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130 / Discovering the Essence of Product Strategy, with Roman Pichler

Hosted by Paul Gebel & Daniel Sharp




Roman Pichler

Pichler Consulting

Roman Pichler is a leading product management expert who specializes in product strategy, product leadership, and agility.  

Roman has advised product leaders, and he has taught product managers and product owners for more than 15 years. He is the author of four books including Strategize and How to Lead in Product Management 

Roman also writes an award-winning blog, hosts his own podcast, has an active YouTube channel, and offers a range of product management templates and frameworks, including his product strategy model, Product Vision Board, and GO Product Roadmap 

To learn from Roman, attend his Product Leadership Training and Product Strategy and Roadmap course. Contact him if you would like him to deliver his training in-house, give an inspiring talk at your company, or if there is anything else he can help with. You can find out more about Roman and his background below.

Product strategy is the guiding light that illuminates the path to success for any product. However, articulating and executing this strategy is often easier said than done, says product management expert Roman Pichler. In this episode of Product Momentum, Roman shares valuable insights into the essence of product strategy and how to effectively navigate its complexities.

Defining Product Strategy

Strategy means different things to different people, Roman says. “I would suggest the strategy is a high-level plan: it describes the approach that we’ve chosen to make or keep a product successful.” Strategy and vision are not the same, he notes. “Strategy encompasses crucial elements such as the value proposition, target markets, business goals, and standout features. Without a clearly articulated strategy, product teams risk missing out on the benefits that strategic alignment brings.”

Responsibility, Ownership, and Influence

Traditionally, product strategy formulation has been viewed as the sole responsibility of top management. Roman advocates for a different, more inclusive approach, where product managers and cross-functional teams actively participate in strategic decision-making.

“A single person hardly ever has all the right information, the right data to make the right decisions,” Roman says. “I find it’s better to delegate the product strategy – or the decisionmaking authority around product strategy – to the people who are in charge or who work on those products, and then coach them.

“Empowering product managers to own and evolve strategies not only fosters motivation, but also prevents bottlenecks and promotes continuous adaptation.”

Empowerment and Trust

When it comes to empowerment, two factors are at play, Roman offers. “One we refer to as ‘personal power; that’s aligned with the organizational aspect. But when we look into what individual contributors and  product people can do to empower themselves, that would be strengthening our expert power: the ‘referent power.’

The better we are at earning and exhibiting referent power – at crafting and setting a vision, creating and evolving a product strategy, and at understanding the specific markets and market segments our product serves – the more people are likely to trust us.

Product Momentum Takes the Show on the Road. The Product Momentum team will be recording live at The New York Product Conference, powered by INDUSTRY. On April 18, at The Times Center in midtown Manhattan, attendees can watch and listen to our conversations with April Dunford, Holly Hester-Reilly, and more of NYPC’s amazing keynote speakers.

Paul Gebel [00:00:19] Hello and welcome to Product Momentum, where we hope to entertain, educate and celebrate the amazing product people who are helping to shape our communities way ahead. My name is Paul Gebel and I’m the Director of Product Innovation at ITX, along with my co-host Sean Flaherty and our amazing production team and occasional guest host,  we record and release a conversation with a product thought leader, writer, speaker, or maker who has something to share with the community every two weeks.

Paul Gebel [00:00:43] Hey folks, we have a great episode for you today. We’re joined by one of my favorite product thinkers, Roman Pichler. And I have the privilege of a co-host who is a good friend and colleague, Dan Sharp. He leads some of our most complicated products on our flagship clients. Dan, I know you’ve been looking forward to having a chat with Roman for a while, so thanks for joining us today.

Dan Sharp [00:01:04] Thanks, Paul. I’m really excited to be here.

Paul Gebel [00:01:06] Absolutely. You know, some of the top line takeaways that I hope people get out of this chat were the practicality of putting process and rigor into product strategy, but also realizing there’s a human element to the empathy and trust that comes from the authority that product people have, whether the org chart recognizes it or not. What were some of the things that you took away that you want folks to key in on and hopefully get out of this chat?

Dan Sharp [00:01:34] Yeah, this was awesome conversation. I really love the concept of collaborating and strategy. Empowering product managers and how we can best work through referent means and building expertise to get people to trust us.

Paul Gebel [00:01:50] I think Roman does a really good job of articulating that high level, philosophical, holistic view of product and bringing it down to earth. I can’t wait for folks to listen to this one. So, let’s get after it.

Paul Gebel [00:02:03] Well, hello and welcome to the show today. We’re excited to be rejoined, actually, about 100 episodes since his first appearance, by Roman Pichler. He’s a leading product management expert who specializes in product strategy, product leadership, and agility. He’s been advised on project leadership and taught product managers and product owners for more than 15 years. He’s the author of four books, including Strategize and How to Lead in Product Management. Roman, we’re so happy to have you back on the show. Thanks for making the time to be with us again.

Roman Pichler [00:02:34] The pleasure’s all mine. And thanks for the kind introduction, and it’s lovely to be here.

Paul Gebel [00:02:39]  I’ve been looking forward to this. It’s great to have you back. So just to level set and kick us into the conversation that we were chatting about before the show, I thought it’d be helpful to start about this idea of articulating product strategy. It’s been a topic that you’ve been talking about a lot lately, written about a lot. And it’s a challenge that I would say a lot of companies don’t even know that they have. I observe the projects and products that were part of it. It seems like people are just on autopilot. They assume that the numbers and the bean counters and there’s enough of substance there that strategy will just work itself out. So I wonder, just to get us started in the conversation, can you help us understand how do we know if we have an articulated strategy? And if not, how do we go about getting started on making one?

Roman Pichler [00:03:30] I think that’s a great question. In a way it touches upon what a product strategy is. And different people have come up with somewhat different answers. I would suggest the strategy is a high level plan: it describes the approach that we’ve chosen to make or keep a product successful. And so, for me, it’s very important to clearly describe the value proposition, the reason why people would want to use the product or pay for it in one way or the other, who those individuals are, who are the beneficiaries of the product are, what the business benefits are, how the product creates value for the company developing it, providing it.

And finally, I find that’s particularly important for commercial and revenue-generating products in general. What are the standout features? What makes the product in a way unique or gives it an advantage over its competitors? And I find that it’s not uncommon when I work with a new client that a strategy in that sense doesn’t exist. It doesn’t mean that nobody’s thought about these questions, but they haven’t been, as you said, clearly articulated. And so, you know, there may be in the head of a senior manager, an executive or the head of product that may have the answers to those questions, but there’s not necessarily a shared understanding amongst the product people, the people involved in progressing those products, let alone the product teams and development team members, what the product strategy is.

For me, that’s a real issue because it means that in the worst case, you miss out on the benefits that a strategy delivers. And that is clearly understanding why the product is provided, clearly understanding the specific value it should offer, but also then being able to make the right discovery and delivery decisions around what kind of features should we offer, which new features do we have to provide, which existing features do we have to enhance, and what should the user experience be like? And finally, being able to prioritize those features and saying no, you know, if we don’t have a clearly articulated strategy in place, how do we know if somebody, a senior stakeholder comes with a seemingly important feature request, if we should accept that or if we should decline it? It’s really hard, right?

And so for me, it’s super important to make sure there is a strategy. The strategy has been captured. And as it happens. I’ve developed a little template, a little tool that wants to help people describe, capture their product strategy. So, I like to encourage people to think about the overarching vision, the purpose, the positive change a product should create. The what’s the ultimate intention for offering the product. So, I find that helpful. And then capture those four in a way elements that I’ve already touched upon target markets, market segments. So, the target group, the users and customers and then the needs and focus on the main problem that the product should solve or the primary benefit it should offer, the business goals. What is the impact that the product you create for the company, developing and providing it, and again, finally for revenue generating products. What are some standout features, aspects, attributes that make the product special and stand out from the crowd? And I find it really helpful to capture those pieces of information in whichever form is most appropriate, and ideally doing that together as a collaborative exercise so that everybody who’s involved in progressing the product has a shared understanding. So it becomes a clearly articulated and ideally a shared strategy.

That was a long answer.

Paul Gebel [00:07:10] No, it’s a great one. There are a couple things in there that you hit on. Just to quickly recap, I think your mention of revenue generating products versus not is it’s kind of settling into my brain as something, as a distinction that I haven’t really thought about – products are products, and that business metric is often second or an afterthought. And when we’re talking about product strategy but be really if it’s not keeping oxygen in the business and it’s delighting all of our users, but it’s putting us out of business, it’s not a viable strategy. It’s just one thing that kind of stuck out to me as you’re as you’re speaking there, but great answer. I love where you took us with that. Dan, did you have a question?

Dan Sharp [00:07:51] Yeah, really love hearing you about articulating strategy. And I’m curious in your experience. First off, who really owns development of product strategy, but also once we’ve kind of coalesced on how do we make sure that we have buy-in, not just within like our product verticals, but with our stakeholders, our business colleagues and our development teams?

Roman Pichler [00:08:15] Thanks for asking those questions. I think, again, that that’s super important to consider. So I guess the traditional view is that management, or more specifically the head of product, director of product management, VP of product management, CPO, whichever the title, the individual might have so that the person in charge of the product management group, the product management organization, that this manager ultimately formulates the product strategy and owns that product strategy, sets the product strategy. And while sometimes that works quite well, I find that it can be beneficial or more beneficial to empower the product managers, the people who actually work on those products, and to make strategic decisions for their products and ultimately own those strategies.

So that the reason is that’s more motivating and literally empowering in full charge of the product now, but also it avoids that the head of product becomes a bottleneck, becomes overworked, strategizing the way I look at it. So maybe I should backtrack and say it’s one thing to articulate a strategy, but a strategy shouldn’t really be a static plan, a fixed plan that is just executed. It should be looked at as something that is based on what we know at a given point in time. And as markets change, as technologies change, as user customer expectations and needs change, as the competitors change their offerings, the strategy has to change as well. So, we have to regularly review and adapt, change the strategy. In fact, I like to suggest a continuous strategizing approach. Now, the reason I’m saying this is if that’s what you want to practice, and the head of product has to look after the strategies of maybe several products, maybe many products, depending on the size of the company. That is a lot of work.

There is only so many hours in the day, obviously, that are available to us, and there’s only so much energy an individual has and so much knowledge a single individual has. So I find it’s better to delegate the product strategy or the decision making authority around product strategy to the people who are in charge or who work on those products to manage those products for the product managers, and then coach them and mentor them and act as a sparring partner, as a review partner for particularly important strategic decisions.

So that’s my first answer that in a way, the first step, but I think it’s not enough. And you’ve already alluded to this. If a single person, you know, be it the head of product, be it a product manager makes the strategic decisions a single person is, I’ve already, touched upon hardly ever has all the right information, the right data to make the right decisions. Number one. Number two, a strategy should be a plan. A group of people works towards that, aligns stakeholders and development teams.

And so, you know, in order to achieve that alignment, it’s very important to secure buy in. And a great way I find to do this is by involving the key stakeholders and development team representatives in making strategic product decisions. And so, I’ve suggested that actually an extended product team owns the product strategy and collaboratively strategizes, creates, validates, and evolves the product strategy. And so that extended product team, I mean the product manager and development team representatives and the key stakeholders. So those stakeholders whose expertise you need to make the right product decisions and effectively progress the product. Together they should make the right strategic decisions. And if no agreement can be reached, which sometimes is the case, then the person in charge of the product, the product manager, should have the final say, should be empowered to make a final decision. So, you know, that way the knowledge, the expertise of a larger group of people or a group of people is leveraged and hopefully that buy and that support, is secured.

Dan Sharp [00:12:22] I love that. I’m going to expand a little bit about that last part. The product manager, the person owning the product making the final strategy decision for folks who are listening, who are maybe just starting to have those conversations, if you offer some techniques if you don’t have complete consensus on an aspect of the strategy, how to still be able to go forward without the stakeholders buying in, even if maybe they didn’t get everything they wanted out of the conversation?

Roman Pichler [00:12:48] So for me, it’s about establishing, collaborative or participatory decision-making approach. And it starts with making sure that the right people – I mean, it sounds trivial, but it is a very important first point or step – making sure that the right people are involved in literally bringing people together in form of a workshop, be it on site, or be it online. Sometimes when the level of trust isn’t particularly deep, if people haven’t really worked together much, they don’t know each other much yet, an onsite workshop I find can be preferable. But yeah, certainly a workshop so that, you know, people hear each other’s perspectives and ideas, each other’s concerns, and the product manager doesn’t have to be the go-between and the mediator kind of drafting a strategy and then going from one stakeholder to the next and then going to the development team members and saying, what do you think? What do you think?

So again, I find it more effective to literally bring people together and then select the clear decision rule. And so, my recommendation here is if the strategy changes significantly or if you’re reworking the strategy, creating essentially a new strategy, then it can be beneficial to use unanimous agreement or unanimity, which means everybody has to be happy with the decisions taken. And if it’s smaller changes, incremental enhancements you’re making to the strategy, maybe you’re refining the value proposition, maybe you’re extending the target group, the market segment. Then usually content is good enough. Content means nobody has any meaningful objections and is using the right decision rule in the right way.

Facilitating a collaborative decision-making process can be challenging depending on the people involved, depending on, to a certain extent, company culture. I mean, I found that some organizations are more used to teamwork and collaborative decision making than others. So, it can be really useful to involve a skilled facilitator who guides you through that process so that as the person in charge of the product, you can actively contribute, which you should, and you don’t have to facilitate. You don’t have to facilitate the workshop; you don’t have to facilitate the decision-making process. And so, a qualified facilitator in some cases can be an agile coach, a scrum master or product coach. In some cases, maybe there’s someone else who has the right qualifications who can help you.

Paul Gebel [00:15:49] This operational level of detail, I think is really helpful because it’s often talked about in such abstract terms that product managers don’t know exactly where to start. They know strategy is good and vision is worth writing down. But having that review cycle I know, is a topic Dan wants to dig into in a minute.

But before we get into a bit more of the operational detail, I just want to zoom out for a second and describe a conversation I had recently with Jared Spool and, and the way that he described the relationship between vision and strategy is sort of along a path. There’s a set of problems that we’re trying to solve, and if we do nothing, those problems are still going to be there along with a few extra, because that’s how entropy works. When we align a product strategy, we’re going to choose which problems we’re going to solve and design an alternate future. And the vision ends up becoming the delta between doing nothing and doing something. And this relationship, I’m hearing you approach it sort of from the pragmatic angle, and it’s really kind of putting both sides of the same coin together for me. I’m wondering if you could just respond briefly about, does this vision statement and the dynamic nature of it, it’s not a static document, and it has to live and breathe and readjust. I think that it’s helping to create a holistic picture for me at least. Does that make sense with the way that you’re approaching a problem, is there a way that you would frame a vision and a strategy relating differently, maybe a nuance that you’d bring out a little bit more uniquely from your point of view.

Roman Pichler [00:17:23]  I like what you what you shared. So, when I think about the vision, the vision of a product, first of all, I do find it helpful to capture it and reflect on it. I always try and think about the ultimate purpose for offering the product. So, the positive change which it would bring about. An example I like to use is if I was to create an app that helps people become more aware of what they eat and when they eat and maybe how much they eat, then the purpose, the vision might be ‘healthy eating’ or slightly more verbose ‘help people eat healthily or more healthily’.

And so for me that be a nice vision. And I generally look to try and make the vision big and ambitious and in a way, abstract enough so that it’s not tied to a specific product, idea or solution, and it’s not too tightly coupled to a strategy. Reason being that the strategy might change, it could change significantly, right? We may have to pivot. But you know, I think it’s nice to stay grounded in that vision. And so, I like to choose a vision that can last for the next 5 to 10 years. Sometimes it still makes sense to adjust the vision as you move from one lifecycle stage into the next one. But I wouldn’t expect any radical big changes of product vision, unless you find that you can’t come up, you can’t discover a viable strategy that helps you reach it. And then sometimes the right thing to do is really to rework the vision so that you can continue your journey towards it. It’s really that big overarching goal that guides you in alliance. You’re a little bit like a North Star that kind of pulls people along, hopefully resonates with people. And yeah, ‘big hairy audacious goal’ might be another way to phrase it.

Dan Sharp [00:19:03] I love the idea of having a deep vision that is anchoring everything that we’re working on. Strategies change over time. What should be some of the things that we consider on when to review our strategy, maybe when to make changes?

Roman Pichler [00:19:19] Great question. So, I like to establish, as I briefly mentioned earlier, a continuous strategizing process. And there are two aspects to it are two elements.

The first one is quarterly bigger collaborative reviews with the extended product team. So extended product team is core product team. That’s product manager development team representatives. But also, then the extended one integrating the key stakeholders. So in these strategy reviews they are pre-scheduled again as a default, they take place every three months. Sometimes three months is not enough. And it’s worthwhile to have them on a bi-monthly basis. If there’s a lot of change, a dynamic market, then I think product technology is changeable. You know, competitors, the competition, the competitive landscape is, changing rapidly. And sometimes when the product is stable and the market is stable, you can push it out to 4 to 6 months, but usually three months works quite well.

And in addition to that, the idea is when you have those bigger collaborative strategy reviews, you look at your product strategy, you look at your product roadmap, you look at things like your product performance and the KPIs. What do the indicators, what do the metrics tell you about the value your product is creating? And therefore, if the strategy is working or not. What about your competitors? Have they changed anything to their products? What about any trends, consumer trends, technology trends? Any legal trends that are applicable for some products? You know, think about health care products or financial products and maybe also any changes within the product portfolio that you have to respond to. But as these quarterly reviews are helpful to bring everyone together, sync up and look at the big picture, if you if that’s all you do when you look at your strategy on a quarterly basis, there’s a chance that you miss out. You miss out on opportunities and threats.

Roman Pichler [00:21:10] And the whole point of working with a strategy, the whole point of strategizing in my mind, is to be proactive and maximize the chances of creating value and spot those opportunities and threats early on. So, you know, we can be responsive and we’re not with our backs against the wall, we’re not in a reactive situation, we’re thinking, Holy moly, our competitors now leapfrogged us. What are we going to do? And then panic crises emergency. So, the whole point of strategizing is to avoid that.

Hence, I recommend that in addition to those quarterly reviews, you spend as the product manager, as the person in charge of the product, you spend at least half a day per week looking at some of the things that I’ve said, the KPIs that have become available in some cases on a daily or weekly basis, anything that happens in the competitive landscape, anything that happens with new trends and new technologies, and to use the opportunity to speak to users and customers equally, maybe not on a weekly basis, but on a on a regular basis. Make that part of your weekly routine. For some people, it works best to do a little bit of that work, that strategizing work every day.

Other people find it’s more helpful to set aside and ring fence half a day, but I really recommend that, you know, people, product managers block that time in their calendar and don’t sacrifice it. The reason that I say this because I feel, as product people, we have a tendency to optimize for the urgent work, but if that’s what we do and we delay or we ignore the importance work, then we create more unplanned work for ourselves in the future. And we can no longer be proactive, and we might end up facing that that emergency or crisis that I mentioned earlier. Very important to planning enough strategizing work again at least half a day per week to be proactive, look ahead and maybe just to make this more relatable, if you think about a day-to-day activity like walking, running or cycling.

So, I like to cycle. So I’m gonna use cycling as an example. When you cycle, we do two things; we have to pay attention to in a way the execution, the right here, right now,  keeping our balance and turning the cranks and pushing the pedals and shifting gears. And that is very important. But if we don’t look ahead sufficiently enough, sooner or later we’re going to crash. And I’ve had a few bike crashes over the years. Some of them really hurt, most of them, in fact. So, it’s that balancing act. And the same is true for walking. The same is true for running. We do it in our daily life. It’s that being aware of the right here and right now of the more tactical execution delivery aspect but balancing it with just enough looking ahead. I think we need to do the same thing in product management. We need to do the same thing for our products.

Dan Sharp [00:24:06] I love that. And I also hate when you’re riding and you haven’t planned ahead, you come up to a huge hill and you don’t have energy to get up it. So talking about being reactive and trying not to be reactive, I think sets up for one final question here is: in product owners, how do we increase our empowerment so that we’re really able to help set good product strategies and drive the product in a way that aligns with a company business strategy?

Roman Pichler [00:24:32] That’s another great question. Thanks for asking it. So when it comes to empowerment, I think the the two factors at play, one is what is referred to as personal power. And then there’s an organizational aspect. And when we look into what can individuals, contributors, product people do to empower themselves, then in it would be strengthening the expert power and what is referred to as the referent power. I mean, expert power is pretty much what it says. It’s our expertise. So the better we are at product management, the better we are at, say, crafting, setting a vision, creating a product strategy and evolving that product strategy the better we understand the specific markets and market segments our product serves, the product category, the competition. The better we understand how our business works in the underlying business model, the way our product is ultimately monetized, the more people are likely to trust us.

And if people trust us, then we’re able to influence and guide them. It’s as simple as that. And you know, that takes into account the recognition that as product people, we don’t have what’s referred to as positional power. We’re not we don’t have authority that has been assigned to us that is tied to a position in the org chart. The power that we have really comes from ultimately the trust that people place in us. And that’s exactly where referent power then comes in. I mean, referent power really describes how people perceive us, how like how likable people perceive us or think we are. And again, how much they trust us. And the expertise for me is a key element in building trust.

Other key elements are empathizing with people taking a genuine interest in others, in their perspectives, even if we disagree. Just letting them be and hearing people out, I think is super important. Acting with integrity and saying what we believe is truthful and being transparent and being accountable, taking responsibility and promising only things that we can deliver and apologizing if we fail to deliver a promise that we made. Those are the key elements to strengthen our referent power. And what I mentioned earlier, the referent power in that helps us again with influencing others and ultimately helping others move forward together.

So, the power that we have as product people. You could say it has to be earned. It is not typically given by us, to us, by management. Having said that, it can of course be very helpful when you work in an organization where product management as a function has been established and is recognized, and where generally stakeholders understand what product management is, what product managers do, and why product managers need a certain level of empowerment and a certain level of respect, compared to when you work in an organization where there is no product management group, there is no head of product, and that knowledge just isn’t there. And typically, the job of product people is significantly harder. That’s at least what I find.

Paul Gebel [00:27:42]  I can’t think of a better way to tie a bow on this whole conversation. The bookends of process and repetition and structure and rigor, taking the facts first and analyzing them and putting together a vision and a strategy, but really building it on that foundation of empathy and trust. The process and the documents and the templates are all for naught if it doesn’t involve product managers speaking into the organization and whether there’s an org chart authority in place or not. I think product managers have a real space to lean in to the strategy discussion. I love the way you talk and think. And I could listen to you for another hour, but unfortunately, we’re coming up short on time. So just in closing is a question for folks to help maybe learn more about you if they’re hearing you for the first time. What are some of the favorite places that you’d recommend folks check out more of your work, whether you’re training courses or books or anything else you’d love to share.

Roman Pichler [00:28:36] Thanks for asking. The best place to go to is my website, And yeah, as you’ve already heard, you can find my books on there. I write a blog. I regularly write blog articles as a podcast on other videos on that, so it’s a good place to start and then see templates and tools that are on there as well. See if what I have to offer is useful.

Paul Gebel [00:29:00] Thanks again so much for taking the time today. It’s been a blast to have you back and that look forward to seeing you again soon.

Roman Pichler [00:29:06] It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Paul Gebel [00:29:14] That’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency and listening. We really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get. So please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch, and inspire the world just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

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