An Alive Strategy vs. Dead Strategy

Adam Thomas
Lead Product Manager at SmartRecruiters

alive strategy vs. dead strategy

Product Strategy is Important

One of the most important roles of a product manager (PM) is setting the product strategy. The strategy, by way of a roadmap, is the document that drives team alignment. When a group of people adopts a strategy, it transforms the product strategy from just a piece of paper to something that drives team success. Informed teams, including product and everyone that affects product development—from engineers to executives, can deliver consistent results, essential to any organization that wants to grow from pure greenfield exploration into gaining product-market fit. 

When you are looking for consistent strategic results that you can sell to the business and the team around you, you’ll need to escape the trap of pure feature velocity (“building stuff”) and get to building the “right stuff” that makes an impact for customers and the business. Consistent strategic results are essential because as teams scale, wasting time and resources gets easier.

Consistency is why the strategy must exist and live in the minds of those who need to operationalize it. That is when the strategy is truly alive when you can see it in action. But, unfortunately, most strategy is dead when it exists, but in name only. 

What makes a strategy alive or dead? Well, let’s start by making sure you have a strategy that works first. If you aren’t sure what that looks like, you can find our complete guide here.

A Refresher of the Six Pillars of an Alive Product Strategy:

1. A product must have a purpose.

Building a product just for the sake of creating and maintaining something isn’t a strategy. Products should have a raison d‘être and exist for something beyond themselves. What drives the company? Why does the founder wake up in the morning? What about your product can the customer not live without? Take the time to communicate externally to find the locus of your product’s truth. Once you simplify that into something repeatable that a team can align around, you are most of the way there.

The alive product strategy has a clear, repeatable purpose. Dead strategy is muddled. 

2. Understand the customer’s needs and their evolution.

Our customers are important, so it is critical that any product strategy we make also has to meet the customer where they are. But, more importantly, we can’t fall into the trap of “building a faster horse” instead of a car. Our customers don’t deal in features, and they deal in problems. Those problems evolve, and so must our strategy. 

Alive strategy evolves with the customer. Dead strategy is static.

3. Understand your value chain and how it’s evolving.

Products don’t exist in a vacuum. Neither do its users. The product strategy must incorporate how it fits into the larger ecosystem, determining where it adds value and where friction points remain. As an ecosystem changes, the product’s role within it may also evolve. When determining strategy, you can find insight into how your product makes decisions—whether looking at your competitors or what systems your product builds on to work.

Alive strategy engages with the ecosystem. Dead strategy engages with a point in time.

4. Determine what change is likely to happen.

Although strategic thinkers don’t possess psychic powers, they should cast an eye toward the future and anticipate likely disruptions to either limit or expand the product’s opportunities for growth and usage. Then, with a good strategy, you’ll see what chances the business is willing to take.

An alive strategy makes bets. Dead strategy “knows” the future.

5. Define actions against those changes.

With a view on the horizon, what can your strategy do to mitigate disruption or seize opportunities? 

Alive strategy anticipates risks. Dead strategy hides them.

6. Measure success and course correct.

There’s no way to know if a strategy is successful if no one’s keeping score. While the strategy itself shouldn’t be hitting specific metrics, tracking progress and KPIs illuminate progress and offer potential warning signs.

Alive strategy iterates. Dead strategy always starts from scratch.

 

Strategy Doesn’t Need to Just Exist

Simply having a strategy isn’t enough, however. For example, if a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, did it make a sound? 

Unfortunately, many teams that find themselves with a product strategy have to ask. “how does this matter to me?” and, as a result, lose interest. Strategy means nothing if it isn’t alive, in people’s hands, hearts, and heads applying to their work.

So, as we continue this article, let’s ask ourselves some questions. First, does any of this sound familiar to you? 

  • Feeling unsure of what to do, even though the strategy is there.
  • Having a ton of distractions, even though the strategy is there.
  • Operating in the past, even though the strategy is there.

Then your strategy might be dead.

Don’t fear! There is an opportunity here. If you have a strategy, you’ve already done the first step, create a strategy! So, we need to turn it around, and on that note, it feels like a good time to talk about what we mean by “alive.” 

An Alive Product Strategy

Yes, your strategy is living.

In fact, strategy is a muscle and an important one for teams to exercise. Much like the muscles in your body, they need nutrition, and for them to operate at their best, they need exercise.
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So, what do we mean by that?

When we mention nutrition, your strategy needs context. Think about point two, mentioned above

“2. Understand customer needs and their evolution 

Our customers are important, so it is critical that any product strategy we make also has to meet the customer where they are. More importantly, we can’t fall into the trap of ‘building a faster horse’ instead of a car. Our customers don’t deal in features, and they deal in problems. Those problems evolve, and so must our strategy. 

Alive strategy evolves with the customer. Dead strategy is static.”

When you think about your customers, this concept makes sense. Our strategy needs to build towards our customers’ context of the marketplace. What if I told you that it needs also to do so internally – stakeholders who use your strategy also need that context. 

So how is that strategy you made a few weeks ago? Is it alive? Does it have its nutrients? Has it gotten its exercise? In fact, when is the last time anyone referenced it? 

Let’s talk about alive in another way – author Robert Greene once told author Ryan Holiday this:

“He told me there are two types of time: alive time and dead time. One is when you sit around when you wait until things happen to you. The other is when you are in control when you make every second count when you are learning and improving and growing.”

“Strategy is something that grows” is great as a mental model to see product strategy. But, remember, product strategy is a muscle. When a team sits around and doesn’t exercise that muscle, it will atrophy. An atrophied strategy is a recipe for disaster, as it is as good as no strategy at all. In fact, an atrophied strategy is a one-step towards a dead strategy.

So, let’s pose the question again, is your strategy alive? Like any new artifact, your strategy, once well crafted, starts that way. That said, from a distance, an alive product strategy can look like a dead one if you don’t know what to look for.

Don’t let your strategy turn into a zombie.

A Dead Product Strategy Will Become A Zombie

Grrr, brains

Zombies are scary (and possibly real). But we aren’t talking about those zombies right now. So instead, what we’re looking at is a zombie strategy.

The people we work with are smart and ready to work. A dead strategy, however, will sap their energy and leave our teams to fend for themselves. Moreover, as our teams grow, a culture built on dead strategy is a culture whose problems compound. 

Product strategy is our domain, not theirs. When strategy atrophies, they will spend time working on things that make sense to them. Sometimes, the team will get lucky. Oftentimes, they will end up distracted.

That distraction is how you look up in the middle of the third quarter and wonder what happened to that roadmap you set in December. But, unfortunately, you’ve been bit by the strategy zombie, and as a result, the team is now playing catch up.

The bad news, as a PM, is you’ve turned into a necromancer. The good news is that you can step away from that. The first step, though, is to identify if there is a dead strategy in your midst.

How do you identify a zombie strategy? Well, if it’s well built, here are a few indicators. Of course, we won’t leave you without homework either, so expect some ways to clear the zombies out. Then, each section holds a way to move that strategy from dead to alive.

3 Ways to Identify a Dead Product Strategy

1. Team members can’t remember what’s important.

Our brains’ short-term memory holds 5-7 things at a time. Why is that important?

One of the issues that can zombify a product strategy is overloading people with too much information. 

We may have an urge to load the strategy with everything we need to get done. You, as a PM, may feel like you are giving proper context – however, overloading the team with context is exactly what will atrophy your strategy. Instead of giving context and helping folks find alignment, you allow the team to turn off and figure it out independently. This is how your strategy sits on the shelf and eventually zombifies.

So, let’s make this real. 

Let me ask a question: 

If you were to go around your team and ask, “What are the three priorities from our product strategy?” How confident are you that individual team members can list these top priorities? What about within 80% of your expectation?

If you gulped during that question, chances are, you may have a zombie product strategy on your hands. Unfortunately, whatever you thought was happening isn’t. The zombie strategy is eating your team’s mental space.

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In fact, brain science provides a reason for that. Our brains are more tuned to negative experiences than positive ones, up to seven times more. So those near-death experiences are negative experiences. 

Strategy is a positive one.

Simplify your strategy 

The basis of strategy is here. You need to simplify. 

  • Evangelize. Become a broken record and talk about the strategy regularly. Remind people at the end of every team meeting of the important pillars of your strategy. When people start getting sick of hearing it, you’ve only begun.
  • Prioritize. Be clear about what is important, and get rid of the rest. Cut until it hurts – a strategy that doesn’t make any choices will atrophy.
  • Positivize. Remind people of the small wins regularly. Remember, teams think negative first, so overwhelm them with positivity. 

2. Strategy incorporates incentives for all

Every discipline has its own incentives. It’s important to recognize that the strategy isn’t about you. Human beings are storytellers, and without something more compelling, they will take what is around them to create their incentives. That is why a telltale sign of a lack of an alive product strategy looks like this:

Engineering cares about engineering stuff, same with design, marketing, and sales. 

It’s natural with any vocation. Teams are just telling themselves a story and running with it. Since it isn’t compelling, they have to make it up as they go along. 

A strategy will atrophy if the members of the team don’t see themselves in the strategy. As a PM, are you aware of everyone’s incentive? If you have to wonder, chances are you don’t. 

When building the strategy, remember strategy is an abstraction. That abstraction helps people fit their mental model into the world itself. If that strategy doesn’t help them, they’ll split their time between your strategy and their incentive at best, and at worst, completely ignore your strategy. 

Then your strategy is dead. 

As an owner of the product strategy, make sure you talk to the point of contact from every discipline. Meet with the team regularly and have coffee with random team members to find out what drives those team members to work.

This is a slower process, but every time you iterate, the strategy gets better. This is because you are working your strategy muscles with each conversation as you make it more alive.  As a bonus, your relationship with the other discipline will get better, too.

3. Strategy relies on consistent process

Do not try to turn the entire ship at once. Our teams have enough on their plate. That is why we, as PMs, have to be very careful when we bring in a new process.

If we do, we have to do so thoughtfully and repeatedly. Once is not enough. Remember, our brains can only hold 3-7 things in short-term memory, so it’s far better to leverage things that are already comfortable in an organization or build it into muscle memory.

As PMs, we live with our strategies for a long time, making sense to us (only). So we want to try a new process to shake things up and partially bring newness to ourselves, selfishly. So, we make the team go through an exercise, something you may find on the internet, and never refer to it again since the pieces fit so well in your head.

Well, while you may remember it, the team around you has their own issues, and more than likely, is overloaded.

When this happens, you’ve walked right into a dead strategy since the team has learned not to take anything you’ve done as seriously.

As a rule of thumb, small edits to the current process are better than a new process. If you aren’t going to plan around a new process to ensure it’s compelling and do it often, don’t do it at all.

Alive Product Strategy Starts with You

There is a pattern here. A product strategy isn’t alive on its own. So simply writing a great one isn’t good enough. Instead, as a PM or product leader, you’ll need to work hard at keeping it alive continuously.

It’s worth bringing up this quote again.

“He told me there are two types of time: alive time and dead time. One is when you sit around when you wait until things happen to you. The other is when you are in control when you make every second count when you are learning and improving and growing.”

One is when you sit around when you wait until things happen to you. The other is when you are in control when you make every second count when you are learning and improving and growing.

A great strategy is something you control, iterate, and grow. If you aren’t careful, you’ll turn from a PM into an unwitting necromancer. So your strategy will be less about control and more about waiting.

Strategy is a way to speed up alignment, and alignment isn’t stationary. If you aren’t working those strategy muscles, your strategy will turn from alive to dead. As a result, your team will get further and further away when strategy stands still.

Building a product strategy is not enough; make sure the strategy is alive and aligned not just with the market and the customers but also with the team that is working through it. When other functions use product strategy, it lessens the cross-functional burden and gives the organization a chance to course-correct when things aren’t going well. 

Keep your product strategy alive with focused goals, aligned incentives, and repeatable processes. 
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