Everyone and their dog nowadays seem to be working on “strategies.” However, virtually none of the startups I work with have a clearly defined strategy. Instead, they often suffer from a complete disregard for long-term vision (“We’re a startup, who knows?!”), or they think they’re strategizing when in fact, they’re merely coming up with partial work plans. This creates a void in your organization. And as we’ve learned in high-school physics, this void then creates a pressure that’ll end up vacuuming other stuff to fill it up. You can, as a leader, make things better.
The Strategy Abundance
You might be wondering what the heck I’m talking about. You have your “tech strategy” laid out, right? This, however, is one of the first things that seem to get sucked in by the void—the nano strategies. As I’ve written in the first chapter of Capitalizing Your Technology, you don’t need a “tech” strategy. These siloed strategies, where each executive comes up with something of their own, is a telltale sign that the company’s missing a grand unifying strategy from which everything else should derive.
Having tech, sales, and marketing strategies means your efforts will be too disconnected. You should be aiming to serve one big goal. As we’ve learned that cross-functional teams seem to operate better and have to capacity to get things done faster and end-to-end, so should your strategy be aligned with creating these teams.
Another way to quickly spot strategy-deficient teams when I start ￼working with them￼ is to see how often they change their minds. There’s only so much you can explain by the volatility of startups. Much of the capriciousness we’ve learned to accept is based on not knowing where we’re headed.
A good strategy should supply you with a sort of armor. It shields you from FOMO and constantly doubting what you’re doing. It allows you to say “no” to the shiny object du jour. It is not merely a grocery list of lukewarm improvements to do when you get the time to do it (and, be honest, isn’t that what too many tech strategies are?).
Similarly, without a good strategy, you’ll see your team focusing more and more on tech for tech’s sake. The engineers will drift more toward the tech end of the tech-product continuum. Teams that go on and on about lowering tech debt and refactoring things instead of coming up with innovation or new value generally suffer from this.
It is not because they only care about tech stuff. More often than not, I find that this is the only outlet they find to feel like they’re doing something worthwhile and using their creativity. A good strategy should help ensure that the path of least resistance is also one that benefits the business.
Lack of Urgency
The opposite is also possible. Instead of the team trying to come up with things to do, they might realize that what they’re doing has low business impact and therefore lose steam. Even if what you’re doing is impactful, sometimes not having a clear strategic explanation that shows why what you’re doing makes sense leads to deteriorated motivation.
People shine and utilize their potential when given enough context and freedom. This context should be about more than the current iteration’s scope or a task list for the quarter.
Fill the Void
So, what can you do to formalize your strategy? First, stop using your nano-strategy and talk to your peers in the executive team about the significance of a strategy and about forming it. A good strategy should encompass considerations of what’s happening in the market and the world, how you will react (or leverage) to these changes when they happen, and what you are specifically not going to do.
Just like useless company “values” that don’t mean anything because “do our best” could be applied to any company in the world, a useless strategy is one that doesn’t have any constraints. Good values should help signal out people who are not a match for your company. A good strategy should help signal out possible courses of action that are just distractions. If you want to create a strategy that will propel your team forward, talk to me.