Real Time Strategy
I don't consider myself a very strategic person.
Tactical maybe, but not strategic.
That's not to say that I don't have a bigger picture inside my head, because surely I must? How else would I make meaningful progress on things over the long term?
But I'm no good at crystallising and communicating that sort of thing.
And that's a problem, because strategy is important.
It's especially important when you're leading a group of people, because you can't do everything yourself.
So, last quarter I tried to make a strategy for my team. Something that they could rally around and which clearly marked a destination and the major stepping stones along the way.
I did not succeed.
Let's start from the beginning.
I didn't really know what a good strategy looks like, so the obvious first step was to try and understand that. I've seen plenty of strategies in my professional life, but I'm not sure if I've ever seen an effective one.
To me, a strategy is a big plan. It clearly identifies a goal or target of some sort and then a series of steps or actions that should be taken in order to get there.
But that's pretty vague.
So, I read a book called Good Strategy, Bad Strategy to see if I could get a better understanding of what it takes to make a good strategy. I mean, it's right there in the name!
It was a pretty good book and I recommend it, but I'm not sure if it actually helped me to be more effective at creating a strategy. It's filled with really interesting stories and anecdotes though, which help contextualise the core content.
From the books point of view, the kernel of a good strategy consists of three things:
- A diagnosis, defining or explaining the nature of the challenge
- A guiding policy, describing a way of dealing with the challenge
- A set of coherent actions, describing a way to carry out the guiding policy
Sounds simple, right?
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Luckily for me, I didn't have to create a strategy entirely on my own. I had help.
Specifically, I had a product manager available who knew a lot more about creating a strategy than I did. As a result, I mostly just went along with their approach and aimed to add as much value as I could throughout the process.
As we were working together, I came to the conclusion that we were actually trying to create two different strategies.
The first was the team strategy, which was the one that I was picturing in my head at the start. Something that I could share with my team to give them an idea about where we wanted to go and how I thought we might go about getting there.
The second was a product strategy. This was the one that the product manager was picturing, unsurprisingly. The product in this case being the thing that we wanted to provide to a set of customers in order to solve a problem for them, a problem that was related to our core domain.
Both of those things are valuable, and the product strategy is an important part of the team strategy, but it's not the entirety of the team strategy. It's a subset.
We narrowed our focus to the product strategy and pushed forward.
We didn't get that far.
That's not to say we didn't get anything useful, because we did.
We spent a bunch of time exploring and documenting the capabilities that the product would supply to its potential users, and those capabilities have been incredibly useful in follow-on conversations.
But we didn't get much else.
No real clear diagnosis of the problem space, no real guiding policy and no set of coherent actions.
It almost feels like we spent too much time trying to understand what the product was going to be. It's definitely an important question to answer, but should it be answered while creating the strategy or as part of its execution?
It might have just been that creating a coherent strategy takes a lot of time and effort. I think we spent less than eight hours in total, and that doesn't feel like nearly enough to get something like this into a good state.
From my point of view, I definitely procrastinated. I repeatedly chose to do an assortment of other things that were easier to handle mentally.
Wrangling uncertainty is a place where I consistently struggle.
Give me a structure or something similar to follow and I'm relentless, but put a blank canvas in front of me and I falter, second-guessing myself and suffering from all sorts of analysis paralysis.
That hesitation to do a vague thing is definitely something I should improve on, but other than being more disciplined and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, I'm not sure what I can actually do.
I'm not actually sure what this blog post is trying to say.
But maybe that's accurate anyway, because I'm still confused about how to create a good strategy, and at the end of the quarter I really only have the ephemeral shadow of a product strategy and bugger all in terms of a team strategy.
I'm not going to give up though, because I can see that the team needs to have access to a bigger picture in order to understand why we do the things that we do and how it's leading to something greater.
So, I'll try to fight through the uncertainty and discomfort that I feel and give it another shot.
After all, a strategy doesn't have to be perfect, and it certainly isn't set in stone the moment that it's created.
Or at least it shouldn't be, because that sounds like a great way to fail spectacularly.