How do you balance market needs driving your product strategy with exec input?
Love the spirit of this question, and will broaden it a bit to "how do you balance market needs with the vision your company may have?"
Prior to shifting to Product Strategy & Ops, I was hired as the 2nd Account Executive at Airtable. I found this experience so valuable because I had a front row seat to literally thousands of customer perspectives on what our product needed to evolve. One of the biggest lessons I took away from that experience was how to think about the balance between providing what people ask for, vs providing something they never would have conceived of--let's call it the iteration vs innovation decision.
When it comes to "building what customers ask for", one of the most valuable mechanisms we used during those early days was to figure out the ask behind the ask to determine what we should actually provide. Often, a customer would ask for a "demo", but what they really needed was a conceptual understanding why Airtable was different than existing solutions. No need to set up a 60 minute screenshare, if I can get you past that gate with a 5 minute discussion. I use this situation as an example because it's analogous to customers requesting specific features.
Just by taking the extra time to uncover their ultimate objective, and being willing to sit in a bit of discomfort (customers are often very eager to solve their challenges), you may learn even more than if you just provided what they asked for. Sometimes you'll find that you should build exactly what they asked for, other times it will be something different.
With that in mind, it is not our job to only build what customers say they want. Sometimes, despite their best intentions, they can't imagine the future you can because their thinking may be constrained by current limitations. It's also your (our) job to innovate, and when you try to innovate, you won't always get it perfectly right, but that shouldn't stop you from trying.
In short, when iterating on customer requests, consider investigating their ultimate objective to determine whether you should build exactly what they're requesting, or something that solves the same problem in a better, more sustainable way. At the same time, don't be afraid to innovate. The world would be a lot different if we just had faster horses.
If your execs are pushing your product in a different direction from your customer & market input, try to understand why that is. They may be trying to pivot the business, or they may have a vision for where the market is going that doesn't quite map to where the market currently is. Or there may be a miscommunication or misunderstanding about what the market needs.
In each case, do your best to figure out why you're pointed in different directions, and drive alignment on those inputs so that the product strategy can be grounded in a set of hypotheses everyone is committed to testing even if they're not quite totally sold on them.
Avoid balance. "Balance" very often feels like a political game we are forced to play. Instead,
Make sure everyone understands the company vision, and call out areas that are poorly defined. Ask for definition.
Educate everyone on customer needs. Exposing them to direct quotes or data is more powerful than trying to argue things.
Lay out the options you think are best based on customer needs and vision. (Focus on the outcome of each bet!)
Now, the secret is to be willing to 'disagree and commit'. You don't have to 'win' the argument. But you do need to clearly explain your pitch and why you believe it, and if an exec disagrees, but willing to share the outcome you think will result from their path, and calmly, respectively tell them you will disagree but move forward with their proposal since they are accountable. Write all this down if needed - help executives understand your world but remain accountable at the same time.
Ultimately, our job in product management is to make products that succeed in the market. So to me, that's always been the high order bit in prioritization and planning. If you're not delivering value to your customers, or the business model isn't sustainable, your product and team will fail.
But the teams we work with also depend on having exec support, buy-in, and sponsorship. So you can't ignore this. You have to ensure that your exec stakeholders understand and agree with the team's strategy, priorities, and timeline. And sometimes you have "pull" important context from these executive stakeholders. E.g. "What counts as success for this organization/team/initiative in 2024?"
It should be really rare that executive guidance is in opposition to delivering customer value or making a product that will succeed. But if this kind of disconnect ever comes up, start by being curious and asking questions about why the executive is giving that guidance. Likely this will expose important context (about the company, the market, or your success criteria) that you can take into account to improve your plan. Then you can continue to receive the organizational support needed in order to ship and support the product in market and achieve the ultimate goal of increased market success.
Ask the execs questions to find out what they know about the market and your product that makes them recommend a different direction than the one that you think it's right. Try to get on the same page as them on what is happening in your sector and what it means for your company and product. If you think that some of their knowledge is out-of-date or is not well aligned with the latest data, explain how you see the situation and why you think that your approach is the most beneficial.