How to Ace the Strategy Product Manager Interview

If you find this article useful, get even deeper insights and tips in my No Fluff Guide to Product Management Interview — Insights from Direct Experience email series.

Let’s talk about how to tackle strategy questions in a PM interview. For most people, this is typically the hardest of all PM interview questions as they tend to be the most open ended and have the least obvious structure. In saying that, if you have been a strategy consultant in the past, this may come easier for you.

I found most strategy questions can be broken down into three broad structures. Please note while most questions fit into these three structures, strategy questions are designed to have you think on your feet, so be fluid and modify them to suit your needs.

  1. Pros and Cons list — the simplest
  2. Two by Two Matrix — moderate complexity
  3. The 5Cs : Company, Customer, Climate, Competition, Collaborators — the most exhaustive

Pros and Cons list is most valuable when you have a simple question requiring a binary decision or have limited time to give an answer. A question like “Should we build a mobile SDK?” or “Should we consider expanding to Africa?” could be answered well using this structure.

Two by Two Matrix is very versatile and can be used for different types of questions. One of my favorite questions I use it for is “Where should we expand to next?” It’s useful to split the columns by Market (current and new) and rows by customer (current and new). You can either expand your solution horizontally across to different markets or vertically and reach new customers segments. It is important to identify which markets and customer segments you can expand to and why.

The 5Cs is a very useful structure when the question is reflective of the past like “Why did Google build Chrome?”, or how questions like “How should we enter the productivity market?” For this type of analysis, you would need to ensure you have ample time as it is the most exhaustive of the structures. I modified the 5Cs to fit more with my mental model. Here it is in brief:

Mission/Goals/Competitive Advantage (Company) → Demand / Trends (Customer) → Threats / Opportunity (Competitors) → Suppliers/Channel Partners (Collaborators and GTM) → Regulation (Climate) if relevant

I always like to start with the company’s mission, what the goals are with this exercise and what’s our strengths and weaknesses. Here I’m trying to identify our competitive advantage with relation to our goal.

Then I like to understand the customer. I like to understand their key pain points and combine this with trends in the market that could either further amplify them or reduce them. There are different kinds of trends, and depending on the company and/or product, I would focus on demographic trends, technological trends or social trends.

Next I move into the competition where I do a threats and opportunities analysis of where we (the company) is with regards to the market. I mention the major 1–2 points for each competitor.

Finally I like to discuss our suppliers and channel partners. If this is a hardware business or one with a scarce supply chain this maybe the most important area to mention. If you’ve made this assessment, move it up in your discussion. You may also need to use this opportunity to think through potential distributors and go to market.

For some industries like biotech or finance, regulation is critical. If you’ve made this assessment, make sure to cover this and perhaps move it earlier in the discussion.

Conclude with your company’s mission and goal and state the most important points of differentiation and your assessment of market threats and opportunities with relations to your customer’s demand and trends.

Whichever structure you use, it is important to ensure you are using the MECE Principle (Mutually Exclusive Collectively Exhaustive) to breakdown your answer. MECE was developed by the McKinsey & Company in the 1960s and helps ensure you cover the entire space and do not double count anything. Since a lot of PM interviews are assessing your ability to think through the problem exhaustively this approach helps you show this skillset.

You maybe preparing to interview at only one company or only within one vertical space, but for strategy questions, it is important to be knowledgeable about an entire industry, and when possible, also adjacent industries. Some people do this by reading the latest tech industry news for example TechCrunch or Wired, or for biotech news Synbiobeta. While this is useful, I found it was not sufficient. I needed channels that had done the macro analysis and could make it easier for me to synthesize across verticals and industries. Stratechery or the podcast Exponent were excellent for this, as well as some Venture Capital investor’s thought pieces on an industry such as Andreessen Horowitz Biofund articles. CB Insights industry reports are also good and they used to give away more content for free. If you read widely, eventually the pieces do fall together.

The most important thing to do is read widely.

Overall, while strategy questions can be daunting, they are also some of the most fun as they allow you to share your big picture thinking and really differentiate yourself from other candidates.

If you found this article useful, find even deeper insights and tips in my No Fluff Guide to Product Management Interview — Insights from Direct Experience email series.

I’m a Product Manager at Google. I am also a Physician and have been a two time tech founder and a non-profit anti-poverty founder. Because I’ve switched fields so often, I’ve learnt to learn much faster and more in depth than most people. I wholly believe if you improve yourself by 1% every day, you get to be 37x better by the end of the year. And if you do that repeatedly for a few years, you get to be in your own league.

I love to build people, products and organizations. Sign up here on how to learn fast, synthesize information so that you get new insights and win only where you can win — being your most authentic self.

Build things that haven't been built before that are needed. Product Management @ Google. Physician. Cofounder @Seratis sold.