The Most Common Planning Trap in Product Development
October 10, 2022

The Most Common Planning Trap in Product Development

by Brian de Haaff

Thinking vs. doing. Which is more important? Can you even have one without the other? It is hard to answer the first question since implementing an idea is what makes it a reality. Thinking is inherently important. But the second question is much easier. You can certainly “do” without deep thought beforehand. It is possible (tempting even), but it is usually ill-advised.

There is comfort in making a plan and completing what is on it. Setting the real purpose behind the plan is much harder.

Anyone who works in product development knows that building software is unpredictable. Whether you are launching an entirely new product or embarking on a major update to an existing one, there are always unexpected hurdles that pop up as the team works through the development process. You cannot anticipate every scenario. But you can create a plan for what you will do and how folks will get it done, updating it as you go.

I think this is why so many folks jump straight to putting a plan together. Maybe you have a loose set of objectives or some specific goals you know that the organization wants to hit. So you create a set of related activities that you believe you can complete with the resources you have available. And everyone feels good about this plan because it seems reasonable and achievable. Except, it is a trap.

The trap is this: A plan is not a strategy — strategic planning is not a plan or a strategy. But you need all three for building breakthrough software that people actually care about.

Many companies that are on the calendar fiscal year are deep in “strategic planning” right now. Around Q3 is when leaders usually get together and set goals and objectives for the months ahead. Functional teams put together a list of what they want to get done and what initiatives can support those higher-level efforts. Budgets are set, plans are built — everyone feels good about what is coming.

But all that effort is focused inward. A company creates its own goals, sets its own timelines, and manages its own resources. Looking outward is more vulnerable. How will what you build stand apart from every other offering? Will anyone want to buy it? Will it create value? That is strategic planning at its core and it can be intimidating to confront those questions.

This is more than semantics. Understanding the difference between the strategic planning process, strategy, and the plan itself is essential for all product builders who want to avoid the planning trap and instead build meaningful solutions to real customer problems:

Strategic planning

What will you do differently? Strategic planning is the process of defining your vision for success. People explore your theory and the logic behind it— what you will need to prove it true. This involves analyzing market and customer research. Leaders identify major efforts and the capabilities that the organization will need to complete those efforts. Positioning, goals, initiatives (themes of work), and a high-level roadmap are typical outcomes of strategic planning.


Who are you and how are you unique? Strategy is a set of assumptions and your vision, the synthesis of strategic planning. It is a belief the entire organization can embody — bold future-forward thinking centered around your approach to value creation. You cannot know for sure (which makes strategy a bit daunting for those of us who like to be right) that your theory will prevail. So as new information is learned, leaders may tweak the strategy as needed.


How and when will you implement your strategy? A plan is an explanation and visualization of all the above — focused on value creation. It is a timeline that lays out the schedule for the product development team. Building from that initial strategic roadmap, a comprehensive plan should include goals and initiatives and supporting work items (from specific features to go-to-market activities). There will likely be more than one plan, though. Teams often create different visualizations for different audiences and update to reflect progress as it happens.

Grounding yourself in strategy does not guarantee success — but it helps keep you focused on the broader purpose beyond reaching a specific metric.

The leadership team needs to ultimately confirm the specific strategy. But everyone has a role to play in strategic planning. Product development teams have a special responsibility here — because your work is so vital to the organization achieving that strategy. From championing new product ideas to choosing what to prioritize in the next release, a strategic mindset can help you get out of tactical thinking and make better decisions.

Link strategy to planned work with the world’s #1 product development software.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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