Strategy is now
Many mistakenly believe strategic thinking is about the future
How often have you made a decision thinking it was about the future?
Roadmaps are essentially a list of things we will do in the future. It is always just a few months (or years) away that strategic goals come to fruition. Some perfect future where everything is the way we want. If you believe this, you would be mistaken. They are artifacts that speak to what you are going to prioritize right now vs. what you are deferring decisions about until later.
Also, “strategy” and strategic thinking is considered to be a far future decision making model. The common mistake is to believe that if we just think hard or smart enough we will know what exactly will make us successful. This is related to a common fallacy of the product mindset.
Here is the problem: strategy is a model you apply only to today. There is no way to apply it to the future.
I’m sure you are saying something like: “this all makes sense in theory but it isn’t the reality of the world when we need to plan.” I’d ask, when you have pushed decisions to be so far in the future, how has that worked out? How often have you been right? Even if you came in on time, how much did you need to “cut” to make?
Read on and I’ll speak to why this is the case…
Data’s future value is unknown
First we should start with the fact that gathering perfect information is unlikely and costly.
In Douglas Hubbard’s great book How to Measure Anything, he makes the case that information becomes less valuable the longer you wait and more costly the more perfect it is. He recommends that you make decisions with high value measurements early on:
Then, if it’s a high value measurement, measure a little bit, remove some uncertainty, and evaluate what you have learned. Were you surprised? Is further measurement still necessary?
You may perceive these types of decisions as being now vs. the future but this isn’t the case. You are making a decision right now to act or to study. Everything collapses into this moment. The cost of more information continues to go up. There is no future.
Good strategy is about decisions today
I’ve thought a lot about strategy and the simplest definition for me is a model for the entire organization to make hard decisions easier. It is a model that you want everyone on your team to understand and believe in. The overall model may be constructed by the leadership of the organization. There may be a special version of it for each team. In the end it is about how you make a decision that is in alignment with the rest of the org even when the rest of the org isn’t in that room making the decision.
A top reason that strategies fail sighted in Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, by Richard Rumelt, is that no hard choices are made. Your strategy is trying to accommodate everyone and everything. It simply creates a lot of confusion for your team of what is important. You are pulling all of the work they could do into this current moment, which of course, doesn’t work.
You make decisions about resources today, not tomorrow
Another tricky “future” decision is one today around what resources will we assign to a team or some work. How do you decide the right level of that resourcing?
Would we bet the resources of a 10 person team? 2 person team? How much time do we want to give them before we revisit? This is because we aren’t betting on what is going to be valuable. We are betting we know the future. That is a bad bet.
Instead we should be making a decision today about what you are willing to bet this current work is important. This is the core of portfolio management and linking the goals you have with the people working on them.
Future decisions are option decisions today
You may decide to make a decision in the future but you are just deferring it. You are effectively optioning future states of the world by either making or not making a decision today.
A favorite way of thinking about future decisions is as options. This comes from Real Options which is explored in a graphic novel called Commitment: Novel about Managing Project Risk.
In this consideration of your options the question will be whether making a decision now closes off possible future directions in the future. You want to make a decision at the “last responsible moment” which will balance known risk, data, and uncertainty.
The strategy revisited
Let’s say you were building a new service for a future technology like augmented reality (I’ll hold off from calling this the “metaverse”). True mass adoption of the technology is still pretty far out and reliant on a lot of hardware development still to be done by major players.
How do you build a strategy? What are the key questions we should be asking and considering today?
Using the three components: 1) data we have now, 2) resource bets we can deploy now, and 3) options we should consider now.
The data we have now is that people augment their reality in a few different cases today:
- Maps on their phone rotate as they turn around to show them the way.
- Audio (and passthrough) gives people a soundtrack to their lives — or gives them directions in combination with the previous case.
- Notifications can tell people when they are near someone else they wanted to date.
We should leverage the behavioral data and quantitative study we can do for these cases.
Next, the resources we need to deploy are focused on how we understand our context in the world. What are the key components of the context we want to overlay on the world that we can develop data sets and functionality around today? This includes location, direction, view, etc. We need to get people working on the functionality that provides accurate and clean information to the rest of the system.
Finally, we know that there will be tools created by major hardware providers to overlay the world with information. How do we test what types of distractions or interruptions that people want in our particular use cases? Research on how people will react to your notifications via audio or haptic (phone buzzing) methods.
As you can see, there are many ways to orient our decision making to today without losing sight of the future we want.
Ground your decision making in today
Without the ability to make decisions today you will find that you defer most important decision making to the future. This is done all the time by product teams: roadmaps that go for years, backlogs that contain thousands of items, and belief that we will just get our break when the world changes to be more like what we want.
Strategy is decision making for the team. Make better decisions. Make strategic decisions today.