Product Manager vs. Product Owner


 “What is the difference between a Product Owner and a Product Manager?”

It’s an interesting question and one that takes time to unpack. Let’s look at where these terms and disciplines originated from and how some common frameworks explain them.

When I started my career, I was called a Business Analyst. I did very little “business analysis” as we would look at it in traditional IT companies. Honestly, I did very little of what I teach as Product Management now either. I was tasked with gathering the requirements from sales, coming up with a solution, designing it, and then shipping the specification document to development to be built.

I went on being called a Business Analyst as I worked at banks and other financial services companies. I wasn’t called a Product Manager until I bailed out of that and landed in a startup. It was all the same work I had been doing before, but now it had a different name. I liked this name. “Product Manager” seemed to have gravitas to it, and when I looked at other tech companies in the Valley, I could see a clear career path carved out for me whereas Business Analysts were different at every company.

I had not heard of the term Product Owner until years later. The first time I heard the term, I asked someone what it meant. They told me it was the same as a Product Manager, but it was a term used in Scrum. We had been using Scrum for years, but I was still called a Product Manager, so the fact that they would be interchangeable made sense to me. I rarely thought about it after that.

That was until I had my first experience teaching Product Management at a company using the SAFe framework. I was doing a workshop for a very large bank when one of the attendees chimed in.

“You are teaching us to talk to users, but I am a Product Owner. The Product Manager talks to all the users and tells us what the requirements are. I spend all my time writing user stories out of these and working with the team to execute on the solution. I’m confused.”

This is when I started digging into the differences between these two roles and how different philosophies teach them. In order to understand how we got here

Product Management can be traced back to 1931. Hewlett Packard was one of the first tech companies to implement this job and organize itself by products back in the 1940s. Most Silicon Valley companies have had Product Managers from the start, and many of my friends who have worked there in the 80s and 90s were indeed, Product Managers. So this discipline is not new, but it is evolving rapidly as more companies start shifting into software organizations and start structuring themselves around products.

Scrum came on the scene just before the Agile Manifesto was written in 2001. It introduced the concept of a Product Owner. This was a person who was a proxy for the customer and would tell the developers the requirements for what needed to be built. In early days, when many of the creators of these processes were working as consultants in companies, the Product Owner was the customer – an internal person in the business who would sit with the team and prioritize the backlog of work. In fact, the 2017 learning objectives for their Certified Scrum Product Owner Certification by Scrum Alliance states, “Teach that the role of the Product Owner is typically played by the customer, or customer representative, such as a product manager.”

When you look at the role of the Product Owner in most Scrum literature, their three main responsibilities include the following:

  • Define the product backlog and create actionable user stories for the development teams. (Who creates the user stories varies depending on Scrum training)
  • Groom and prioritize the work in the backlog.
  • Accept the completed user stories to make sure the work fulfills the criteria.

While curriculum change between teachers and organizations, these are the things that are mostly focused on during the two day courses to certify Product Owners. While Scrum has a lot of information on the processes and rituals of what to do as a Product Owner, it leaves lots of questions that are important for creating successful products unanswered. These mostly center around “How do we know we are building the right thing?”

This is where the Product Management comes in. A good Product Manager is taught how to prioritize work against clear outcome oriented goals, how to discover and validate real customer and business value, and what processes are needed to reduce the uncertainty that the product will succeed in market.

Without this background in Product Management, someone can effectively go through the motions of Product Owner role in Scrum, but they can never be successful in making sure they are building the right thing.

Product Owner is a role you play on a Scrum team. Product Manager is the job.

If you take your Scrum team away, if you take Scrum away as a process for your organization, you are still a Product Manager. Product Management and Scrum work together well, but Product Management is not dependent on Scrum. It can and should exist with any framework or process.

I recently had a Product Owner whose developers were moved to another part of the organization come to me because they were worried they could not be a product person at this company any longer. They’re entire identity seemingly hinged on having a team of developers.

As a Product Manager your roles and responsibilities will change depending on your context and the stage of your product. Without a Scrum team or with a smaller team, you might be doing more strategy and validation work with problem discovery in a product that has not been defined yet. With a Scrum team, you may be more focused on the execution of solutions. As a manager of Product Managers, you might be leading strategy for a larger part of the product and coaching your teams to discover and execute well.

The SAFe framework teaches this differently, and I think it’s one of the weakest points in the entire framework. In SAFe, Product Managers are the managers of Product Owners and are responsible for external facing interactions and work. They speak to the customers, they define the requirements and scope of the products to be built, and they communicate this down to the Product Owners. The Product Owners are internal facing, define the components of the solution, and work with developers to ship it.


I’ve trained dozens of teams who are using SAFe and I have never seen this work well. The Product Owners are disconnected from their users and incapable of creating effective solutions for them that really solve their problems, because they do not understand the problems well. The Product Managers are essentially waterfalling down the requirements to them and the teams are not allowed to prove if these are the right things to build or not. No one is doing validation work.

I have listened to many arguments that Product Owners do not have time to do both roles. In the current context, that’s true. The Product Owners I speak with spend 40 hours a week writing user stories. At that point, you have to ask yourself, are those user stories even valuable? What are they prioritizing them against? How do they know it will solve a problem?

If you have one person spending that much time writing user stories each week, every week, you are falling into The Build Trap – concentrating on the quantity of items you release and not the quality.

With a good strategy framework in place and ruthless prioritization around a few key goals, one person can effectively talk to customers, understand their problems, and help to define the solutions with the team. Even the CEO of agrees this can be the case, albeit, it seems, begrudgingly. Scrum Inc also says that the Product Owner should spend half their time talking to customers, and half working with the team. I’m not 100% on board with this split, but the direction is good. The amount of external vs internal work will shift depending on the maturity and success of your product. You should never be doing all this work at once.

I teach my clients that Product Managers in senior roles (VPs or Product Leads or middle managers) concentrate on defining the vision and strategy for the teams based on market research, an understanding of company goals and strategy, and by looking at the current state of success of their products. The Product Managers without Scrum teams or with smaller teams (a UX Designer and one developer, for example) help validate and contribute to that strategy for future products. Once we validate the direction, we create larger Scrum teams around these people and build out solutions.

It’s important to have this flexibility in team size as well depending on the stage of your product. If you give a Product Manager a large scrum team’s backlog to keep filling while you are in discovery mode, they will keep that backlog filled. But, they will also be torn between keeping work flowing to the developers and trying to do the work to validate direction. As a result, neither gets done well.

If you want to build products that create value for your businesses and customers, you need good Product Management foundations in your company. If you want a career path for your people, you need to give them this foundation so they can grow into more senior roles. So remind your people they are all Product Managers. They may be playing the role of a Product Owner on a Scrum team most days, but we still need them to think like a Product Manager and validate that we are building the right things.


Product Institute is our online 10 week course in Product Management that runs once a month. Come join us for our next class!

Student Spotlight: Kristen Ablamsky


Product Institute is an online school for Product Managers looking to level up their skills. We’re featuring some of our recent graduates and asking them to share their experiences, both in the field and in our class.

Our next student is Kristen Ablamsky, a co-founder of a very new, very exciting startup. With a background in social and digital strategy, Kristen is new to Product Management and looked to Product Institute as a core resource for learning on the job. 

Can you tell our readers about your current role, and how you got into Product Management?

I’m the co-founder of an early stage startup called Start Hatching that helps nonprofits and social impact organizations find high quality freelancers who are passionate about their cause. Soon into my adventures in company starting, it became VERY clear that we needed someone to focus on not just our business strategy, but our people strategy. Someone to answer, “what do our customers need and how do we keep building a better solution?”

What was your favorite part about being a student at Product Institute? 

The videos are incredibly engaging, and the downloadable takeaways are priceless. I tap into my “Product Institute” folder every time I’m searching for a better way to find new answers. The Slack channel helped to apply these class materials to the real day-to-day, and to connect with others in the PM field- if you’re in NYC, we’ve got a routine meet up and you’re more than welcome to join us!

How has the Product Institute impacted the way you approach product management? 

I’ve learned that making good decisions in product management comes down to your ability to look at the facts with a fresh point of view. This means knowing how to collaborate with your team to identify user truths. There’s no one way to do that, more like one million ways, and you just need to find what works for you and your team.

What do you think is the hardest thing about product management? 

Knowing that every product roadmap is paved with lots of unkown unknowns that will completely twist up potentially ALL pre-existing notions of what will solve for your customer’s needs is frankly…frightening. But it’s also what makes product management so. much. fun. How can we, as Product Managers, get better and better at identifying, listening, and creating based on new truths?

Why do you love product management? 

Product management uses logic and reason to fuel creativity. It requires a knowledge of people, and not just the willingness to collaborate, but the desire to. And all of it is damn right challenging. For me, it doesn’t get much better than that.


If you’re interested in learning more about Product Institute, you can visit our site for a full curriculum outline, an introduction to our Product Management coaches, and answers to FAQs.

Enrollment for our next two online classes is now open

For a limited time, get $100 off of our April 3rd class with code APRIL17.

We also have executive level options for VPs of Product, CTOs, Directors of Product, and CPOs. If you have a team of 5 or more you would like to enroll, please reach out to me at melissa[at]

Effective Product Roadmaps

Product Roadmaps, in general, are confusing. The truth? Even the most experienced Product Managers still don’t have them fully figured out.

Three years ago I wrote a blog post about Rethinking the Product Roadmap, in which I advocated for a focus on solving customer problems instead of listing out features with deadlines. I received lots of feedback on the post, much of it praise, but also some criticism. The biggest takeaway comment for me was, “This is great for new products in the Discovery Phase, but what about accounting for products that we have already validated and need to build?”

In the time since, I’ve been working with clients to find what works best in real life situations. I want to share with you the framework that I have found, which allows for a balance of discovery and delivery and takes us out of that laundry list of features. But first, let’s talk about Roadmaps in general, and how they got us on the wrong track to begin with.

Think back, before Google Maps, to what a real roadmap was- those things with tiny, tiny city names and thousands of squiggly lines.  The ones that made it so you could never drive alone because you needed a copilot, someone to wrangle the giant map and dictate to you how to navigate from point A to point B. Yeah THOSE things.


Well that’s where the term Roadmap actually comes from.  When using a roadmap, you always knew where you were and where you wanted to go, and you had all these different routes to choose from. Some routes were shorter, some were longer but more scenic. It was ultimately up to you to choose your optimal path. Product Roadmaps should work just like their namesake, but their intended purpose was lost somewhere along the way. Now, Roadmaps function more like Gantt Charts.

Gantt Charts are a project management tool used to keep track of timelines and due dates. While Gantt Charts are fine for large manufacturing projects, they do not work well for most software situations because of the uncertainty around development.

When we’re first deciding what software product we should be exploring, we don’t know what our users want, and thus we are not exactly sure what the finished product will look like. This makes it nearly impossible to estimate how long the product will take to build. Yet, we still use this Gantt Chart model to plan our work, which locks us into delivering solutions by certain dates. Teams get frustrated that there is no perceived flexibility in these plans, and management gets mad when teams don’t deliver on time. The result is a bunch of feature releases that don’t make a difference for our users.

Instead, we need a model that helps us take into account uncertainty and allows us the flexibility for both discovery and delivery. To do this, we focus on Product Roadmaps that are made up of outcomes, a theme, and hypotheses, and we leave out any unvalidated solutions or features.

Let’s look at an example I created of a completed Product Roadmap for one team. I’m using the New York Health Exchange’s website as an example of a product as I can easily pin down things that need to be fixed- like, lots of things. I’ve never worked with them, and I don’t claim to have knowledge about how they function internally, but I am a customer of the website. This is how I would approach improving the product if I were working with them.



The top section of our Roadmap outlines our Vision, Challenge, and Target Condition, which reflect the goals outlined in my post on Product Strategy.  A Product Roadmap should be aligned around these same goals and help communicate the tactics to reach them.

According to this Roadmap, Team X is working towards the overarching goal (or Challenge) of getting 99% of people who create an account on NYS of Health to sign up for insurance.

Now that we have our Challenge set, the team analyzes the customer problems standing in the way of them reaching that goal. This is the same process we outlined in the original Roadmap post. Let’s say that after user research, we find that the biggest problem for NYS of Health’s website users is that it takes a very long time to search for and find an ideal health insurance plan. It’s a confusing process and incredibly frustrating. It causes people to give up instead of sign up.

So Team X decides to tackle this problem, and sets a Target Condition that will tell them when they have reached a successful outcome. “Decrease the average time to find and purchase health insurance from 3 weeks to 2 days in Q2.” While users can only sign up once a year for health insurance, there are plenty of changes that could be implemented to make it easier once that enrollment period opens.

From there, Team X would figure out the top areas they want to explore or deliver on in Q2 to reach that Target Condition. We call these Themes. For example, the “Search Enhancements” Theme will include all the UX work needed to simplify the search for health insurance options.

In order to answer the question, “Why are we exploring this theme?” we write a Hypothesis or Problem Statement. When products are still in the Discovery Phase, we are still validating the problem and solution, so we want to state what we know and what we don’t know. Our Hypothesis should support that we believe our solution will solve the biggest problem.

So with our Search Enhancements Theme we are in Delivery Phase, and our Hypothesis is “We believe that by enhancing the filter options to reflect the top deciding factors that shoppers make when choosing a health insurance, we will make it easier for them to narrow down their choices and find the right health insurance.” We have already validated that people have problems narrowing down their choices to find the right health insurance, and we think that offering some enhancements to the filter options can solve that problem.

Our last theme, Subsidy Communication, is an example of a problem that is still very early in Discovery Phase. We have identified that there is a very low conversion rate for people who qualify for Subsidies, and we want to investigate why that is. We have a few ideas but we have not yet validated them. So we need to clearly communicate our Hypothesis, highlighting what we know (“the people who would get Health Insurance for almost free are converting at a very low rate”) and what we don’t know (“we are not sure if people leave before they know if they whether or not they qualify for subsidies, or if they just don’t understand our explanation of subsidies”).

After the Hypothesis section comes the “Outcomes” – the most important part of our Roadmap. Here, we state what we hope to achieve by solving this problem or proving this Hypothesis. Each Outcome should relate back to the Target Condition in some way. All of our work is going to help us reach the Target Condition, so it would be a pretty boring Roadmap if every Outcome for each theme is just a repetition of that goal. Instead, think about how each of those changes or improvements signals a move towards your goal.

For example, with the Search Enhancements, we can tell if we are making it easier for people to search by measuring the qualitative components of frustration and the quantitative components of decreasing the time to identify an option. You want to make sure you are focusing on a good combination of both business and user outcomes in these sections, and make them measurable.

The last two sections deal with status and priority. The Status should state where you are in the Discovery versus Delivery phase. If you are in the Discovery Phase, you’re delivering to learn, so your focus is on experimentation over releasing features.  In the Delivery phase, you’ll be delivering valuable features and solutions to users. Sit down with your team and define what this means within your company, and then share these definitions with the rest of the company so there is mutual understanding.

Notice here that our Roadmap does not include any specifics on how we plan on tackling these problems.  This is because we are still experimenting with options- we haven’t laid out a plan to implement a set of features or solution components.

The above example is only one team’s Roadmap. There might be many other teams working towards this same Challenge, but they would all have different Target Conditions. These Roadmaps could then be combined into a Portfolio Roadmap that could be communicated across different levels of the business, like so:

Good Roadmap - FDS portfolio.007

It’s important to remember that a Roadmap is a communication tool first and foremost. It’s meant to align teams across time horizons and goals. Management should be goal and Vision setting with a timeline of  6 months to a few years, while teams should be looking at a smaller timeline, from quarters up to 6 months. There should be an accompanying strategy document that addresses how these goals help the company reach its Vision, but the Roadmap itself does not serve that purpose.

Roadmaps are a living document. If you invalidate a theme, update it. If you’ve changed a goal, update it. There is no reason you should be struggling to work around a Roadmap that does not work for you. When you’re communicating with customers, focus on how you are going to solve their problems, not how you are going to deliver their features. Your customers care first and foremost about the value they are receiving.




We teach Product Roadmaps in our 10 week online course at

Product Institute.

The next class will start in April 2017. Use APRIL17 for $100 off.

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Stop Blaming the User

I’m finally going home from a long business trip and I’m very excited. But my experience with United Airline’s customer service this morning completely killed my good mood.

They keep blaming me for their mistake. It’s a story I know well because I see it so commonly in Product Management too.

When I was booking my return ticket from London to Newark, the cheapest option was for something called “Mixed Cabin”. I could fly Business Class between London to Dublin and then Economy from Dublin to Newark. Since I had to get up at the ungodly hour of 5am to get to the airport, I thought that could be a nice treat on my first leg. So I booked it.

Here’s what my reservation looks like from a few minutes ago:

Imagine how surprised I was when I checked in for the first leg on Aer Lingus and they gave me seat 27B. “There must be a mistake,”,I thought. So I told the flight attendant that I was booked through United in Business. She replied, “We don’t have Business Class on any of our flights.”

What a bait and switch! United is selling me something that doesn’t exist. It’s only a one-hour flight, so I’m not going to hem and haw all day, but I wanted to get to the bottom of it. So, I tweeted… because that’s what you do when you’re angry. What happened next, pissed me off more than the switcheroo.

The customer service agents considered this my fault, and acted like it wasn’t a big deal.


As someone who doesn’t work for an airline, how am I supposed to know that Z class doesn’t exist on Aer Lingus? When you purchase your ticket and it says “Business”, that’s what you expect. I don’t think I am wrong for being upset; yet United is telling me I am. If I went to a restaurant and ordered the duck, the waiter wouldn’t say “I’m sorry, we actually meant steak when we wrote duck. Here’s your steak, deal with it.”

I’m not telling this story to complain about United (well, maybe that’s part of the reason). The moral of my story is this: I see product teams commiting this classic mistake all the time. Product Managers love to blame the user. If the user doesn’t understand something, they are just stupid. If the user won’t tell us what they want, they are difficult. If they are calling to complain, they are ungrateful.

This is a dangerous mindset, yet it’s so prevalent. “Users don’t know what they want,” is the battle cry of Product Managers all over the world. It’s their excuse not to talk to them, because what could a user tell them that they don’t already know?

The problem isn’t with the user. It’s with you.

The Curse of Knowledge Bias makes you forget that as a Product Manager, you have more knowledge than the user when it comes to your product. You can’t understand how they could find something difficult when you can do it so easily. Users become just a thorn in your side, and if they went away and took all their complaints and wishy-washy answers to your questions with them, you could build THE BEST PRODUCT IN THE WORLD! You forget that if users went away, you would be out of business.

Recently, I was training Product Managers at a very large company. I always start off with a major focus on the user and trying to uncover their problems. We did a Product Kata workshop to help demonstrate this. The idea behind Product Kata is to take a step back, figure out what you need to learn, and create a test or step to learn it. In this case, the teams had to create a “paper pizza” for the user. Chris Matts helped out by being our user. They had 45 minutes to sell Chris $10 worth of pizza. Everyone immediately jumped in and started asking him “What do you want?” He answered, “I don’t know what I want. I like these things…”

After a while, everyone hated Chris. Someone even said, “I am going to pivot my pizza business to martial arts because Chris better learn to defend himself.” That was pretty funny, but also a prime example of the problem. This happens all the time in real life. The reason people were getting frustrated is because they were asking Chris, “What do you want?”

It is not the user’s job to know what they want.

It‘s their job to know what problems they have. You need to understand how to question them about their context, problems, and needs. If you cannot do this well, you will end up getting frustrated with the user. When I interrupted the teams from running around like chickens with their heads cut off, I asked them “What do you need to learn?” No one had even thought of that question (even though I just taught them they should!). They just set to work to immediately build a bunch of crap hoping he would buy it.

When they stopped and realized they needed to learn the context in which he was eating the pizza, they were able to solve it within 5 minutes. After 30 minutes of wasting a bunch of paper pizzas.

Sound familiar?

It is easy to blame the user, but it is so dangerous for organizations. It leads to culture of disdain for our customers and whole lot of arrogance on our part.

In large companies this is particularly true. When you have layers of bureaucracy, very long-term employees, and a million different departments separating you from the user, it’s easy to forget about them. Product Managers in these companies say, “We can’t talk to the user, that’s the job of another department.”

There are always ways to learn more about your customers, even if you have different departments. For example:

  1. Go talk to the customer service team. When I was working with a client at the beginning of the year, we had trouble finding users to talk to. We could easily talk to people who already signed up, but we couldn’t get in touch with people who dropped off. Customer service could, though. We talked to them about what we were trying to learn, and gave them questions to ask. Then, we met with them weekly to go over what they learned from the users. This helped a lot. If you can, even go so far as to take customer service calls a few times a month.
  2. We designed ways to learn more from our user in the above case, as well. We implemented things like Qualaroo to get feedback from users when they were dropping off. They were allowed to type whatever they wanted in a box asking, “What’s stopping you from signing up today?” We got thousands of responses and learned the biggest problems.
  3. When I was working for a B2B company, I was told I wasn’t allowed to talk to users because we would disturb them. I was the head of UX there. I fought for that ability, and was allowed to go with a sales team member. In that interview, I was able to prove that what we were building was not what the user expected. I brought that back to the team, and it gave me more buy in to keep doing more interviews. We ended up setting up a little feedback group of some willing customers and gave them access to tools earlier than others, and some extra hands on support. This proved invaluable for our discovery methods.

It’s easy to forget that the reason our businesses exist is because someone is buying our product. Someone. Not a nameless persona full of stats, but actual human beings. Human beings have feelings and needs. When I am paying United for a service and they are telling me, effectively, that I’m wrong, I feel frustrated. I feel wronged. That leads me to start to look for their competitors. I’ve bet you felt that too on just about any airline. How many times have you tweeted that they don’t care about you? Felt that they don’t care about their customers in general?

It’s the same for your users. How do they feel when you do this? Blaming them is not the answer. I never said it was easy to talk to users, but it is the only way you can understand and build empathy for them. This is what makes a good Product Manager. If you don’t want to talk to users, get another job. If you’re willing to give it a shot, remember to take a step back and put yourself in their shoes.

What is Good Product Strategy?

strategy dilbert

“What is your Product Strategy? YOU NEED A STRATEGY.”

When I replay this scene in my head, I can hear the CTO very audibly yelling (slash pleading) with our product team. He was on edge. We had been experimenting towards a very concrete goal for two months, and had made a lot of progress. We had learned so much about what was preventing users from signing up on the site, and it was a lot clearer which direction in which we should be going. BUT we still had to test our ideas.

This didn’t sit well with the CTO because in reality he didn’t want a strategy, he wanted a plan. He wanted a list of what we were going to build, and when we were going to build it. He wanted to feel certain about what we were doing when we all came in tomorrow, so he could measure our progress based on how much we built. It’s not his fault though. This is the way we were taught to think about Product Strategy.

Most companies fall into the trap of thinking about Product Strategy as a plan to build certain features and capabilities. We often say our Product Strategy are things like:

  • “To create a platform that allows music producers to upload and share their music.”
  • “To create a backend system that will allow the sales team to manage their leads.”
  • “To create a front of the funnel website that markets to our target users and converts them.”

This isn’t a strategy, this is a plan. The problem is that when we treat a product strategy like a plan, it will almost always fail. Plans do not account for uncertainty or change. They give us a false sense of security. “If we just follow the plan, we’ll succeed!” Unfortunately, there is no guarantee of success here. (I wish there was, our jobs would be SO much easier!)

These product initiatives aren’t bad, they are just communicated at the wrong time and with the wrong intentions. When we lock ourselves into planning to build a set of features (ehem, Roadmaps), we rarely stop to question if those features are the right things to build to reach our goals. We stop focusing on the outcomes, and judge success of teams by outputs.

We need to have a plan but the plan shouldn’t be “build feature x.” Our plan should be to reach our business goals. We need to switch from thinking about Product Strategy as something that is dictated from top to bottom, and instead something that is uncovered as we learn what will help us achieve our objectives.

Product Strategy is a system of achievable goals and visions that work together to align the team around desirable outcomes for both the business and your customers.

Product Strategy emerges from experimentation towards a goal. Initiatives around features, products, and platforms are proven this way. Those KPIs, OKRs, and other metrics you are setting for your teams are part of the Product Strategy. But, they cannot create a successful strategy on their own.

We need a few core things for our Product Strategy to be successful:

Vision: The vision is your high level, ultimate view of where the company or business line is going. In large corporations, you want to narrow this to the business line or customer journey. In smaller companies, this will be your company and product’s overall vision. Think long term here, and keep it qualitative. This is a good chance to talk about competitors, how customers will see you, and ambitions for expansion.

Challenge: The challenge is the first Business goal you have to achieve on the way to your longer term vision. Which area of your customer journey or funnel needs to be optimized first? It’s communicated as a strategic objective that helps align and focus your team around a certain aspect of product development. This can be qualitative or quantitative. Try to keep these still in broad, high level terms. This one is the hardest for me to personally wrap my head around, but check out the example below for some clarity.

Target Condition: The target condition helps break down the Challenge. Challenges are made up of smaller problems you need to tackle along the way. These are set in terms of achievable, measurable metrics. When you set a target condition, your team shouldn’t know exactly how to reach it tomorrow. They should have a good idea of where to start looking through.

Current State: This is what the current reality is compared to the Target Condition. It should be measured and quantified before the work starts to achieve the first target condition.


Product Strategy Animation

These all contribute to something called “Unified Field Theory”, which is explained very nicely here by Bill Costantino and Mike Rother from Toyota Kata. When we are building products, we have a threshold of knowledge. We cannot start on Day 1 and exactly plan to reach our vision. There are too many unknowns and variables. Instead, we set goals along the way, then remove obstacles through experimentation until we reach our vision.

This is best explained through an example, so we’re going to use Uber. Let’s pretend you’re a Product Manager working on the platform that allows drivers to sign up.

Please note: I have no affiliation with Uber so this is a guess as how they might line up their strategy if they chose to use it. The vision is from a statement their CEO made in an interview. The rest I am improvising for the example.

The CEO has stated that the company’s vision is to make Uber the cheap and efficient alternative to both owning a vehicle and taking public transportation. (He really said this in an interview, but everything after this is hypothetical).

So if we understand the Vision correctly, Uber wants people to use them as their sole source of transportation. They would first want to look at why other people are taking other transportation methods now instead of Uber. They may go out and interview people and find that in certain cities where Uber isn’t as popular, there is a very long wait time to get a car. They would compare this to other problems and determine how big it is in comparison. Let’s say it’s the biggest challenge at the moment.
So the first goals they may want to tackle is decreasing the wait times in cities where it’s exceedingly long. Let’s say anything over 10 minutes on average is too long, and we want to decrease that down to 5 minutes or less because we’ve seen in cities with those wait times, people are 80% more likely to use Uber.

This is now our Challenge: Decrease wait times in cities where it is over 10 minutes to less than 5 minutes by January 30, 2018.

Target Condition
As a Product Manager, you now want to figure out what is causing that long wait time. The problem in this case might be that there are not enough cars to serve that area. So our metric we care about now Acquisition of new drivers.

Our goal for our team should be measurable and achievable, something like: We want to onboard at least one driver for every 50 people in each city by January 30, 2017.

As the Product Manager responsible for the onboarding process for new drivers you would be tasked with contributing to that acquisition. You would first measure how many drivers per people in each city you currently have (Current Condition), then find the obstacles that are preventing new drivers from signing up today. Next, you experiment to remove each obstacle until you successfully hit your goal. The Product Kata explains how to do that.

So let’s step back and take a look at all that:

(You can download a blank copy of the Product Strategy canvas here.)

As a Product Manager, you don’t have control over all these numbers. The vision is set by CEOs, CPOs, Boards, and other C-Level Executives. The challenge is set by the next level of management (VP of Product for Each Journey or Business Line).

Direct Managers help their teams set effective Target Conditions. At the beginning these may need to be handed down from management. As teams get used to this way of working, the managers and team can work together to set them.

Once these four items are set and communicated, the team can start applying the Product Kata method to figure out how to reach the goals. It’s the Product Manager and their team’s responsibility to determine the user problems and other obstacles standing in the way of achieving that Target Condition. Then they experiment to solve them.

This aligns everyone around a strategic goal and vision. Every level of the portfolio has their objectives. Teams are held accountable for their progress towards the goal they are responsible for reaching.

Now you have probably looked at this and said “well this isn’t a product strategy, it’s a business strategy.” Yes, this does come off looking like a bunch of business objectives, but isn’t that why we built a product? To reach our business objectives? Product Management is the art of solving your customer’s problems to reach your business objectives. If you’re not doing both of those things, your product is just a fancy piece of code for show.

The next post will be on how to format your Product Roadmaps around these strategies, and how to communicate with stakeholders to encourage experimentation.