Many companies today are, unfortunately, working with a strategy that they don’t realize is already dead. No one is using the strategy to make decisions. The result, at the end of the year, the company has created, at best, a bunch of side projects and unfortunately, hasn’t made much progress on its true mission.
The biggest reason companies fail to notice their strategy has died, in my opinion, is that building a proactive strategy takes time. Plus, its benefits can be obscure in the beginning.
The hardest part is that, since putting a good strategy is time consuming and can take you away from shipping, it often ends up on the back burner. Sustaining direction takes energy, and keeping teams aligned is difficult, especially as other things spin up.
What happens after you build a strategy? If you aren't careful, it can end up just being a piece of paper that no one references. Making strategy isn’t enough: You have to maintain strategic custody. Our strategy starves without clear custody, and a starving strategy soon becomes a dead strategy.
Keeping strategic custody consists of three actions: repetition, consistency and clear measurement. So, let’s focus on fighting these three reactive issues. We can tie our diagnosis, the problem that the strategy is helping us solve, with the clarity that comes from repetition, guiding policy, which guides us by being clear about what our strengths are, with touch points that build accountability, and determining coherent action through measurement that drives adjustment to keep the story of the strategy alive and clear to all that engage with it.
3 Components of Strategic Custody
- Clear measurement
Setting Direction Through Repetition
In marketing, a concept called the rule of seven says that if you repeat something seven times to a prospect, they’ll be able to recall it. The ad reads in the podcast you listen to may be annoying, but you’ll remember the product from the sheer repetition they fit into the 30 seconds you hear them. If you find your team unable to say why you’re doing something, the first question I would ask is how often you’re telling them about it.
Your diagnosis needs to be like a podcast ad read. Remember, your team is looking to solve a problem, and you won’t be around while they’re working. In the digital world we live in, this becomes even more important because we can’t use physical tools to bring alignment. The days of having your strategy on the wall are all but gone, so finding ways to repeat the diagnosis digitally is critical to make progress.
This process will take time, but stick with it. Become a broken record. Say it over and over.
Ask yourself if you’ve followed the rule of seven. How often have you said your diagnosis this week?
You’ll know it’s working when the team tells you the diagnosis instead of offering inconsistent or non-existent answers.
Guiding Policy That Builds Accountability
Remember that every idea doesn’t have to come from you. As product managers, we can fall into the trap of becoming the “holder of ideas.” This problem ignores that the teams we work with are constantly thinking and applying ideas of their own. So, you need to build a guiding policy that helps the other people in your team think together.
The guiding policy alone isn’t enough, however, if just you — or even just your product development team — understand it. All stakeholders need to understand the policy so they can also provide useful feedback as you are building the product.
You can establish accountability from stakeholders by having regular meetings between them and product development representatives. At these meetings, you can open by talking about the guiding policy and ask what they’re seeing. If you pair that level setting with a demo of the product, you’ll reinforce the choices further by showing them in action. Afterward, asking the stakeholders what questions they have can help you figure out exactly what they understand your strategy to mean. Answering these questions publicly increases awareness and helps reinforces the choices your guiding policy makes relating to strategy.
Ask yourself: Have you established regular touchpoints with your stakeholders using a tool like lean coffee or a sprint review to solicit feedback and ensure accountability?
You’ll know it’s working when an incoherent release schedule turns into a cohesive story that flows through the organization.
Empower Coherent Actions With Measurements
What is your next step?
How you answer this question is a clear indicator of coherent action. You’re marching towards a goal, and each step you take should get you closer to it. Set clear goals and keep track of how close you are to accomplishing them.
A concept like OKRs, and especially the way Christina Wodkte implements them, is important to such measurement. Goals (objectives) without a measuring stick (key results) don’t help give the team the way to move forward.
OKRs alone aren’t enough, though, as putting the goal on the board and even a clear next action can still lead to a dead strategy. You need to actively ask yourself, “Is this working?” You do that with retrospectives that get the team together to ask “Did we make progress, and/or can we find a better way of making progress?”
The key insight isn’t the goal, but the lesson that comes with the goal. Why? A goal is a local maxima you’ve set in order to see efficacy, but you can only reach the global maxima by sensing the next steps. You can only do that through learning.
Ask yourself: When is the last time you adjusted your plan?
You’ll know it’s working when inconsistency becomes a culture of questioning and growth. Where you start won’t be where you finish.
Strategic Custody Makes Things Happen
Strategy means nothing if no one uses it. If you pick up nothing from this article, let it be this: A strategy that languishes in your Google Docs is useless.
This is why strategic custody is important. How your strategy travels and affects the people who are affected by it is the difference between an alive strategy that drives impact and a dead one that keeps you moving fast and going nowhere in quicksand.