Use your words for product strategyArticulating strategy with product narratives
Organisations have shifted toward verbal styles of communication, probably related to mass adoption of collaborative problem solving and workshop culture—I’m looking at you Design Thinking. But there are some unintended consequences, and workplaces have changed a lot lately.
Collaborative methods can be great for accelerating understanding and fast problem solving. Yet from facilitating thousands of hours of them, I’ve learned they’re not always the best option.
Challenges with a verbal culture of work
Workshops often favour charismatic extroverts, HiPPOs (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion), and quick thinkers—silencing the voices of deep thinkers and quiet but brilliant individuals. Moreover, relying on sketches and sticky-notes leads to a loss of context and meaning later. While exceptional facilitators use storytelling, repetition, and visual models to ensure comprehension, most organisations simply don’t have enough of these people, resulting in ineffective workshops that yield elusive outcomes and quickly forgotten artefacts.
Even successful workshops typically produce transient information—it’s only meaningful if you were there—and the Miro board or walls of sticky notes make no sense a few days later. Most communication is verbal when we do strategy in workshops, and it’s difficult to capture nuanced meaning. We risk misremembering important details for both leaders and individual contributors. Leaders may forget crucial aspects of their instructions, leading to subsequent rejections of the solutions presented. Similarly, individual contributors working on solutions may lose sight of what was intended, and become distracted by what is obvious and immediately achievable.
Finally, decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs) are coming, requiring a shift from real-time verbal communication to asynchronous work models. As teams become more distributed, opportunities for real-time communication diminish. We need different ways to reach shared understanding and find strategic clarity in this new future.
Benefits moving toward a written culture of work
Firstly, written artefacts level the playing field, allowing leaders to be heard based on the strength of their ideas rather than their charisma. There’s nowhere to hide in a document. It’s the facts and narrative that tell the story, not the energy of the person speaking, or the quality of their over-designed slide deck.
Written communication is helps with asynchronous work, where well-crafted documents serve as a ‘source of truth’ for teams when collaborating. When people consume quality documents ahead of a working session, everyone is already on the same page. Doing this first means meeting time is spent on critiquing and improving the ideas, not spinning wheels to reach shared understanding. Lastly, written feedback on documents is in context, captured in situ, and available for all to consume. No more photographs of workshops, or translating verbal conversations into different formats. This is a boon for exhausted workers, who are task-switching a hundred times a day. Instead, we empty our brains to the page, and come back later with confidence that we’re not missing the most important information.
Written artefacts for product leadership
The Product Narrative is the first and most important artefact for driving team toward outcomes that matter.
A Product Narrative helps collaboration by describing the desired outcome, how it solves customer problems, and why that matters. The narrative aligns the work with company goals, making it easily understandable for everyone involved. While product leaders curate the narrative, it thrives when it incorporates the perspectives of sales, designers, engineers, marketers, and more. This helps with ownership, and teams can break it into small actionable chunks, which creates the feedback loop needed for strategy to evolve in lockstep with execution.
How to write a Product Narrative
There’s a thousand ways, and who am I to tell you what to do? But here’s a straw model that works for me in organisations big and small.
It’s one paragraph. Explain your business at the highest level, assuming the reader has no prior understanding of anything. Imagine you’re explaining it to your accountant. Something like this:
NewCo is a B2B SaaS Product Company serving Retail Media businesses in Australia and and the UK. The company operates 3 core products, generating $22MM ARR during FY22 (ProductA—$9.3MM, ProductB—$8.2MM; ProductC—$4.5MM). NewCo is majority private-owned, in operation since 2014, and currently employs 74 staff. The company is pursuing lateral growth, funded with capital investment to launch existing products into new markets (EU, NZ). NewCo aims to capture new market opportunities estimated at $9MM ARR in ANZ and UK over the next 3 years.
You’re talking to the context of the big-picture opportunities now. What are the macroeconomic factors? What are the unmet market needs? Who else is playing? What’s their game? Where might we play? What are the biggest customer frustrations and opportunities?
We’re not detailing what we’re going to do or how we’ll do it yet—that’s what Initiatives are for. Thematic observations are about building the story, and providing insights to frame the strategic options and recommended initiatives that come later. Don’t bamboozle the reader with endless data or half-arsed bullet points. Do the heavy lifting to make sense on their behalf. Write clear insights. Support your position with relevant facts, data, and customer verbatim. It’s a story, and you’re setting the scene. Aim for just two or three of these high-altitude observations. About one page for the lot.
Your recommendation of what ought to be done. This is for alignment, and you’re creating it in all directions. Managing up with executives, across adjacent teams, and down to ICs. Initiatives frame the specific opportunity, describe expected outcomes, ask for the investment required, and give just an outline of how it might be achieved.
Insights are written similarly to thematic observations (above), but now focussing on the next level of detail, framing the recommendation that follows. Expected outcomes are a guess—don’t overcook it with over-the-top analysis, or commit to targets. Keep it high-level, and directional. Specific goal metrics will be a point of discussion later. It’s the same for investment required—that’s typically a one-liner about people, time, and cost. For recommended action, a bullet list is just fine. Broad brush stokes only. Detailed plans will come later, when it’s endorsed and the real work can start.
Brevity is your friend. Put anything that might be helpful, but isn’t critical for telling your story here. Mine typically include things like team topologies, FAQs, high level plans, product mock-ups, footnotes, reference reports, and so on.
Closing thoughts on Product Narratives
If there’s one thing you do make it this: Don’t hide the strategy. Strategy is about collaboration. As the number of contributors increases, so does alignment. While at the same time, the risk of unexpected surprises is reduced. Do the hard work before decision time. It’ll be a short meeting, and you can get on with the real work of executing with confidence everyone knows why, where, what, and how. Let’s go!