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Many product and business managers in the corporate world can relate to that dreaded time of year, usually sometime between March and May, that is lovingly referred to as “strat plan.” It’s usually a stressful time of year, filled with all-day executive meetings that are often preceded by months of data collection, presentation preparation, and even full-day practice sessions in the hope that “this year, we’re going to get it right.”
The week usually ends with the customary pats on the back for anyone who manages a profitable portfolio, followed by the all too public bashings of those poor souls who don’t. And all of this feedback is delivered with far too much focus on how each business is performing today, and not nearly enough focus on the actual future plans that these meetings are supposed to be about in the first place.
We believe that when strategic plans are truly focused on the future; when “strat plan” meetings are collaborative updates of the great progress that has been made on already existing product strategies, rather than complete reinventions of plans that never really had any chance of getting off the ground in the first place; when people actually enjoy presenting their strategies – secure in the fact that they have the proper training, guidance, and support to not only focus on long-term results but to actually be measured on and rewarded for those results as well.
Imagine the day when the strategic planning process for products can be fun. And when, by the way, it actually produces the results that companies are looking for.
The question is; how can we alter our path? How can we change something that has been ingrained in the fabric of most corporate cultures for a long time, and that continues to be further perpetuated by most every strategy book and program in existence? How do we stop the downward spiral of corporate “strategies” that continue to produce subpar results, leaving far too much room for smaller start-up companies to thrive within the gaps that larger companies keep skipping right over?
For some, the answer can be found in two words: passion and creativity.
One of the telltale signs that your current strategy process is in need of an overhaul is when some large population of people that go through that process hates every minute of it. And why shouldn’t they? Often times, the goals that they have been tasked with addressing are completely unrealistic, 100% top-down driven, and accompanied by that incredibly overused and overly demanding statement, “Just make it happen.” This isn’t realistic.
All of these conditions set up would-be strategic presenters for nothing more than caustic “gotcha” sessions, devoid of any pride of ownership, accountability, or – yes, you guessed it – passion.
A product strategy shouldn’t be a plan to achieve someone else’s unrealistic and already overcommitted goal. Instead, it should be the answer to a challenge: “Here’s where we want to go, now let’s collaboratively figure out how we can get there – together.”
Most product managers and leaders love what they do. They have a passion for the products that they manage and a love for the services that they provide. But when we remove ownership of the overall goal or, worse, the overall plan to make those products and services more successful – not on the company’s terms but on the customers’ terms – then we suck every ounce of passion out of the exercise and replace it with reluctance. And that’s when everything begins to fall apart.
The answer is to harness the passion most product managers feel for their products and give them the ability to envision the future, set their own strategic goals, and prioritize the initiatives that make the most sense – for customers and the company.
Strategy is, in its simplest form, a plan to achieve a goal. Passion will allow you to own that goal and to care about the results. This, in turn, will allow you to put together a more effective and more achievable plan. But that’s only half the picture, because what if some other passionate company happens to be going after the same goal as you and in exactly the same way? Somebody’s going to lose in that situation, and my guess is that you’d rather it be your competitor!
The fix, of course, comes in the form of finding a different path to achieve your goal than anyone else. But being different doesn’t always mean that you’re going to win. The real trick is to be different in a way that resonates with your customers. Creativity lives on the path toward differential advantage. Combine that with passion, and your existing product strategy is sure to gain the needed traction.
But how exactly do you tap into this mysterious creative realm that, by the way, far too many people on this planet simply don’t believe they have access to? One way is to let go, even just a little bit, of what you’ve been taught, and let a few of your gut instincts take over.
Unfortunately, it is all too common to view the subject of strategy as some academic badge of honor that can only be bestowed upon those select few individuals who have studied the right courses in college, read the right books, or can recite from the right list of strategic buzz-phrases that have somehow managed to make their way into the standard catalog of acceptable corporate-speak. Not that any of these oft-repeated ideas are actually being practiced; just that they are spoken enough times out loud to serve as mantras for what companies want to tell themselves they believe in.
But creativity does not come in the form of repetition or imitation. In fact, it is just the opposite. It comes in the form of thinking outside that cliché box that continues to operate in most large organizations. It comes in the form of embracing the idea of new ideas and accepting all of the inherent risk that goes along with actually trying a few of them out on the world. Understanding what other companies have already successfully done is, by and large, a good thing; but only if that knowledge is used to form a bed influence from which truly new ideas can sprout. If, on the other hand, that knowledge becomes a foundation for imitation, the entire concept of creativity is sure to be wiped out in the ensuing chase.
Creativity can contribute. But how exactly can you tap into this sometimes hidden inner quality, particularly if you have always considered yourself to be a non-creative person?
From our standpoint, creativity starts when you’re out and about. You can build mental models of what’s possible when you’re visiting or observing customers, when you’re exercising, when you’re reading, or when you’re brainstorming with your team. Everyone has limitless ideas – and creativity can be a conglomeration of lots of things.
Perhaps the exact methodology for tapping into one’s own creativity is a bit beyond the scope of this article, but that’s where the challenge comes in – for you to be creative about, well, your creativity! However, we can suggest that creativity should inspire free thought above academic boundaries. It needs to embrace ideas from all levels of your company, not just those select few people who have the right kind of degree or title. Combine these newfound paradigms with the passion that discussed in Part 2, and you’ll be able to take your strategy process to a whole new level.
So that’s the gist of it in 3 easy parts:
Simple enough. Now go out there and help make strategy fun again!