Product Anti-patterns: Poor Product Strategy

Photo of Piotr Szczechowiak

Piotr Szczechowiak

Dec 23, 2022 • 9 min read

The main purpose of a product strategy is to provide direction for product development, but what happens if a poor product strategy anti-pattern occurs?

Lack of strategic context and a poor product strategy (or even a non-existent one) is common when it comes to digital product development. Product leaders sometimes think it’s obvious what they’re building and why; they may even have a vision and strategy for the product in their minds. However, it’s often neither documented nor validated and communicated properly.

As one of the gurus of product management, Marty Cagan says: “Most teams don’t have a bad product strategy. They simply don’t have a product strategy”.

Product leaders need to learn how to create comprehensive product strategies and communicate them effectively to product teams. A bad strategy or lack of one results in many issues, from no clear purpose and direction and priorities changing every week to releasing products that customers don’t want, and worse case, product failure (and even an entire business going under).

And so, it’s critical to have a robust product strategy in place. By doing that, there's a clear and extensive business understanding of target customers and their needs, you achieve proper alignment among product teams, development teams, and management teams, and ensure you make the best use of available development resources. Indeed, the success of a product relies on a good product strategy.

This article is part of our product anti-pattern series – check out our introductory post on 8 things not to do in your quest to build a great product for background information.

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Purpose of a product strategy

The main reason for building a product strategy is to provide direction for product development. Without a unified strategy, your product team will still head somewhere, but it’ll probably be in the wrong direction, ending nowhere near where expected.

Building successful products isn’t easy, and without proper context analysis, strategic decisions, and great communication, it’s even harder.

First symptoms of a poor product strategy

There are several telltale signals to watch out for regarding a lack of product strategy or inappropriate strategy communication:

  • Product teams aren’t fully aware of the business context and how the product contributes to that; objectives and priorities aren’t discussed with product teams.
  • No one in the product team knows why they’re building a particular feature or what value it brings to customers. Moreover, it’s unclear what problem the feature solves or whether it’s in line with the product strategy.
  • There’s ambiguity around who the target customer is for a particular product or feature, you don’t have a target market and personas defined, and a picture of an ideal customer isn’t known.
  • New features and initiatives are passed over to product teams without context and consultation. As such, you’re building what management wants but don’t know the value, and potentially believe you should prioritize other things.
  • Product roadmap and scope are changed frequently, and these changes are significant. What’s more, changes in priorities aren’t explained, and most strategic decisions are made based on gut feeling rather than data.
  • There’s no alignment between product teams, and delivery suffers from frequent delays. As a result, product releases are often blocked due to unexpected dependencies between teams.

What can happen if poor product strategy signals are ignored?

If the symptoms of this anti-pattern are ignored, you can expect even more chaotic communication within product teams and a disorganized decision-making process. On top of that, there will likely be significant delays in product deliveries, and you’ll hear statements like “This isn’t what we agreed on” more frequently during sprint reviews.

Lack of product strategy and priorities often results in unrealistic roadmaps and a lack of focus. These things can lead to increased product delays and frustration. Low motivation among product teams will eventually result in people leaving the company.

In the long run, not only will internal teams suffer, but also the product and the customers. By ignoring poor product strategy signals, you end up with products and features that don’t bring significant value or customer satisfaction and have low market adoption.

What to do when a bad product strategy anti-pattern occurs

Lack of strategy and inappropriate communication are easily identified by talking to product team members and product leaders. If you find that’s the case, as a product manager, what do you do?

Firstly, remember it’s never too late to introduce an effective product strategy and align on real priorities.

Building a good strategy takes time and requires:

  • Market context (external)
  • Company context (internal)
  • Business model
  • Mission, vision, and objectives
  • High-level product roadmap

As part of that, you must carefully analyze the market and associated risks, your competitors, customer needs, technology and industry trends, and your value proposition. Only then, you in a position to make effective strategic decisions regarding your business model, product vision, purpose, and main objectives.

Be clear on what you’re not building, and don’t hesitate to cut down initiatives and features that aren’t in line with your product strategy. Instead, focus on the most impactful aspects from a business perspective.

What’s more, place special attention on properly communicating your product strategy with the team. Even the best strategy is useless when it’s kept behind closed doors. A robust and well-shared product strategy unites product teams under a single product vision, helping align them, even if they’re working on different parts of the product. That’s especially critical in the case of large and complex products.

Best practices to prevent and overcome poor product strategies

For starters, product leaders should dedicate sufficient time to prepare a viable product strategy – it will pay off in the long term, allowing teams to stay focused, follow a unified direction, and limit resource waste.

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Product strategies should mainly center around customer problems, business context, and customer insights, and less on solutions. And remember, developing a product strategy isn’t a solo job for the product manager – it’s a team effort, where people from different departments are involved.

In terms of communication, it’s a good idea to prepare a product strategy presentation, including context information and data used to make decisions. One of the main strategy communication mistakes is simply telling people a decision, without explaining the “why” behind it.

It’s also excellent practice to prepare a one-page high-level blueprint, summarizing key elements of your product strategy, that’s easily shareable with product teams. Successful strategy communication is a process that takes time. It requires effective pitching and is all about earning the trust of product teams.

It’s also worth noting that product strategy development never ends; it should be revised quarterly based on the insights gained over time. And if product strategy problems are identified along the way, be sure to react quickly.

For example, if the environment and market context change significantly (e.g. due to war, pandemic, law change) it may require you to scrap your current strategy and define a new one that better fits the current situation and new market opportunities.

Overcoming a poor product strategy anti-pattern

Problems with product strategy and sub-par strategic context are identified in many companies, whether they’re start-ups, scale-ups, or large organizations. It’s important to quickly react and identify where the problem lies – is it a lack of strategy, a bad strategy, or insufficient communication? Perhaps it’s a combination of strategy and communication issues?

Sometimes, it’s easier and quicker for an external consultant to notice these things rather than internal teams who are buried in everyday product delivery.

Ignoring a poor product strategy anti-pattern is risky in the long term. By moving swiftly when you spot a problem, you can significantly reduce uncertainties when building a digital product and reap long-lasting advantages. For example, you boost focus, efficiency, and team alignment, to deliver products faster than your competition. And thanks to more detailed context information, the product will fit the market and end-user needs much better, improving customer satisfaction.

Product strategy is all about defining a direction for your product and making decisions that help you realize your product vision. It should never be set in stone, but updated based on insights gained during the product life cycle. Just as Jeff Bezos says: “Be stubborn on the vision but flexible on the details.”

Keep an eye out for the next anti-pattern in the series.

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Piotr Szczechowiak

Piotr Szczechowiak works as a Product Manager at Netguru.

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