One of the occupational hazards of working at Microsoft was attending offsites. These were 2-3 day affairs, typically cloistered watching endless sessions of Powerpoint in a out-of-the-way Washington resort with a bunch of execs. At one such shindig I was attending a few years ago, one of the attractions was a talk from a couple of external speakers, both of them local VCs. The talk was covering certain things Microsoft could be doing better in particular areas (being deliberately obtuse here to honor confidentiality and besides, the details aren’t pertinent here).
This VC threw up a slide at the end of his slide to summarize most of his talk. It had the following sentence in bold which made the room break into applause.
Don’t be so f-king strategic
All large companies (and I do mean all - this is not a post about Microsoft) tend to be in love with finding the right ‘strategy’ in place before doing anything. There are reams and reams of text written on what exactly strategy is and how to go about having a good one. Some of them are actually quite good (for example, Porter’s work on the five forces). You could often get rapped on the knuckles (or worse) for being ‘off-strategy’.
Don’t get me wrong. Good strategy combined with good execution is a joy to watch (case in point - Apple over the last decade). The last thing you would want is people off doing their own thing and being all ‘off-strategy’ and rebellious.
But here’s the problem.
You’re not Steve Jobs and your organization is not Apple. And your well-thought out strategy is probably terrible.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in the corporate world, it is that a staggering amount of ‘strategic analysis’ is nonsense and guesswork. There’s nothing wrong in admitting that. Figuring out the market, what the future looks like, what users want or heck, even what your own company can do is hard. Bloody hard. Eric Reis says that all startups are experiments and the same can be said for any company in a fast changing industry too.
Most times, you don’t even know what the right thing to do is until you have actually gone out and tried a bunch. Experimenting might be hard if you’re launching spacecraft (and even that doesn’t stop Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos). But if you’re in the software world, there is no excuse for not building a bunch. For not trying a bunch.
Building stuff and getting people to use it will always lead to better results than sitting in a bunch of meetings with over-paid consultants and trying to extrapolate from various signals and trends on what people might want and what you should be doing. Even if you had the right strategy in place at one point in time, that isn’t good enough. The world changes so quickly that you might need to do a 180-degree turn in a matter of months to react to changing user behavior or market trends. Top-down strategic planning doesn’t deal well with this.
What you need are many experiments in parallel. Not all of them need the same amount of resources and not all needs to be released to the public. But you absolutely do need people working on crazy, random things. It doesn’t matter whether you call it 20% time, whether you call it a research department or it is just what all your employees do on weekends. But it needs to happen in some form.
This only works if your corporate structure is built with the flexibility to do random things. Especially things which are ‘off-strategy’.
If you’re a mining corporation in Minnesota, allowing an employee to experiment with adhesives might wind up with you revolutionizing the stationery industry (this happened).
If you’re the world’s largest software company in 2005 and your strategy is to sell phones to enterprises, going off-strategy to understand/build what normal consumers want, might save you years later (this didn’t happen).
So go out there. Try random things. Don’t be so f*king strategic.