Product Strategy Lessons From Dr. House

Product strategy is one of the most important responsibilities of the product leader. It’s also one of the hardest. To succeed, you must be almost obsessed with it. Here are a few guidelines that will help you do so.

Many years too late, I am now binge-watching Dr. House for the first time. It’s an awesome series to watch with my husband. Short enough to fit at the end of a long day with the kids, light enough for proper escapism and rest for a busy mind, and interesting enough one episode at a time.

Since every episode is a riddle, my husband and I try to solve it as we are watching it. However, despite the fact that I have much more medical experience than him (20 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy have to count for something!), we can hardly solve any medical mystery. So we focus on the beginning and the end of each episode: When we see the opening, we try to guess who is going to get sick, and at the end, we try to guess how it would be resolved.

Our stats are not that good but the game is fun and makes watching TV with my husband much more interesting.

Unlike us, Dr. House is obsessed with solving these medical puzzles time and again. It’s far more important for him to get a diagnosis than to save the patient’s life. 

When you think about it, product strategy is a bit like a diagnosis. The process sure is diagnostical: You have to look at reality with as broad a perspective as possible, understand what you see, and come to conclusions accordingly. 

It’s a fine-balanced game between the details and the bigger picture.

When looking for a medical diagnosis, in most cases, there is a correct answer. There is an objective truth where the person either has or doesn’t have a certain disease or condition. The doctors might not know it at first, but once they have a hypothesis it can be tested, and even if it can’t within the specific deadline (in our case, mostly since the patient is deteriorating too quickly), there is some way to know if it’s true or not.

With product strategy, there is no objective truth out there. Our job as product leaders is not to find the correct answer. But there still are things that distinguish a good product strategy from a bad one.

A good product strategy takes into consideration everything that we do know about the world and about our company and product. There are still many other things that are unknown or will be learned later on as we start working according to the strategy we defined, but we still must address the things we do know.

Like in Dr. House’s example, a good product strategy is an end-to-end story that doesn’t contradict the things that we do know. There is a reason and reasoning behind every statement in it.

So despite the differences, there are things one can learn from Dr. House about building a solid product strategy. Being obsessed with finding a good answer is one of them. Here are the rest.

A Full Description of Reality

A good product strategy needs to work with reality, not against it. To be able to build one, you must look bluntly in reality’s eye.

Dr. House keeps a list of symptoms on a whiteboard and keeps updating it as some disappear or become irrelevant while new ones emerge.

In our world, the “list” of reality usually can’t fit on a whiteboard, as there are many factors that impact our decisions. It also can’t only include the things that we know for a fact, because at first much of what we know is hypothetical. 

When you start working on your product strategy, Instead of a whiteboard you need a document, and instead of symptoms, you need statements that you know, think, or believe are true.

It can be a bullet points list that includes your assumptions and past learnings.

Like Dr. House, you need to keep updating this list as you move along. Revisit it at least once a quarter once done, but initially, as you are building it, you should revisit it at least once a week. Many of these statements would need to be refined based on new things you learn. Usually, every word counts if you want it to be helpful.

Insights, Not Just Facts

The symptoms listed on Dr. House’s whiteboard are facts. They exist because objective tests revealed them. But the entire purpose of Dr. House’s team is to understand what these symptoms are telling us. The symptoms are clues, and the answer lies elsewhere.

Similarly, when you build your product strategy, you will have many facts or assumptions listed in your document. But these statements are not the strategy. The strategy will begin to emerge when you understand what these facts and assumptions are telling you.

Once you have your list, take a step back and ask yourself what does it mean? Why does each line here matter?

This will most likely lead to insights deeper than the ones you had up until now, about what matters more than other factors, what choices you can and cannot make, and what distinguishes a good customer from a “meh” one. 

Like Dr. House who works with a team and brainstorms ideas, this is a good phase to work on together with someone else. Let them at least ask the questions I mentioned above, so you can answer by revealing insights that were blind spots up until now.

A Single Story That Connects All the Dots

This is the hardest part for Dr. House and his team: to find a single story that explains all the symptoms that they see. In a minority of the episodes, there are multiple sources for the full list of symptoms, so the answer is sometimes that the patient has a certain disease that explains some of the symptoms and an unrelated one that explains the rest.

With product strategy, you can’t afford to have two stories.

You must find a single story that connects all the dots together, leaves no contradictions, and leads you one step after another with a reasonable explanation of why potential customers should buy your product (that is, why it’s good for them and not just for you).

And that’s where it gets complicated. Many times, this story is not easy to find. It’s not like a math exercise where you need to follow a certain method and you’ll get to the correct answer.

For the right answer to emerge, you must be willing to live within uncertainty and unclarity for much longer than you normally feel comfortable with. Everything (and sometimes everyone) you know will tell you that you must decide already and move on. But you need to follow Einstein’s famous quote that says “If I had one hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution.”

Defining a good strategy that answers each and every constraint you have takes time. Remember that had it been easy they wouldn’t need you for it, it would have been obvious for everyone.

Take the liberty to iterate on it until it makes sense and no detail is left unhandled. You must obsess about it, at least a little bit.

Try It Out

Sometimes, Dr. House and the team can’t tell which theory is correct among the few that they have and can all explain all the symptoms. In many cases, they don’t just test for the disease because that takes too long. Instead, they try the treatment and see if it helps.

In our world, you should also test your strategy and see if it works. Once you have a story that you believe in, start telling it to people.

At first internally, and then start talking about it with potential and existing customers, and see their reactions.

A good strategy would move them emotionally, not just analytically. And it’s not because you talk about emotions. It’s because you are able to describe their most painful problems in a way that resonates with them.

If when you share your product strategy with potential customers you get polite answers, you should know you are not there yet.

Keep iterating and trying your strategy until it clicks. Don’t worry about it fitting into a 40-minute episode. You just need a good editor for that later on 😉

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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