WTF is Strategy?
Also check out this piece I wrote for General Assembly on Product Vision!
“Strategy” — one of those words folks like to throw around to sound important. “We need a strategy…” or “what’s the strategy?” an executive may say. Everyone in the room nods in agreement. “Yeah, we need a better strategy.” Except half the room can’t describe what strategy is or how to get one.
Jokes aside, strategy is in fact very important.
For those who don’t constantly think about it or haven’t been exposed to a lot of it, strategy can often be confusing at best and intimidating at worst. Due to its abstract nature, strategy is also difficult to teach and impart on others.
(Negative) Impact of (the Lack of) Strategic Thinking on Teams and Individuals
Strategic thinking is often what sets senior members of a team apart from the junior folks. Within one’s career trajectory, I have observed that acquiring “strategic thinking” skills is among the greatest leaps (i.e. mental shifts) one undergoes.
For a Product Manager, you can get really good at the tactical stuff: requirements gathering, prioritization, sprint management. However if you can’t think strategically, you will be hampered when developing a long-term product vision, avoiding the feature factory, and getting executive buy-in on new product ideas. This can prevent you from becoming a Senior Product Manager or Product Leader.
On the flip side, if you are managing a team of relatively junior employees who lack strategic thinking skills, you will be left filling the gaps. This becomes a repetitive cycle of a) bearing the burden of developing 100% of the strategy for the group, b) validating (and even worse, second-guessing) everyone’s decisions, and/or c) reminding the team to get out of the weeds and see the forest for the trees.
I have experienced both the former and latter situations in my own work. In an effort to train and transform teams to be more strategic, I have developed a simple framework as well as the accompanying analogy and example to help bring more clarity and concreteness to this abstract concept.
Before we talk about strategy, it needs to be contextualized within a few other concepts primarily because strategy never exists (or shouldn’t exist) in isolation. Here are the high-level definitions of the different components from a product-centric view:
- Mission: This is a statement that describes the problem you are setting out to solve, typically including who you are solving it for. This is often set at the company level, but can also be defined for a product or product line.
- Vision: This is the idealized solution that addresses the problem you’ve articulated in your mission. A product vision typically has just enough viability to be relatable, but is still devoid of the details that may hamper your imagination. Product vision is also the goal post and rallying point for your product — it paints the picture of how your product will make an impact.
- Strategy: This is a set of principles and decisions — informed by reality (e.g. market forces, laws of physics, data) and caveated with assumptions — that you commit to ahead of development to ensure the greatest likelihood of success in achieving your vision. Your strategy may evolve with the introduction of new data. If there’s a big shift in strategy while the mission and vision remain constant, it’s called a pivot.
- Roadmap: This is the manifestation of your strategy in concrete steps towards your product vision, inclusive of rough milestones and timelines. This, too, often changes given new data. (As I like to say, a roadmap is defunct as soon as it’s published.)
- Execution: This is the day-to-day activities along the path of the roadmap. This is where you do the hard work to build, launch, and iterate, all the while collecting the necessary data to inform any changes in your roadmap and strategy.
As the gradient and size of the diagram above suggests, the mission, by design, is both vague and broad. The further down you go in the stack, the more concrete and narrow these concepts become.
Strategy within this framework bridges the gap between what you aspire to be and what you are doing.
In other words, strategy represents the set of guiding principles for your roadmapping and execution tasks to ensure they align with your mission and vision.
Still too vague? Let’s apply the framework to an analogy.
Let’s say you are planning a road trip. Here’s how each of the concepts above break down:
- Mission: Road trip across the continental US from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.
At this stage, you have a very high-level “problem” that needs a “solution,” but there are a lot of different ways to solve the problem.
- Vision: Drive a Subaru Forester from Portland, Maine to San Diego, California.
Now you have a clearer idea of what the road trip will be like. And with a bit of key descriptors like “Subaru Forester,” “Portland, Maine,” and “San Diego,” you can begin to paint a mental picture of the trip, making it relatable (e.g. in order to convince someone to join you on the trip). However, we’re still not quite ready to start driving.
- Strategy: Design a route that minimizes time in large cities and maximizes time around national parks. If possible, also try to save time and gas with the most direct route.
As you can see, strategies are decisions you make at the onset of your journey to structure your route, but you are also injecting constraints and preferences into the equation. As constraints go, you have limited resources (time, money for gas, etc.). As preferences go, you want to see the great outdoors (you’re in a Subaru Forester after all). With the analogy above, you have effectively prioritized your preferences over your constraints. Agreeing on the strategy up-front also allows you and your trip partners to discuss any future adjustments using a common baseline.
- Roadmap: This is your turn-by-turn directions, the literal map for your road trip route.
With the strategy defined, you can now plan your route with pretty concrete expectations of where you will be at any given point in time. This is also the point you get to choose what degree of detail you want to plan for — from the rough number of miles you want to cover each day (Agile velocity anyone?) to exactly where and when you want to have each of your meals. Note the more specific you are, the more likely you will have to adjust your plan.
- Execution: This is the actual drive for the road trip.
At this point, you’re using your roadmap as your guide and checking regularly to make sure you’re still on track. If something comes up during the drive (e.g. road closure due to snow), you can revisit and adjust your roadmap (take a detour), and perhaps add to or adjust your strategy as well (avoid smaller roads through higher-elevation areas, even if it takes us into a city).
Here’s an interesting point: you can absolutely start driving without a strategy. However, just like building a product without a strategy, you will spend way more time trying to find your way around, perhaps back-tracking, making a major decisions under time constraints, and getting into disagreements with your trip partners. Sure, some spontaneity could indeed be very fun and exciting. However, if you’re going on a trip without a strategy, you’re almost certainly going to end up incurring some costs down the road (pun intended).
Moving this framework back to the product world, I want to provide a relevant and concrete example using Tesla. I choose Tesla because a) Elon Musk is rad, b) Musk and Tesla have been unusually public and transparent about their strategy, and c) Tesla is a rare example of a company that has followed-through on their strategy with execution that is down to the “T” (pun also intended). This puts them into a godly territory that is almost difficult to believe.
- Mission: “Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport.” (This was recently updated when Tesla merged with SolarCity.)
- Vision: To summarize, Tesla’s vision is to reduce vehicle carbon emissions through the advent of electric vehicles.
- Strategy: This is the famous “Master Plan:” 1) build sports car, 2) use that money to build an affordable car, 3) use that money to build an even more affordable car, 4) while doing above, also provide zero emission electric power generation options, and then finally 5) don’t tell anyone.
You can see the strategy Tesla and Musk developed has some constraints built into it: a) costs/risk of product development and b) product cost vs. adoption. Musk knew he needed to proof viability (MVP) with a small, costly, and niche electrified Roadster. However, the Roaster would only need to generate enough revenue to carry-on with the mission and vision, plowing all the revenue back into the company to make progressively more affordable and mass-market vehicles.
The Rubber Meeting the Road
You may ask: who does all of this work? Depending on the level you’re at, you may have done many or most of these activities already. Here are some typical examples of folks who work on these components:
- Mission: CEO, VP of Product, Executive Team, Board
- Vision: VP of Product, Director of Product Management, Senior/Lead PM
- Strategy: VP of Product, Director of Product Management, Senior/Lead PM, PM
- Roadmap: Senior/Lead PM, PM, maybe Associate PM
- Execution: Senior/Lead PM, PM, Associate PM
If you are a PM and you lack either visibility or alignment into the mission of the company or the vision for the product, it is an imperative you either develop one yourself and get buy-in, or ask for leaders within your organization to articulate them.
That said, unless you’re very early in your career, you should always be striving to think strategically.
I hope this has been a useful primer for those who are new to strategy!
For those who are well-versed in strategy, I also hope this gives you a structure that ties your experiences together and allows you share this with your teams and colleagues as a means of achieving shared vocabulary.