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 he was 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. Making decisions on the ground lets us adapt quickly when our great ideas turn out not to be so great after all.
Still, even the biggest fans of empowerment will concede that there is also value in strategic decision making. 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.
The thing is, 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 next tier, where there 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. As we said earlier, we as much as possible want decisions to be made by people close to the customer, business and technology. A miss on any one of those can be enormously expensive, especially if your organisation isn’t adept at failing well and pivoting quickly.
So if empowerment and focus are both important, then good strategy must be about balance. 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 are often made of missions, or objectives. Sometimes there will be one, sometimes several. Often the drafting process is long and torturous. I’ve found it useful to ask these questions of each such statement:
- Is there a lower level where this decision could be made, where people “know what they’re doing and what they’re talking about?” How much flexibility does this allow for in its execution?
- 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.