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The 7 Signs of GIGO Strategy
It’s that time of year for many folks: annual planning cycle. For that reason alone, I’ve been thinking a lot about strategy. I also recorded a podcast recently (coming early Dec) where we tried to reverse engineer a product’s strategy from the public messaging around it. In that context, I’ve also been pondering why sometimes good intentions lead to bad strategies, and that’s what I’d like to explore today.
GIGO. Garbage In, Garbage Out.
Not an original take by me - I got it from Hiten Shah via Nathan Baschez (link below). His basic thesis is folks spend too much time on strategy frameworks and not enough time on strategy inputs. But what are the other reasons people fall into the GIGO trip when working on strategy?
Framework Focus - I agree with Hiten’s point about higher quality input producing higher quality strategy. But folks tend to over-index on the framework for the how the strategy will be articulated. As knowledge workers, I think we sometimes focus on the format because it’s less imposing; you’re not starting with a blank slate. It’s same reason we fiddle with the PowerPoint template instead of working on our talk track. But if the best thing about your strategy is how comprehensive the structure is (objective, principles, hurdles, metrics) then you have a problem. Where the framework does matter is communication; how does your audience absorb ideas and how does your company disseminate tactics?
Date Driven - This might be the planning cycle scars talking, but letting dates dictate things is silly (with strong shades of prioritizing output over outcomes). [Aside: every place I’ve ever worked folks about complained about annual planning, quarterly planning, financial planning, etc]. While (artificially urgent) dates can be the culprit, more than likely the deadline dread is really just masking a larger issue, which I’ll cover next…
Lack of Learning - Many product teams are hyper focused on volume and velocity of shipping and not stopping to think about what impact they’re having or what they’re learning. And I’m not referring to some nebulous learning - a product team that has learning rigor is actually actively, regularly better understanding target personas, competitive landscape, market adjacencies, user behavior, technology trends, etc. If a team has that handy, they have high quality inputs to feed into a strategy revamp, and no date pressure can affect that. Strategy is all about leveraging your learnings, which is hard to do if you have none.
Constrained Mindset - This is one I’ve actually been guilty of. So much of product success (or just survival) is learning to operate within constraints. But if you let that carry over to your strategy creation, you artificially reduce your optionality. If you over-index on how many developers are on the team or how hard it is to hire or how budget is tight or what your competition just announced or how the analysts scored your product, you paint yourself into a corner and limit your own potential. Good strategy leads to re-alignment, divestments, trade-offs, (hard) choices - you have to craft something that forces those conversations (vs assuming they’re not viable paths).
Functional Bias - It’s sad, but at a lot of companies the strategy is “the PM’s job”. The reality is a well-rounded team / pod / squad takes full advantage of the expertise of it’s various cross-functional members. It’s blasphemy, I know, but I’ll say it: PMs aren’t great at everything. Designers can interpret user behavior better. Analysts can interpret data better. Marketers can validate positioning better. Engineers can architect systems better. And the best PMs can stitch it all together, better than anyone. But PMs going into a room to “hash out strategy” is definitely an anti-pattern.
Seniority Bias - The only thing more dangerous than PMs deciding strategy in a functional silo is execs doing so in an echo chamber. When you are too far removed (from data, from customers, from technology, from usage) you over-compensate with pattern matching. But in a world with shifting markets / trends / behavior, pattern matching can let you down or lead you astray. In my view, execs are best suited to investment decisions, empowering teams, setting context, pressure testing, aligning orgs - but making choices in a product domain (which is the heart of strategy creation) is best left to those closest to the problem space.
South Star Metrics - I’ve written at length about this concept before, but when you don’t have a clear / correct north star metric, you’re basically running place (or perhaps backwards). The only thing more dangerous than focusing on output over outcomes is potentially going after the wrong outcomes. So much of strategy comes down trade-offs and tactics for how to move the needle as quickly and as completely as possible on the metric you’ve chosen; if you choose the wrong metric, you end up with quality input mis-directed (and still ultimately GIGO).
I’d love to hear from readers on how they fell into and climbed out of the GIGO pit - please chime in via comments👇. And if you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing.
further reading / references
Hiten Shah explaining the strategy formulation machine to Nathan Baschez
my public speaking tips don’t cover presentation template (by design)
framework bashing aside, I like V2MOM as a template (courtesy of Salesforce)
classic post by John Cutler on Feature Factories (where success theater reigns)
I’ve written before about PM Purists and Tweeners (and I have a clear leaning)
a thread (myself & Intercom’s product leader) on delegating product judgement
South Star Metrics (metrics mis-use to the point of counter-productivity)
childish drawing / interpretation