-ground activities of thousands of volunteers, to go digital, utilizing inbound marketing and matching algorithms to automate large parts of the business processes. The problem was that this idea was still new and the details were still fuzzy to my colleagues in the leadership team, let alone the over 40.000 members spread around 120+ countries. As a result, our efforts were futile. Features that we launched were not implemented in the organization and the lack of alignment between the digital strategy and the rest of the organization was apparent. Not knowing what to do then, I turned to my mentor, Jozef Vodička and he told me to do one thing:

“Write a strategy document. You’ll be among the top 1% of leaders to do so”.

He’s right. While more present in the area of Product Management (Uber Senior Product Manager Shiva Arunachalam uses vision one-pagers to keep the product vision and progress sufficiently visible to his stakeholders), it is a tool still widely untapped or used in the wrong way where huge slide decks get sent around but nobody ever looks at them.

Let me run you through the elements of the strategy document:

Scope: Your strategy document can be used to communicate the vision of the entire company, a product portfolio, single products, or projects.

Structure: Your strategy document should follow the same structure as your product decision framework or essentially how goals are set in your organization, such as OKRs.

Left: Structure based on OKRs. Right: Structure based on vision statements.

For more tips on how to create and structure a product vision, I can recommend this great article by Ellen Merryweather on Product School’s blog, which gives you additional tips.

Detail: One slide per strategic initiative, not more. Use easy to understand short sentences. Include which goal this strategic initiative falls under, who’s responsible, the timeframe of implementation, resources required, description, which synergies / other departments are required, and how success is going to be measured.

Representation of what the slide could look like

Actual slide that I used for a project I was responsible for. Take note of how related strategic initiatives within the same document are referenced to show their dependency.

If you’ve gotten this far, great work! Once you’ve put the time and effort to actually articulate your projects and how they relate and depend on each other, you will realize that you have gotten much clearer about all your moving pieces and each individual impact. I advise you to really put effort into each slide. Jeff Bezos pioneered at Amazon the idea of crafting a product narrative, where leaders are encouraged to articulate the details, goal, and impact of projects and initiatives in short, crisp and crystal clear sentences, rather than blurring their alleged impact behind lists of nondescript features.

However, don’t make the mistake of considering your work done just now. That was just your homework — the real test starts now. Here are some starters:

  • Constantly keep this list updated, either whenever you have new ideas or receive valid feedback.
  • Regularly keep stakeholders & the company informed about key updates.
  • Use the deck to align key decision makers & stakeholders. This was actually the toughest, but most important step for me. While it was easy to get feedback and align everyone within my own department, the idea of asking someone who had no part in coming up with the contents of this strategy document, felt ridiculous to me. Thus, I made sure to concretely identify whose support I would need for which strategic initiative and then aligned it to match their goals. All it took was then to book a short check-in, present the slides as a rough work-in-progress, ask for feedback, and then co-craft the slide of the respective strategic initiative together. Suddenly, this deck did not belong only to me, but to each of my stakeholders, I would repeat this exercise with. As a result, they would feel the same ownership over it. I would then repeat those meetings every month to keep track of any updates and to keep rallying for the support I needed.

While this approach already produced great results for me, there are some further learnings I’ve gathered :

  • While I didn’t want to involve too many people in the initial crafting of the strategy document, in order to get it completed as fast as possible, I should have involved some of the key stakeholders who could then have advocated for me and this process with my other stakeholders.
  • I shied away from sharing the strategy document with a broader audience out of fear it would be confusing or distracting. What I learned later, however, is that such a strategy document, if crafted concisely, could actually get people excited and instill confidence in the product and the organization.
  • I contemplated trying this approach in my current job. As a fast-paced startup, Fave is constantly pivoting to build more products consumers love. A strategy document, in this environment, would easily grow outdated before I finished it and would only slow me down and create waste rather than value. In smaller organizations, there are much more effective tools to keep your stakeholders align

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