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KP Frahm posted this on LinkedIn today, and it caught my attention:
Why do most companies [lack] a clear and coherent product strategy? My take: Because in most companies, there is a lot of (hidden) value in the lack of clarity and coherence.
There are many ways to interpret KP’s statement—some more Machiavellian than others. Obfuscation is a classic power (and/or hedging) move. Alan Greenspan used Fedspeak to basically keep people guessing:
I would engage in some form of syntax destruction, which sounded as though I was answering the question, but had not.
In a company setting, I am sure there are some people who have self-serving intentions. But my guess is that most people don’t consciously strive for a lack of clarity and coherence. They don’t wake up and say “I want to keep the team in a fog!”
Here is what I think is going on.
We confuse clarity/coherence and certainty. If clarity/coherence equals certainty, and a strategy is supposed to be clear and coherent, then unless we are certain, we can’t have a strategy. Meanwhile some high percentage of the audience for our strategy wants certainty. If they haven’t heard confident certainty, then they haven’t heard a strategy.
Them: “Ugh. We need a strategy!”
Leader (pretending to be confident): “Fine! Here’s the strategy!”
The lack of clarity and coherence is a natural outgrowth of fear—fear of being seen as less capable, fear of limiting optionality, fear of being wrong, and fear of making informed guesses.
I met with a leader recently to chat about strategy. I did my normal FAB activity (facts, assumptions, and beliefs) activity, and they stopped a minute or two in and said (paraphrasing):
This is getting depressing. There is a lot I don’t know. Shouldn’t I go and learn this stuff before presenting the strategy? Or maybe I could do something a bit more high level? I also don’t want to limit our vision. What if [Other Persona] is the right persona?
It took a lot of prodding to keep them going. If I had been in their shoes, it would have been hard for me as well.
No wonder so many strategies are expressed as simple list of priorities, and/or tasks OR as vague, clarity-lacking platitudes.
The unlock, I think, is realizing that you can confidently communicate a coherent strategy that also acknowledges uncertainty. You know what you know. You assume what you assume. You believe what you believe.
Yes, there will always be some people internally who will only accept certainty. But you can’t change those people, and catering to them is a losing game.
John, great post as always. Where can I learn more about your “FAB” activity? Sounds like something I need to try.
This seems less about certainty vs. uncertainty than it is about taking the path of least resistance. If everything stays the same, there's no chance of anything going wrong, right? And we don't have to stress ourselves by learning about new ideas.
In my experience, teams without clear product strategies also micromanage the shit out of really simple tasks -- so the easy-to-manage projects where improvisation is completely tolerable end up being just as stuck the big-ticket, hard-to-solve projects.