Product Management Marty Cagan

Strategy vs. Execution

It’s funny how often I’m asked whether I am a “strategy guy” or an “execution guy.” I completely understand the reason for the question, as I think it’s true that most people prefer one or the other; in fact, they often very strongly prefer one or the other, or regardless of their preferences, their personality is only suited to one or the other. Yet for product leaders, it has always been very clear to me that you must be skilled in both in order to actually get good products launched.

In my mind, software projects can be thought of at the highest level as two phases: first figure out what to build, then build it. The first phase is dominated by strategy, and the second phase is all about execution. During the first phase, you welcome and explore new ideas, you talk with scores of users and customers, you learn how you can apply new technologies, you flesh out your product concepts and test them out, and you spend a lot of time thinking about the overall product direction, both immediate and longer term. it is all about discovering that mix of functionality and design that results in a winning product.

However, once you’ve spec’ed out this product, and your engineering team begins the process of building this product, a very profound and important shift needs to take place for the product team. Now the game is all about execution. Getting this product built, tested, and delivered to market. In this phase you spend your time keeping everyone focused, chasing down the countless issues that arise, and getting these resolved immediately. Acquisitions, competitors, organizational and management changes; these are all distractions, and your job is to keep the team on track so this product can get out there when it needs to be.

In countless product teams, this shift in mindset doesn’t actually happen, or at least it doesn’t happen until much later, often as late as entering QA. Instead, the product managers continue to explore new ideas, and company execs continue to view the product spec as malleable, and what results is euphemistically referred to as churn. Essentially, the product spec continues to change is significant ways, impacting engineering and the rest of the product team, and typically the release dates push out, or features get cut, or the quality gets compromised.

If you’re lucky enough to have a great project manager (see the “eBay’s Secret Weapon” article), then you probably have help keeping everything on track during this implementation phase. But even if you do, as a product manager you’ll need to be cognizant of this necessary change in mindset, otherwise it is all too easy for the product manager to be the source of the product’s inability to get to market.

But it’s important I think to recognize that we all have our own preferences and different skills. If you’re naturally a strategy kind of person, preferring the freedom and creativity of the invention process, then you’ll have to work extra hard to contain those urges during execution. On the other hand, if you’re more naturally the project manager type that loves getting things out the door, then you’ll need to work on your strategic thinking and design skills, and remembering that what matters is creating a product that your customers love.

One technique that I have found very useful is to always keep two versions of product going in parallel. In other words, as soon as you start the engineering for release 1.0, and you switch into execution mode for that project, then you can start up the strategy/design phase for release 2.0. Always keep that innovation engine working, just know that once a given release goes to engineering, you redirect your creative urges to the next release.

You do need to be careful that this doesn’t detract from the execution work for the current project, but overall I’ve found that having this outlet is a good thing. The next time a company exec drops by with a big new requirement, rather than impacting the product you have in the oven, you already have the next release in the design stage and you can accommodate the new requirements there.

I don’t mean to make this all sound easy, but I do believe that with discipline it can be managed. Just remember that it’s essential that you develop both your strategic skills (to ensure you’re coming up with winning products) as well as your execution skills (to ensure that these great ideas actually make it to your customers).