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Product Management

Should Product Managers Focus More on High-Level Strategy or the Tactical Details?

2 minutes read

A reporter once asked renowned behavioral psychologist Donald Hebb—the man credited with introducing the field of neuropsychology—a variation of the standard nature vs. nurture question. Which factor, the journalist wanted to know, contributed more to shaping an individual’s personality: genetics or the environment?

Dr. Hebb responded with a question of his own: Which feature of a rectangle do you think contributes more to its area—the length or the width?

We at ProductPlan would offer a similar response to the often-asked question about product management: Should product managers focus more on high-level strategy or the ground-level tactical details?

As we’ve pointed out on our blog before, being an effective product manager often comes down to how good your balance is. You’ll have to strike the right balance between data and your gut instinct, being a likable team player and also saying no when necessary, and focusing on both the high-level strategy for your product and the tactical details involved in that strategy’s execution.

So, to paraphrase the great psychologist Don Hebb, the answer is: Yes, as a product manager you should be focused on both the strategic and the tactical.

3 guidelines to help you determine your strategic/tactical focus

Okay, I know that might sound like an unsatisfactory answer. But if you’re unsure of where to place your time and energy as a product manager, the reality is that you can’t simply choose one of these two areas of focus—strategic or tactical, big picture or tiny details—and devote yourself completely to that area.

Successful product management, when you take the role down to its fundamentals, might best be described this way: Helping to develop your product’s strategic plan, and then taking responsibility for executing that plan.

In other words, if you were hoping to be a product manager who lives entirely in the details, and leaves the strategic thinking to others, I have bad news. It’s the same bad news I’ll have if you’re the type of PM who wants to spend every day thinking and talking at the 30,000-foot level about vision, coming trends in the market, and thought-leadership. Unfortunately, you’ll need to become very comfortable working and making decisions both at the strategic level and on the ground, in the trenches, addressing the small details.

How you find the right strategic/tactical mix for your products and your company will obviously be based on your circumstances. But here are a few guidelines to help you determine what that mix might look like.

1. Make sure your strategy always comes first.

When you’re overseeing the execution of a product’s strategy, you will inevitably be called on to handle tactical details—questions about changing resource levels, requests for tweaks to your timelines, and debates over the smallest details of your product.

You can and should jump into these tactical issues when necessary—but you’ll be able to provide guidance only after you have your product’s strategy nailed down.

Your strategy should inform all of the tactical decisions you make throughout the development process. Without a strategic plan for your product, one that your teams and stakeholders have all agreed upon, how will you solve any of the tactical-level details that pop up during development?

What this means is that even if you’re the type of product manager who prefers being in the trenches every day with your cross-functional teams, you still need to nail down your big-picture strategy first—before you can jump into those trenches.

2. If you’re wondering whether you’re spending too much time in one area, ask yourself a few tough questions.

This one will take some brutal honesty and self-reflection, but it’s a necessary step if you’re unsure of where to place your energy and focus.

Some product managers find themselves in the trenches—poring over the smallest collateral details with marketing, having endless conversations with engineering about product look and feel, etc.—because, in reality, they’re afraid to confront the big strategic decisions they should be tackling.

The flipside scenario is also common. Some PMs spend all of their time in brainstorming sessions, or talking with executives about exciting long-term plans, because they don’t want to deal with the day-to-day details of their product’s progress.

If you think you might be engaging in an imbalanced strategic/tactical focus, you should ask yourself some difficult questions:

  • Am I spending too much time in this one area because I’m hiding from the other?
  • Am I staying focused on this because I’m procrastinating?
  • Am I putting my attention here because I prefer to work this way, and not because it’s the best place to invest my time?

3. If you want to spend more time and attention on one area than the other, make sure you have the right team support to cover the other area.

Of course, your company might have the resources and skillsets to allow you to become a more tactical-focused product manager (or a strategic-focused PM). If that’s the case, great. You’re in luck.

Perhaps you can invest your energy in your product’s big-picture strategic thinking and planning—and offload a lot of the day-to-day tactical oversight to a project manager, or another PM on your team who’d rather dig into the details.

Just make sure that whatever area of product focus you choose to offload—whether strategic or tactical—will still receive the attention and expertise that it requires.

Note: This article was originally published on ProductPlan's blog.

UCSB grad. Bay Area native. Social Media and Marketing at ProductPlan.