The future of every product is a story to be told

Stefan Brierley, former Director of Product + Strategy at Beyond, explains why spinning a good yarn is critical to effective product strategy.

8 min read
May 10, 2021
“A good story should change the way you see the world”

Chuck Palahniuk
Author of Fight Club

For any leader, the ability to inspire others with a compelling vision of the future and communicate strategy is critical to success. This is particularly relevant for product leaders, who all need to build consensus and allies – and more often than not – act as a bridge across departments and disciplines. For whom, leading without authority is par for the course.

Leaning into the oldest form of human communication and framing product strategy through the lens of storytelling, telling ‘product stories’, is something I leverage in my role as Director of Product & Strategy.

Storytelling is not a new idea: visual stories from cave paintings in Lascaux and Chavaux in France date back 30,000 years. As someone with a proclivity to first turn to old ideas when faced with new problems, perhaps that’s part of its appeal. For me, if you are to inspire, align, and mobilise others to embark on a journey with you; to create something which doesn't exist today; to ask others to solve genuinely complex problems for compelling reasons, there's nothing more important than being able to tell a good story.

What makes for a good story?

If you cast your mind back to your school days you might remember the basic elements of story writing:

  • Setting
  • Characters
  • Plot
  • Conflict
  • Theme

While there are variations and builds on this in terms of sophistication, these are generally considered the foundational building blocks to fictional writing, and manifest in stories across cultures.

The elements of good product strategy

Many of the same things that make for a good story are crucial elements of what make for good product strategy.

Firstly – by way of definition – what is product strategy?

Here, I respectfully turn to those that have distilled this into words far more eloquently than I could.

“Product strategy can be an intended sequence of product/market fits working towards a product vision while satisfying business objectives”

Marty Cagan

“Good strategy is diagnosing the challenge, forming a guiding policy and designing coherent actions that harness sources of power”

Richard Rumelt

Common to these two definitions are several key elements, which form the basis on which to communicate your product story. These are the building blocks we start with at Beyond when collaborating with clients to envision new products and develop product strategy, or charting a new course for an existing product designed to unlock the next wave of growth – writing a new chapter in their product story.

A chart with with two columns and five rows. The first column contains 'story building blocks', such as 'setting, characters, conflict, plot and theme'. The second contains 'key elements of product strategy to feature in your product story'.

Five tips for applying a storytelling lens to communicate product strategy

1. Your vision should be simple, memorable, and recitable

The subject of your product vision should be 'solution' agnostic (avoiding current technologies or product mockups which age too quickly). Focus rather on the most relevant and enduring customer jobs-to-be-done your product serves. Bring the emotive experience of interacting with your brand to life.

For example, through the key moments that matter in your customers’ lives, and how will we positively impact those moments.

This ensures a much longer shelf-life. Making it more relatable, and recitable, across the business at large. The higher-order goal when communicating product strategy is adoption of the product strategy.

A meeting room with six chairs around a square table. There are seven pendant lights and three posters on the wall.

2. Major on the protagonist: your customers and the problems you are solving for them

The definition of empathy is: the ability to share someone else's feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person's situation.

This is why stories have characters. We can all relate to others on some level. Tap into this.

You know your customers. You understand the jobs they choose your product for. You know their issues and struggles intimately. They should feature prominently in your product story so people can relate to them.

We all know what it feels like when an urgent order chosen for a special occasion is missing, or a takeaway arrives cold and late ruining the date night you had planned. If these matter to your customers then put them front and centre of your story.

Having worked with product teams at Just Eat, Photobox, MoneySuperMarket and Google, our colleagues across all departments are often some of the most passionate and loyal customers of the product. Acknowledge their problems in your product story: sharing your focus on solving them is a pretty good way to build important allies across the business.

A Just Eat infographic

Just Eat: We worked with Just Eat to bring-to-life their customers' stories, highlighting the biggest problems through a collection of humorous customer experience foundations. These framed the problem/s, acknowledged the frustrations and showed why it was so important for us to solve them. ‘Knowing me, knowing you’ acknowledged that increased choice is key to staying relevant, and appealing to more food occasions. With increased choice, choosing between options becomes a customer problem. Getting to know our customers, their preferences, eating patterns, and tastes would be key to serving up the options that are best suited in a particular moment.

3. The obstacle is the way

A good story needs tension, conflict and obstacles to overcome. A little jeopardy is critical to first hooking the reader, and maintaining a connection.

In much the same way, without first diagnosing the obstacles – the challenges to realising your vision – what is it that is used to formulate strategy? Why A rather than B?

Understanding the obstacles, and focusing on these, legitimises and contextualises the strategic decisions you make. The bets you place, and equally important, those you don’t.

Communicating this context and focussing on a few things that really matter is critical to aligning colleagues to operate with confidence and autonomy. It enables teams to organise themselves and to work in concert with one another to solve the right problems, at the right time; and effectively plan for the future while remaining responsive to the present.

Whether operating in an established environment with thousands of people working on different aspects of a product portfolio, or a smaller niche player just starting out, articulating and framing the obstacles is absolutely crucial to bringing people with you.

The Mandalorian with a quote next to him saying 'This is the way'.

The Mandalorian: This should really be attributed to the stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius who 2000 years ago in his work ‘Meditations’ put it as “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” More recently, this idea was popularised by Ryan Holiday in the book of the same name (The Obstacle Is The Way). However neither have had anything out on Netflix recently so I went with a more contemporary option to illustrate this point...

4. Use a mix of materials to reach a broad audience

The best stories take on a life of their own: they generate intrigue, get re-told, and in doing so they endure and spread their core message more organically.

If you need 90 mins to run through a 60-slide presentation everytime someone asks what’s our product vision and strategy, this is clearly not good.

To create the conditions for your product story to spread don’t default to the obvious. To start a movement, create artefacts that are ever present. Get the walls talking. Get things into the hands of colleagues to provoke meaningful discussion about the problems we’re solving, and who we are solving them for. Remove ambiguity, and reinforce your strategy at every turn.

Three posters with Just Eat graphics.

Just Eat: We worked with Just Eat’s leadership to communicate product strategy through various internal touchpoints and key events in subtle – and not so subtle – methods. Developing a ‘house’ style for visual assets to communicate product strategy is an effective way to maintain a conversation with colleagues through a familiar tone and visual style. A set of customer stories brought-to-life the role Just Eat played in the lives of customers and restaurant partners in the future; the problems to focus on, and new ways we would provide value in the future.

Three Just Eat mobile screens

To reinforce the product story, and visualise key opportunities to add new value to customers we often will use visiontyping. Bringing-to-life compelling new ideas, and facilitating deeper discussion and engagement with the problems we are looking to solve. Getting ideas out of heads and into hands.

5. Visualise the journey

Roadmaps. They can be powerful tools of strategic communication. They can also be boxes on a grid.

The best are visual representations of your product strategy, outlining what is important in measurable terms; the outcomes that matter to your business and your customers. Showing the relationship between metrics and the corresponding product strategies that target them. They are not plans or commitments, or lists of features and fixes.  

When visualising and communicating a journey to a broad audience we favour a simple framework at Beyond, ‘Product Horizons’.To communicate the intended evolution – or significant steps – in the product story over time; typically no further than 3-5 years. The further out you go the more wrong you will almost certainly be.

We articulate our focus across near, medium and far horizons at the highest level. For example, a sequence of intentional product/market fits. Product horizons provide the strategic context required for more detailed planning activities and artefacts; for example annual/quarterly product roadmaps (outcome based), OKRs, programmes and projects, internal initiatives, M&A planning, partnerships and preparations to enter new markets.

Happily ever after…

Returning to the sentiment I started with. Developing a compelling vision and defining a clear product strategy is absolutely crucial to success.  Focussing on solving the right problems, targeting the right market – at the right time – focusing on and measuring the things that matter. Communicating this in ways that serve to inspire, align, and mobilise others is equally as important; to ensure others share your vision, understand and adopt the strategy. To see the world as you do.

8 min read
May 10, 2021