When Ross Webb invited me to talk in his podcast, ‘The Product Coach’, he asked me what I would want the episode to focus on. It was clear to me that there is a challenge that every single product leader worldwide is dealing with these days, and it is the necessity to redefine and adjust their product or business strategy, and do it fast. Really really fast.
How and where to start from? listen to the full interview here.
For those of you who asked me lately how to create a new strategy so the entire company can move together in the right direction, here are a few ground rules to help you run a strategic process quickly.
Plans Are Useless, but Planning Is Indispensable
Your strategy, especially if done quickly but not only because of that, will change. Still, it is the best strategy you have based on what you know now, and just by working on it you will know much more and have a much more thorough understanding of your business and what it takes to succeed.
Don’t worry about making it perfect. It won’t be, even if you had all the time and no matter how hard you tried. You’ll need multiple iterations anyway, and you’ll need to adjust it as you go regardless of how you start. The important thing is that you don’t skip it. Work with what you have to help everyone make important decisions smartly.
Start With the Goals
As with the famous Alice and cat quote, if you don’t know where you want to go, it doesn’t matter which route you take. That’s true regardless of how quickly you define it. Understand what is the goal of your (new) strategy so that you can build the right path to get there.
In my strategic roadmap guide I said you should always start with a business goal, and state it as clearly as possible. If it’s unclear to you – ask around. Understand how the CEO sees it, and write it down as if it was your own.
It is important to align on the goals and the assumptions made as part of them, before you can think of any new strategy, because even if you create the perfect strategy but for the wrong goal, it won’t really help you. In many cases you will find out that different people are not seeing it the same way as you do, or they simply didn’t really think it through. By outlining the goals as you see them, you are helping all the decision makers in the company think.
You won’t always get all the answers, so you’ll need to complete the gaps yourself. Try to make it as logical as possible, even if some of what you are writing are your own assumptions. By stating them clearly you will be able to create new levels of alignment.
If you have more than one goal, make sure they are prioritized. For example, you might say that you want to focus on growth now, and profitability later. You can claim that the first priority is retention of existing customers, then growth within these customers (because that’s what seems more feasible given the current market), and then adding more customers like them.
In your alignment with the company management, priorities should also be agreed on. One of the outcomes of your new strategy is that everyone would be working together toward the same goal, otherwise you cannot succeed.
Keep in mind the goal isn’t necessarily quantitative or quantified. Softer goals can also help you, and are easier to craft in a quick process. 80% of the value with 20% of the effort.
Limit yourself to 1-2 pages of the strategic story, and simply write them. Give yourself a timebox for it (~90 minutes should do). Don’t worry about doing it right, but make sure you do it. If there are things you don’t know, or you feel some gaps are unhandled, write down the gap as part of the story.
For example, let’s say that you are building a system to help eCommerce companies deliver a personalized shopping experience. Your strategic story might include something like “shoppers develop a stronger relationship with brands that they feel understand them. [need a more tangible and measurable value here]. With our product, shoppers see only what’s relevant for them [make sure it’s a good thing and doesn’t impact revenue]”.
Writing it this way is much easier and quicker than nailing down all the details at once. The first draft already gives you something to work with – even with the gaps listed as part of it.
Keep It Simple
In an attempt to ensure that we really consider everything there is to consider, we often over complicate things. We try to create something that will optimize everything possible, and that, of course, is bound to fail.
If your strategy is too complicated, it most likely won’t work anyway (either because it is more volatile and you probably overlooked something that might be critical, or because so many things have to work exactly right to make it happen that the odds are not in your favor).
Choose one, good, happy path, and create your strategy around it. If it’s too easy, you’ll complete it quickly and then can take on the next challenge from a better starting point. From my experience, it’s never that easy. Even the simple paths are more complex than meets the eye.
It is often hard to keep things simple when you are immersed in the details. Force yourself to “forget” everything you know about the product, and look at it from an external perspective.
To quickly identify the happy path, make any assumptions you want (as long as they are stated as assumptions, and are plausible). You will have time for compromises and constraints later on, but you want to make sure that at least without constraints you found a good path.
It is easier to make adjustments to an existing (ideal) plan than to build a coherent end-to-end story from all the details and constraints you have.
Conduct your Research, Quickly
You know more than you think
As product leaders, we are trained to constantly validate what we think with the market. We constantly question ourselves. It’s a great practice, but it shouldn’t be taken to the extreme.
Working on a product (and with the market) for some time, you have most likely gained a good knowledge of it. You can (and should) use it. This is true, by the way, also for strategic processes that are not operating under a tight schedule. The market alone won’t tell you your strategy, you have to process the knowledge you gained and make sense of it anyway.
Google knows more than you think
In places where you don’t feel certain about your knowledge, and would normally go to talk to customers or run surveys, there is often a lot of public information that you can use. It won’t always be exactly what you want, but if you know which questions you want to be answered, it is much easier to find the evidence you need.
For example, if you are not sure how big a certain problem is, you can look for surveys that other companies or research institutes have already run which might contain the relevant information. If you want to know if a certain topic is important enough for the decision-makers in your customers’ business, newspaper interviews with such people might include quotes that indicate how they see the problem.
Know When to Stop
Any strategic process requires to move back and forth between the bigger picture and the details, to make sure they tell one coherent story. It is like a sine wave, where the amplitude becomes smaller with each iteration until eventually, it all makes sense.
The 80-20 rule plays nicely here too: when the wave is still in place, but the amplitude is already smaller, you start getting a good sense of where it will land eventually.
In a quick strategic process, you will most likely stop at this point and use this strategy to make decisions that are due. It is probably good enough, assuming everyone understands that the sine wave is still there and might impact some of your outcomes in the future.
Take the time to set this expectation with everyone relevant – from the CEO to the developers, so that when you need to change things you will be able to do so with less friction.
Stating clearly that in order to move fast you needed to make decisions with missing information (ideally explaining which information you are missing), goes a long way in getting everyone aligned – both on the strategy itself and during execution.
You’ll find more examples and insights in my interview with Ross Webb. You’re welcome to listen to our chat on his podcast: ‘The Product Coach’. click here.