When the CEO Has a New Product Idea

CEOs have product ideas all the time. It’s a legitimate component of their ability to lead. But how can you lead the product if the CEO gives very specific guidance? The answer lies in making yourself their thinking buddy. Here is how to do it.

S. is the Director of Product in one of the companies I am guiding. A while ago he presented the product strategy for a new product they were working on to the CEO.

I first heard about the new product a few months beforehand, when we started working together. In our first meeting, S. told me that the CEO wanted to go down that path (of the new product), and the launch date was already set.

When I started asking the strategic questions like why this is the right thing to do, what they are hoping to achieve with it, etc., S. didn’t have all the answers. He also told me that when he asked the CEO the exact same questions, he didn’t get a clear answer.

S. didn’t feel very comfortable with the situation, but he was still expected and committed to moving forward with the new product, so he got right to work.

In our work together, I did what I always do with my clients –  we worked on finding the answers to these strategic questions (typically without the CEO’s direct involvement). We outlined the fundamental assumptions behind this product as we understood them, and connected the dots into one coherent story, explaining where we were going with this product and what results the company could expect from it. After a few iterations (including market feedback, research, and a number of other things we did in between) we felt the product story was ready, and to our knowledge, there were no missing links.

It took us a while to get there, but eventually, it was a perfectly logical story. The product strategy was fully backed by either facts coming from market research or specific assumptions that needed further validation and were declared as such.

Finally, S. had a good feeling about this new product, with a good understanding of its value proposition and where it was going to help the company (and also where it was limited). All of these were laid out explicitly to align everyone at the company on the strategy.

The big day arrived and S. presented the strategy to company management. It was a good meeting. People mostly agreed with what S. presented (because it made sense, remember?). Some of them argued with specific points, which were now discussed openly and not left in the dark for anyone to understand later as they saw fit.

After S. presented, the CEO’s response was: “Well, I heard nothing new here.

Sounds familiar? What would you do in that situation?

While I personally think that this is a great situation to be in, here is what you need to know in order to navigate it professionally.

You Are Not Doing It for the CEO

Think about it :  S. put so much effort into making sense of what the CEO said initially. He spent the time to find the answers to all of the critical and non-trivial product questions, in alignment with what the CEO said but without getting further guidance from him. He took the CEO’s general guidelines and formed a clear strategy around them. From the product perspective, there was a lot of “new stuff” in there.

But the CEO couldn’t see it.

Still, after the meeting, S. told me that the fact that he got the CEO’s blessing on the strategy  –  even if the CEO himself didn’t see anything new in it and thought it was obvious  –  meant the world to him.

He could now use this strategy both internally  –  for example with marketing and engineering  –  and externally with customers, partners, and even investors.

Moreover, the alignment achieved across the management team was definitely new, and had a tremendous impact: it ensured everyone involved will now operate in the same direction  –  which is the only way to take the company to where it needs to be.

All CEOs Have Product Ideas

S.’s story is not unique. I see it time and again with the CEOs and product leaders I coach.

All CEOs have ideas about where their products should go, or which products the company should create. It makes sense  –  that’s a natural part of their leadership. Some of them do it more often and more bluntly than others. However, all of them typically only outline their ideas at a high level and are happy with dots connected only at that level.

Product leaders are struggling with this paradigm. We all know that to reach product-market fit with any product, you should listen to the market and build the product accordingly. Coming from an idea the CEO had, seems almost unprofessional.

But let’s not throw away the baby with the bathwater. The fact that the CEO has an idea that he can’t or doesn’t take the time to fully explain, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea. These ideas often come from strong intuition developed after talking regularly to a variety of stakeholders and ongoing touchpoints with the market the product is meant for.

In a perfect world, it would be the CEO’s job to outline their ideas more clearly, explain why they make sense, take them to the next level of detail, and make sure their team understands why this is the right thing to do.

In the real world, most CEOs can’t do that  –  but product leaders can. In many cases, however, product leaders don’t see it as their job  –  and that’s a fundamental mistake.

Without doing it, product leaders are left in limbo  –  on one hand, they are expected to move forward with the product as dictated by the CEO, but as product professionals, they don’t (yet) agree with this direction or even understand it. They are left with their frustration and a feeling that they lack real decision power, and moreover  –  don’t know how to proceed to the next steps. 

From the CEO’s perspective at this point, nothing is happening despite the clear guidance they gave the product leader, and they don’t understand why. They are also frustrated and often disappointed. This type of interaction can lead to mutual distrust which cannot always be fixed.

From Idea to a Successful Product

As a product leader, it is your job to build the product strategy. Product strategy typically takes the high-level, general ideas the CEO has and gives them roots. It takes them to the next level of detail, providing a market-validated interpretation of the high-level story, where all the dots are logically connected and the end-to-end product story makes perfect sense.

It is not a trivial task. Building a solid product strategy means opening up many questions that don’t have clear answers. It involves a lot of research  –  both from public sources and from talking directly to potential customers and stakeholders, and it requires several iterations to get all the pieces to fall into place.

Because building it is not trivial, when the product strategy is ready it is actually a very powerful document. As in S.’s case, it helps to align everyone on where you are going and creates open discussions on the hard questions that are otherwise left aside. It creates better products  –  the ones that the market really needs and customers love, and it doesn’t include a single word about the specific features the product will include.

When the CEO hears it and says there is nothing new here, it actually means you are aligned and all the details make sense to them. It also usually means that they want even more details, like specific dates and product features. That’s an important next step  –  but don’t be tempted to go there without a solid product strategy.

Product leaders  –  start owning your product strategy. No one else can do it for you. Share this article with your CEO and discuss with them how they see it.

CEOs  –  give your product leaders the time to digest your ideas and take them to the next level of detail. Don’t push them to immediately discuss features and dates until they see the bigger picture and fully understand the product’s value proposition. Let them help you think.

What if you don’t agree with the CEO’s idea?Most CEOs I know would be happily convinced that their ideas are not worthwhile, but only after you made a genuine attempt to build a solid product strategy around them which proves otherwise. Without this attempt, it remains an empty discussion about who’s right, and often only creates noise and frustration on both sides.

Our free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you

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