Good product strategy, bad product strategy

Humanity first landed a man on the moon fifty years ago, in July 1969, seven years after John F. Kennedy’s famous address in Houston, Texas. “We choose to go to the Moon,” he said. “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

There are lots of interesting takeaways from the Apollo missions that apply to doing hard things more generally. For example, hiring people that don’t know things can’t be done. Inventing new systems from first principles. Putting simplicity and reliability before other factors. Setting audacious goals.

One of the most vital of these takeaways is about delegation of authority. Here’s Gerry Griffin, an Apollo Flight Director talking on the subject in the brilliant 13 minutes to the moon podcast:

“We didn’t make decisions at the highest level possible. We shoved them down to the lowest level. Now, the Flight Director for instance had to understand the inputs they were getting. But everybody had their piece of the pie and we didn’t try to share it too much. We didn’t have time. Make decisions at the lowest level where people know what they’re doing and what they’re talking about, rather than elevating everything to the top.”

This will resonate with anyone who builds digital products. We might not be travelling to the Moon, but we do work at the intersection of several highly specialised disciplines, and with a large number of unknowns. Can we build it in a reasonable time? Will customers want it, and understand how to use it? Will anyone pay us for it?

Even our most educated guesses are usually wrong. Customers, technology and the market aren’t straightforward and our understanding is always incomplete. Empowering teams to make decisions on the ground with customers is our best shot at being wrong fast enough to eventually be right.

And yet, we also crave high-level, strategic direction. In so many companies, the absence of a clear “grand plan” is cited regularly as blocking progress. Whatever you think of it as an objective, there’s no doubting the power of the statement “We choose to go to the Moon.” Strategy is important because it helps us accomplish things beyond our capabilities as individuals or individual teams. Which is fun!

It’s nice and convenient to think of empowered teams and strategic direction as coexisting happily without any tension between them. It’s one of those unacknowledged spectrums we don’t usually look at, because it’s much simpler to say “we want empowered teams” and “we want strategic direction” without facing the fact that the two interact. In fact, understanding this interaction should be the starting point for drafting strategy.

The focusing power of a strategy comes from being specific and opinionated about what you’re going to do. “Grow revenue and reduce costs” is a crummy strategy, because it doesn’t rule anything out. It passes the whole intellectual burden of working out how to do that down to the participating teams and individuals, where there are likely to be many competing visions. Often the cost of no decision outweighs the cost of the worst decision on the table.

Equally, strategies that go the other way and over-specify are likely to make wrong assumptions, and leave insufficient room for empowerment. As Apollo Flight Director Gerry Griffin said earlier, we as much as possible want decisions to be made by people close to the customer, business and technology. Missing on any of those can be expensive, especially if our organisation isn’t great at being wrong fast.

So if we acknowledge these tensions between focus and empowerment, specificity and risk, how do we describe good strategy?

A good strategy focuses teams without disempowering them. It sets the minimum constraints needed to create focus, while making as few assumptions as possible. A good strategy leaves huge gaps for lower level plans to fill in, a bad strategy is complete. A good strategy does limit your options, a bad strategy leaves everything on the table to be discussed.

Strategies often boil down to a set of objectives, sometimes called “missions.” There might be just one big one, or a few. Big companies often have a whole grab bag of ’em for different business lines (good) or even functional areas (bad). Often the drafting process is long and torturous. I’ve found it useful to ask these questions of each such objective:

  1. Could this decision be better made closer to the customer? How much flexibility does this allow for in its execution?
  2. Does this help us focus our efforts, and reason about lower level plans? What types of decision does it help us make? What potential paths does it rule out?

The balance we choose between these factors will match our appetite for risk. Being vague requires little risk, since it creates little focus. Being specific requires high risk, since it creates high focus and so increases the cost of being wrong. (To be specific, risk is a function of specificity and time-to-pivot.)

Strategies for startups tend to have big assumptions in them. They are likely to believe they can prove something most people believe is already disproven, which is why they started the company in the first place. They are also likely to be tightly focused, since they do not have the capacity to hedge their bets. The overwhelming probability of being wrong in this scenario is what makes pivots so important. A danger large companies face is that they do have the ability to hedge, and have rarely had to learn the ability to pivot.

For some companies, it is better to be able to place big bets and be ready to disregard them. For others, the cost of turning the tanker means objectives need a longer shelf life. Both are understandable. Of course, in the immortal words of the Environmental Protection Agency: your mileage may vary.

Written by

product human. formerly @FT @CondeNast @theguardian

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