When I talk about strategy, particularly product strategy, and particularly to engineers, I like to start with a picture that looks like this:
My goal here is to draw their attention away from what usually comes to mind about planning and prioritizing: Which features are on the roadmap and which aren’t? Where’s that issue ranked on the backlog? Will this enhancement request make it into the next sprint? And so on, and so forth. Questions like these do of course matter. But when we’re focussing too much on tactics (and think that we’re “being agile” by doing so), we’re in danger of forgetting the big picture. Consequently, our products will start resembling a hodgepodge of bells and whistles, with seemingly arbitrary features attached here and there but lacking a coherent narrative. Customers und users will be confused, and thus have a hard time trusting that we’re on the same page as them. Our teams will miss clarity and direction and will, rightfully, complain that they’re unable to make any long-term decisions. So, we need something that can help us tackle more forward looking questions: Why are we actually doing this? What are we trying to achieve here? How will we know if we’re on track towards our objectives?
But strategy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A good strategy is built on top of principles such as a compelling vision, a motivating mission, and strong values. By this I don’t mean to downplay the value of strategy either, because that’s what ultimately connects abstract ambitions with concrete a plan for how to achieve them. But a strategy that’s not embedded in a larger context will inevitably feel hollow and weak. Take the Tesla Masterplan as an example: The clarity with which Elon Musk laid out what would ultimately become Tesla’s winning strategy is astonishing. Basically, the whole thing boils down to three bullet points:
- We’re building an expensive, low volume electric fun car (think Tesla Roadster).
- We’ll use the expertise and funds from (1) to create a medium price electric vehicle that can be produced at scale (think Model S).
- We’ll use the expertise and funds from (2) to bring a high volume, affordable electric vehicle to the market (think Model 3).
But this level of simplicity is only possible because it’s underpinned by a driving mission, namely to “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”. Or, in other words, to save the planet. And understanding this is just as crucial as understanding the strategy itself, because it provides an important layer of context: We’re not building an electric roadster so that a couple of millionaires have another gadget to show off. We’re not building mass market electric vehicles in order to make Elon the most wealthy man in history. We’re doing this because we want to have a positive impact on the future of humanity.
Most companies however don’t have quite such utopian ambitions, and employees typically show up at work for much more mundane reasons. Or, at least, the motivations that propel our organizations are more complex, more nuanced, and less pure. Therefore, leaders are faced with the tricky question to what degree they even want each individual to be familiar with every piece of the strategy and the principles behind it. Is all that involvement even worth the hassle?
Considering the countless decisions that everyone of us makes every day, particularly at work, even small deviations from the path that leads to our goals can be catastrophic. An engineer whose unspoken idea of the purpose of the company is “to make a bunch of money so the CEO can buy himself another yacht” will have a different relationship with the organization than one who’s familiar with why we’re here. The latter will inevitably make more conscientious day-to-day choices and they will have an easier time relating to, even controversial, management decisions. They will, for example, understand why it’s important for us right now to prioritize time-to-market over investing a clean architecture—or vice versa.
I consider it a core part of our job as (product) leaders to foster that common understanding. We have to translate complex strategies into concrete, actionable advice that provides actual guidence for our teams. But this is not a one way street: Creating a culture in which ideas and concerns originating at the grassroots level actually find their way up and are acted upon is at least as important as regular, clear, and compelling top-down communication. But for that to have any chance of happening, and to have any meaningful impact, the principles on which our products, our teams, and our organizations are built—including our values, our mission, and our vision—have to be fully transparent to everyone.