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Leading at speed and digital strategy

Why product leaders need to balance short term wins and long term vision

Marc Sendra Martorell, Unsplash

When markets can shift, change and disappear overnight, staying ahead becomes a constant race to a moving finish line. But it’s not just about speed. Being the fastest mover certainly gives you an edge, but speed has to be balanced. Product leaders need to focus on long term strategy alongside short term, incremental gains, ensuring that all initiatives align to a central vision.

Think about Mo Farah. He doesn’t win races by being the fastest person on the track — he wins by running the best race. That means knowing which lap he is on and what his capabilities are. It means watching what his competitors are doing, but not being distracted by their race. It’s judging when to make a move and break from the pack, and when to hold back. He has to be present in the race, and simultaneously think about the final lap.

Embracing agility means getting your preparation right, understanding your potential and your limitations, and judging when to move and when to hold. It’s a constant balance between short term wins and long term vision.

Leading at speed

We’re surrounded by business leaders who recognise the need to fail fast and want to lead at speed, all the while being continuously distracted by interruptions, notifications and fire fighting. The day-to-day pressure to prioritise immediate tactical activity over long term thinking can be debilitating and pose a significant threat to fulfilling the big picture vision.

Anyone founding a business or leading a team will know that you’re often expected to know the answer and make the right decision on the spot. But making decisions impulsively is a dangerous game.

I’m reminded of the fox & the hedgehog fable. The clever fox, the intuitive thinker, flexible and responsive, has lots of ideas and can flex as needed based on the scenarios he finds himself in. The hedgehog focuses on one long-term vision, determined to achieve a single goal and never veering off track.

Product leaders need to fulfil both of these roles, planning and executing simultaneously to keep pace with the market. It’s about being flexible and responsive as new challenges, immediate threats and opportunities present themselves, whilst also far-sighted enough to keep the ship on course.

The fact is that strategy and execution can no longer be tackled separately or compartmentalized. The pressures of digital mean that you need to adapt both simultaneously and iteratively to succeed.

McKinsey, Why digital strategies fail

Moving at pace

According to McKinsey, ‘the top economic performers set, execute and adjust their digital strategies at a faster frequency than everyone else.’ Annual strategy and planning sessions run with a set it and forget it mentality will no longer cut it, even for the largest of organisations. Recent research found that leaders at top performing businesses, ‘were operating at a four-times-faster pace of decision making. They assess customer data and preferences monthly, if not weekly, to inform their next product release or redesign experience.’

To move at pace, product leaders need to approach strategy as an always-on initiative, evaluating, reviewing and adjusting frequently. Continually evaluating your strategy at regular intervals makes it much easier to pivot and adjust whilst in-play compared to waiting for an annual event to review what’s working and what isn’t.

Often, that requires making decisions based on good enough information, rather than waiting for perfect data sets. Personally, I aim to make decisions, cautiously, based on 60-70% of the information I have to hand, and then try to find a reason not to go with my answer. Often people assume that not making a decision quickly enough shows uncertainty, and that can sometimes be the case, but getting to the right answer isn’t easy. And it certainly isn’t always quick.

Act on “good enough” insights. Good data are crucial for good decisions, but growth leaders value speed over perfect insights. They don’t wait for perfect data. Instead, they use the data they have to make a thoughtful decision, pursue it vigorously, and then reevaluate based on results.

McKinsey, Are you a growth leader?

For large companies, especially, it’s easy to get caught up in the sunk cost fallacy, and to think that because a particular tactic has worked up until now, it will continue to do so in the future. It’s much more efficient and effective to course correct whilst en-route than to wait 12 months and find you’re not where you expected to be — or, worse, that your destination is no longer relevant because the needs of your customers have shifted dramatically during that time.

Successful companies, Forbes claims, ‘don’t get complacent with their current model, even if it appears to be working’, but instead continually re-evaluate their processes, products and business models.

Happy campers

One of the biggest challenges when building digital products is balancing the needs of all stakeholders. They can be divided into three audiences:

  • End users. The people who ultimately use the product
  • Stakeholders. Users in their own right, with their own KPIs, priorities and (sometimes) personal goals
  • Investors. The people who provide the cash to bootstrap the product or feature — be wary of HiPPO mentality here…

Whilst we all want to be building what the user wants, we have to be realistic that there will always be multiple levels of requirements to get there. Balancing these competing requirements is what makes for successful product management.

Making the wrong decisions will ultimately result in a product that nobody wants, reducing business value through loss of revenue or future worth. This can blur the vision and decision making process for stakeholders and investors.

How do you balance these competing goals? It starts with an open, honest and frank discussion between each group, backed up with clear evidence — usage data, feedback or research. This creates a level playing field and helps each group to really understand why a decision is being made, how this will impact the product, the long term vision, and the short term wins.

Rules of engagement

At 383, we have the luxury of being compact and nimble, qualities that lend themselves well to this balanced approach. Many of our clients, however, are large organisations facing a much more complex challenge to change the way they approach strategy. It’s very much a journey, and the transformation doesn’t happen overnight.

There are a few guidelines we can share that help the process along.

Start moving
We work with lots of businesses who aren’t sure what they need to do — they just know they need to do something. Working out where to start can be the hardest part, and it’s where tactics like our rapid prototyping framework can really help to uncover and prioritise opportunities to unlock innovation.

Keep moving
You need to be reviewing your strategy at least every quarter so you can make adjustments in-play. Waiting for a traditional annual planning cycle could make the difference between staying competitive and becoming irrelevant.

Stick to the plan…
This is a whole other article in itself, but having a clear product vision is essential to guide your strategic and tactical decisions. Everything should be informed by and aligned to your value proposition and business goals.

…but be ready to change the plan
Having said that, that doesn’t mean that you can’t adjust that vision along the way. In fact, it should be expected, as you gather user feedback, uncover data patterns and start to test your strategy in the wild.

Get comfortable with ‘good enough’
If you wait for perfect information, you’ll probably be too late. Good enough is good enough. Establish what that means for you and your team, and get comfortable with making educated guesses. Aim to be data-driven, not data-led.

Keep the customer front of mind
When balancing the requirements of stakeholders and investments, the end user has to take priority — if they don’t use or like your product, the rest is a moot point.

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