There are many different ways for B2B subscription companies to build products – but there is often a big gap between the high-level strategy and real-life practice. A product strategy might look good on paper, but how do you turn it into action?
This was an ideal topic for SubsLab #3, the third in our series of thought-leadership discussions, to which we invited Substribe members on 31 March. In particular, we were able to draw on the knowledge and experience of Richard Linstead, Product Director of The FT (B2B), who offered a number of insights on how to turn a product strategy into action.
Who owns the product?
This is a trick question. According to Richard, the answer should be everyone: “The language of agile and scrum teams has lent a specific and often misleading interpretation to the term ‘product owners’. Within scrum methodologies, they play a specific role – but when you consider the challenge of implementing a product strategy there needs to be a general and all-inclusive sense of ownership.”
He admits that it is a philosophical point but an important one nonetheless: “It’s useful to have these high-level ideas of collective ownership because people are motivated by it. We only have so many working years in our lives and it’s natural that we want to apply ourselves to something we feel invested in. If they keep telling you that someone else owns it, you’re less inclined to put your heart and soul into it.”
Operating on different levels
The focus on people is also important because of the extraordinary skill set required of product teams. Product people need to be able to talk about the big picture, but then dive into the detail when required. Richard sees this level of flexibility as more important in product management and development than anywhere else: “Certain types of people make great product people. They need to be the kind of people who are willing to orchestrate and manage without necessarily getting the credit, but they also need to be able to think in a multi-threaded way. They need to be able to jump from strategic viewpoints of complex subscription formats, for example, to the way a button works on a website and the effect that might have on the customer experience.”
Certain types of people make great product people….They need to be able to jump from strategic viewpoints of complex subscription formats, for example, to the way a button works on a website and the effect that might have on the customer experience.”
Bridging the gap
A product strategy needs to be understood – so it must be accessible. Richard notes that many fine strategies are poorly implemented because they are not effectively communicated to the people responsible for making them happen: “All too often, a product strategy is wrapped up in an enormous and impenetrable Powerpoint deck. That’s fine – even necessary – but it also has to be broken down into core pillars that are easily understood and remembered. This is the framework that everything is built on.”
This does not, however, mean just dumbing down the detail. The detail of how it is executed at a team level is essential, but there is all too often a huge gap between the two. Richard believes it is a core skill of a great CPO to make the connection between the broad principles and what this means in practice: “They have to be able to give people strategic guardrails so they can understand the context of what they are doing, but they also need to give people the freedom to solve customer problems.”
A good CPO will know whether to give people more freedom – because they know that person understands the context of what they are doing – or whether to be more prescriptive with those who need that approach. CPOs like that are a rare breed!”
Have you got the set up right?
There is a structural element to consider too. In Richard’s opinion, the way teams are set up is an important factor in the successful implementation of a strategy: “You could organise teams based on features of a product, where each team is responsible for a different part of the product. Alternatively, I have worked for subscription organisations that divide teams along lines of the customer life cycle. Some are responsible for considering acquisition, others for how they are going to increase engagement with the product, while others come into the picture when a customer starts to flag and something needs to be done to re-kindle their interest in the product. If you don’t have this right at a base level, you’ll find it hard to execute your strategy.”
Indeed, it is often helpful to think of product capabilities instead of product features. Richard prefers to encourage teams to talk about ‘product archetypes’, or how the product is arranged and made available in order to solve a customer problem. A good example might be the creation of bundles, where information services and events might be sold together.
You need the right strategy and the right people
If there is a single factor that governs the ability of subscription companies to implement a product strategy it boils down to the skills of the people involved:
If you don’t have really good people leading product development and management, you’re done for.”
In larger organisations, it is natural for a tribe mentality to develop within teams. This can be motivational and can encourage progress, but Richard firmly believes there need to be people to help them see outside their tribes: “Great CPOs will keep them aware of the context of what they are doing. They will make sure they keep an eye on the big picture. This is the skillset I mentioned earlier and it is more important than ever in product leaders. You can have a great strategy, but without the right people and right perspectives, you’re just not going to be able to put it into action”.
Substribe members have full access to the video content on-demand from the SubsLab sessions via our Member Library. If you need assistance with this, please get in touch with Danielle Harvey.
At our next SubsLab, we are planning to cover more subscription priorities. If you’d like to attend, please contact Claire Budd to find out about membership or for members, to reserve your spot.