You might have heard this saying: “the more you advance in business, the more strategic you should aim”. What does that mean?.
Here was what I thought “being strategic” meant:
▪️Setting metric goals
▪️“Thinking outside the box” to come up with new ideas
▪️Working harder and motivating others to work harder
▪️Writing long documents
▪️Drawing graphs on a whiteboard etc.
As a result, I tried to do all of the above as best as I could. I brainstormed… wrote epic sweeping docs… familiarized myself with the language of KPIs (key performance indexes) and measurements… etc. Well, you could see how well I was doing.
Unfortunately, and as it turned out to be, I was doing the equivalent of strumming a guitar with the assumption I was making music. The core challenge was that I did not really understand what strategy entails. Nobody had helped explain it to me. I concluded within myself that “being strategic” was just engaging in high-level product discussions.
If you find yourself in the same boat as I was, this note is for you.
WHAT IS STRATEGY?
Basically, strategy is a set of actions designed to achieve a particular objective. It’s like a route designed to get you from Point A to Point B.
A more interesting question would be “what makes for a good strategy?” For that, I subscribe to Richard Rumelt’s definition which says:
“a good strategy is a set of actions that is credible, coherent and focused on overcoming the biggest hurdle(s) in achieving a particular objective”.
Let me attempt to simplify it with these points –
1. Achieving a particular objective: It should be clear what the outcome looks like.
2. Set of actions: There should be a concrete plan on how to to achieve the goal.
3. Credible and Coherent: The plan should make sense and be believable to accomplish the objective. There should not be conflicting pieces in the plan.
4. Focus on overcoming the biggest hurdle(s): There should be a clear diagnosis of the biggest problem(s) to be solved, and the plan should focus resources towards overcoming those hurdles.
Given the above definitions, let’s give recourse to my initial list of “strategic” actions:
Quoting Metrics or Setting Goals:
This is certainly a key part of strategy, but, it isn’t enough. You also need a credible plan. Saying “our strategy is to set more aggressive goals” is the equivalent of writing bigger checks without any real bank account tied to them.
Coming up with new feature ideas:
If you don’t know the problem you’re trying to solve, it doesn’t help to brainstorm a bunch of solutions. This is like blurting out an answer in jeopardy before hearing the question.
Working harder and motivating others to work harder:
Working hard is great. However, you must not confuse motion for progress.
To say that working harder is the answer to winning is like assuming thoughts and prayers can solve climate change. Wow!
Writing long documents:
This could be strategic, depending on the content. Beware of long, sprawling epics. Good strategies are usually kept simple and easy to be understood, because, executing a highly complex plan across dozens or hundreds of people tends to not always work well.
Frameworks can help explain concepts, but, they are not the plan. Having a good framework is likened to having a clear map. Yet, you still need to chart a path.
Drawing graphs on the whiteboard:
This might look impressive. Howbeit, it can turn out probably as a classic bad strategy – a lot of jargon and fluff, if it lacks real substance.
HOW TO BE STRATEGIC
With all of these awesome clarifications and pointers, a professional still might ask “What should I do to be strategic? Here is the secret three-sauce-task the young professional must engage in:
Create alignment around what wild success looks like –
This is self explanatory, yet, hard to do in practice. As a litmus test, ask yourself this:
Imagine your team is wildly successful in 3 years. What does that look like? Write down your answer. Now, turn to your colleagues and ask him or her the same question. When you compare your answers, how similar or different are they?
There shouldn’t be much difference since both members work on the same team. Yet, there are plenty of reasons they might be different. You might care about multiple outcomes or keep track of many goals. Which ones matter the most? What happens if they trade off against each other? And how does the success of your organization’s mission, or the success of your business factor in? If the answer isn’t clear to all the members on your team, there’s work to do.
Understand the problem you’re looking to solve for specific group of people –
Imagine, for kicks, that you’re looking to “transform the future of transportation”, What should you do? Your first instinct might be to start throwing out ideas e.g. ‘Flying cars!’, ‘Uber vehicles with Eames chairs!’, ‘Hyper loop to LA in 2021!’ etc. You would need to compose yourself.
ASK SOLUTION-ORIENTED QUESTIONS
Do you know what the problems are with transportation today?
Maybe you do. It might be easy to come up with a list, as there are a lot of problems such as traffic, affordability, safety, pollution, boredom, road networks etc.
What is the relative importance of each of these aforementioned problems? Which ones matter a lot, and which matter a little? For whom do these problems matter?
This leads us to the next few sub-points:
Understand the ecosystem around the problem. Problems don’t exist in a vacuum. It’s silly to start inventing with a blank slate. There are likely many other people out there who are obsessed with solving any visible problem. How are they approaching it? What’s being done well and what’s being done poorly? Which groups of people are getting ignored? Where are the opportunities for a better approach?
Understanding this problem also implies understanding your competition, and understanding the system(s) around which this problem exists.
Do your research and comparative analyses, jobs-to-be-done, audience segmentation, market sizing, etc. This work is what creates confidence in future ideas, and what gives one a framework to evaluate them.
Understand which problems suit your unique strengths (and weakness). You can’t solve every problem equally well, so, what problems can you solve better than anyone else? What are you or your team very good at, and what are your weaknesses?
When in doubt about the above, remember the wise words of Sun Tzu: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. (substitute “enemy for problems”, The Art of War).
Prioritize. And cut.
Prioritizing is super hard because most of us hate hearing ‘NO’. Imagine this scenario: A and B are debating which features to include in the next product launch. A thinks doing X is the most important while B disagrees and wants to do Y. What becomes the easy way out? Doing both X and Y, of course, yeah. In the end, no feelings are hurt. We get our cake and eat it too!
Remember: a good strategy is focused. Focus is a strategic advantage that lets you move faster on what matters most. That’s why a small start-up with dozens of employees can win against a big company of hundreds or thousands.
The more your plans get watered down trying to do lots of things, the less likely you are to have a competitive advantage. Either X is more important, or Y will be.
If you can’t figure it out, go back and research more to better understand the problem. The question to ask isn’t: “What more can we do to win?” or “How can we make sure none of the things we’re juggling are failing?” Instead, ask “What are the most important things we must do, and how can we ensure those go spectacularly?”
WHAT FOCUS REALLY MEANS
In conclusion, “People often think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on”. However, that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the other one hundred good ideas that there are.