We Interviewed JJ Rorie to Get Her Insights on Product Topics!

Welcome to our new interview series, where we ask product podcast hosts to answer 5 questions on different product topics. We had the pleasure of interviewing JJ Rorie as our first guest!

About JJ Rorie
JJ Rorie is founder and CEO of Great Product Management. She is the author of the book IMMUTABLE: 5 Truths of Great Product Managers. Through research on thousands of product managers, she pioneered the practical professional development approach that anchors product managers with the five skills most important for their professional success. JJ has spent over fifteen years as a product manager, product leader, and product management advisor and trainer, working with some of the world's largest companies including Riot Games, FedEx, Verizon, T-Mobile, Fiserv, American Hospital Association, Kaiser Permanente, RBC, and many others. She is Faculty at Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering, teaching graduate level product management courses.
JJ also hosts the Product Voices podcast where she interviews experts on important product management and business topics. Paul Ortchanian, founder and CEO of Bain Public, was a guest on Product Voices this year discussing why relationships with the leadership team is a MUST for product managers. Listen here

QUESTION 1: Do you think that company strategy and product strategy are the same? Should they be the same?
Company strategy and product strategy are not the same thing but absolutely must be aligned. The company strategy is the overarching plan for the full business. It should show where the company plans to compete, why they will compete there, and a very high-level of how they intend to win in that market. The product strategy lays out a plan to help execute on the company strategy. The product strategy is a bit more granular in showing pillars of focus and even tactics that the team will use to execute on the larger corporate strategy.

This is how I look at product strategies…

The product strategy should clarify the direction in which the company plans to take its product portfolio and should directly align with the overall corporate vision and strategy.

When I am devising a product strategy, I like to include the following elements.
  • Product Principles
  • Product Vision
  • Product Pillars
  • Tactics

Product principles are the underlying values to which all product decisions and actions must adhere. These are not goals. They are not "reached"; rather, they are our constant guide.

These principals should be based on and aligned with corporate mission and/or core values and our product vision. These also can serve as criteria for prioritization.

Example: Pay.com (e-wallet company): Source
  • We are not a bank. We disrupt banking.
  • A sense of security and privacy is key.
  • Merchants are the gateways to our customers, so our products must "wow" the merchant.

The product vision is where you want the product to go: the problems you want to solve for your target customers and markets and what value they would derive from using the product. It provides an anchor for the larger team: "is what we are doing adhering to and furthering our vision?" The target customers and markets are driven by what the corporate strategy has often already outlined in terms of "where the company will play".

A product vision should be aspirational but actionable and clear enough to help steer the team.
  • Aspirational – an ambitious view what you want the product to be
  • Actionable – realistic and feasible enough for you to accomplish (even if aggressive)
  • Clear – simple enough to grasp and remember; also consistent with the larger org vision

A product vision statement typically follows the following template:

For {target market(s)} who {problem / need statement}, our product provides {these key values and benefits}. We are uniquely positioned to meet this customer’s needs because {our value proposition}.

These are the things that are most important for the product to accomplish over a certain time horizon (usually one to three years, depending on the company’s horizon for strategic planning). Here is where you start to address HOW you intend to help execute on the corporate strategy.

Your product pillars should be somewhat high-level and address the overall capabilities and / or enablers that you will need to build in order to win in the marketplace.

These are a level deeper than pillars, showing more concrete steps that the team will take to achieve the pillar and progress the corporate strategy. Product tactics are still not the most granular level of work, as there are likely multiple sprints / projects / units of work needed to achieve a tactic.

So, while the product strategy is distinct from the corporate strategy, in that it often shows more granularity on the plan to win in the marketplace, it should be perfectly aligned with the larger strategy.

QUESTION 2: Should product managers be involved in defining, refining, and managing company strategy?
Product managers are typically not deeply involved in defining or refining the company strategy. That usually happens at the executive / senior leadership level. But where I advise product managers to be involved is to "be an input" into the strategy creation process, meaning provide data on what’s happening in and around their particular part of the market. What problems are your customers facing? How are those problems being solved today, if at all? What specific trends are you hearing and seeing from the market?

Chances are, the executives of your company - those responsible for defining the strategy - are aware of macro-level happenings, but any specific information you can provide from your vantage point may help with the fine details of how the strategy comes together.

In terms of "managing" the company strategy, I define that as executing it and monitoring the impact of it, and so, yes, absolutely product managers play a big part in that. The product teams are the ones who bring the outputs of the strategy to life (most often in the form of products, services, features, capabilities, etc.). Managing the strategy entails not only executing on it but also continuing to provide those inputs into how things are going… Are those strategic outputs resonating with the market? Are there pivots that may be necessary?

Strategies are essentially predictions on what our chosen markets will need and how we will attempt to provide unique, valuable solutions for those needs. The product teams are on the ground seeing the success - or lack thereof - of those predictions and can provide timely input and recommendations on how the company may want to manage the strategy - stay the course or pivot in some way.

QUESTION 3: You’ve interviewed many guests on your podcast. How do most people go about defining north star metrics (OKRs)? How do you think the product team should leverage them?
In most companies that use OKRs, each team or area goes through a process of creating their specific OKRs. What specific goals (O) they will have for their product or area of focus and how they will measure progress (KR). And this works ok as long as there is a lot of communication and transparency among the various teams. Every team should be navigated by the same North Star, or one or two main overarching objectives for the company. Sometimes, teams will have OKRs that don’t necessarily further the overall company vision and strategy, and then things can get a bit disconnected.

The best teams will have joint OKR / goal setting sessions to ensure everyone knows the focus of the other areas, and they all can agree to change course if a disconnect is observed.

QUESTION 4: Can you provide your reflections on how product managers should identify their problems. How should they leverage their users to come up with solutions?
First, we need to be very careful of not jumping into solution mode too quickly. That is a bad habit of many product folks. We first need to deeply understand the problem space before attempting to find solutions for that problem.
Problem identification and analysis starts with customer intelligence. Product managers should constantly be building their level of customer intelligence so they can ultimately identify their customers’ unmet needs, pain points, and problems.
This is an ongoing effort that happens at a natural cadence. Being able to identify your customers’ problems starts with a basic understanding of who they are, the situations and conditions they find themselves in, and the things that are motivating and driving them. Having this foundational knowledge allows you to better dig into the psyche of your customers and uncover issues they are having that they may not even be able to articulate.

Once you uncover some potential problems to solve, then you want to go deeper into problem analysis to determine if you have the proper amount of understanding of the problem itself. This includes being able to succinctly and clearly articulate the essence of the problem, who is impacted by the problem (e.g. full segments of customers or only subsegments?), what issues the problem causes for those impacted, and ultimately some assessment of how large the problem is in both prevalence and affect. It’s also a good practice to delineate where you have information you are confident in (knowns) and where you are making some assumptions. This helps identify some gaps in needed information and allows for transparency when making decisions.
We often have multiple problems to which we could choose to address for our customers, but we need to prioritize our efforts for maximum impact. This problem analysis is important for that prioritization effort.
You should always validate your identified problems and analysis with actual customers and / or prospective customers to ensure that they actually believe the problem is a big enough issue for them to merit some change in what they are currently doing, Oftentimes, we believe something is a big problem for users, but they have workarounds or other solutions that work well for them.

Finally, once the team is comfortable with their understanding of the problem, then it’s time to ideate potential solutions to that problem. This is best done in collaboration with many internal stakeholders across the product ecosystem so that varying perspectives can be leveraged. This is where user feedback is again very important. Validating potential solutions with customers can help avoid a lot of headaches down the road by doing too much work on a solution before finding out if customers understand it and believe it could help.
Problem identification and analysis is at the core of the product manager role. It is critical that we do this well so that we can ultimately build the best solution for the right customer problem.

QUESTION 5: Finally, what is the main pain point that you think product managers are feeling today?
Well, in the immediate term, most product managers are acutely concerned about the economy and job security, especially those that work in technology companies. Even if their particular company hasn’t experienced layoffs, they may be concerned about their customers’ plans for next year in terms of investing in products. So, I think this is a reality right now as we wade through this strange economy. Most companies will be treading lightly through much of 2023, so that raises concerns on how products will fare, and that often ends up impacting product managers. I think a lot of product managers are feeling this stress right now.
In terms of the work itself, I think many product teams still struggle with prioritizing their work. We don’t often have clear right and wrong answers in product management. There are typically numerous things we could do that could potentially add value to the product. Product managers must make choices between these options even while having incomplete data. This is difficult for many folks. Making a decision without assurance that it will work out is not easy, but it’s just part of the job.

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About Bain Public

Bain Public, acquired by X Machina-AI Inc. in January 2022, offers consistent roadmap planning processes & tools for business leaders and product managers organized around what motivates, inspires and improves growth. Bain Public offers a variety of articles, e-books and approaches designed to help organizations understand their digital strategies, introduce elements of roadmapping and establish product-led change amongst the senior leaders and managers. Our approach, product, expert advice and coaching helps entangle complex technology, people and roadmap dynamics.

About XMachina

X Machina-AI seeks to provide a platform for the acquisition of Artificial Intelligence ("AI") entities in North America. The company’s thesis is based on an aggregation strategy to acquire successful AI targets and make them better through the addition of growth capital, streamlining of corporate processes and human capital acquisitions. The current sector focus of the Company is on enhancing supply-chain efficiencies, logistics and manufacturing.