Strategy, product, and service offerings are inextricably linked. Although obvious, it’s worth saying, because the same thing that often makes it so hard for leaders to develop excellent strategy, often rears its head in the product roadmap rather than during strategic planning.
But to make this useful, let’s clarify the terms. When I talk about strategic planning, I mean something very specific. I mean crafting a theory about how your organization can accomplish something so hard and unlikely that without that that theorized plan, it will NOT otherwise happen.
So, this isn’t a plan to continue the current trajectory, or to gain slightly more market, or to add delivery to your restaurant or 3 new functions to your software.
It is a goal that NEEDS a plan because there are significant obstacles, moats, competitors, or technical challenges that demand something other than doing what you have done thus far to get where you are.
Choosing Between Not Choosing All
As a consultant, it is the very hardness that makes this work so compelling. But there is one issue that comes up time and time again –and that makes it doubly hard to craft great strategy. The problem is that of selecting ONE plan –not ALL possible plans.
Ambitious business leaders nearly always struggle NOT to pursue an opportunity. Once it’s identified –even if it’s untested, and even if it may take more resources than are available—abandoning the potential upside feels like leaving money on the table.
It’s easy to understand that impulse to jump on every possible opportunity– especially in startups. Investors and boards of directors are pressuring founders to generate revenue and customers consistently and fast.
That makes it hard to select a strategy.
Product and Service Bloat
There are analogues to that challenge in the world of product development. It’s critical to offer the right solution, but not every solution. You must create key features for your product, but not stuff every possible function into it.
What matters is offering the most strategic services; but not every variation on them.
Startup founders typically have an insight –a single, extraordinary insight. And that insight gives rise to a novel solution to a problem.
Of course, it’s critical to ensure that you are using that insight to provide the very best product to solve your ideal customer’s problem. But that ought to be discovered systematically—not by simply adding every possible feature to your product, or all possible variations to your service.
But, once the technology is out there, a weird thing happens. Just as the strategic opportunities proliferate and make it impossible to choose just the one –so do the potential functions and use cases for the product. The more the team considers its own product, the more different functions, features, bells and whistles it seems to need.
What started out as an elegant tool to solve a well-defined problem –say a wrench –somehow morphs into a Swiss Army knife.
What’s The Purpose of This Thing?
For example, I used to use a social media automation tool. It could take any piece of content (say, this article) and, using AI, create upwards of 35 individual and unique posts from it. Those posts could then be automatically posted to social media channels. It was a wonderful solution to a clear problem. How can you maximize your content?
I had the subscription for several years. But every time I logged in I needed a tutorial just to master the user interface. The UI wasn’t great, but that wasn’t the problem. It was because they kept adding new features and functions. By the time I cancelled my subscription, it was hard to say exactly what they did. They had added AI video capability, video editing, image curation, suggested topics and starter recipes for content creation. They even had a ghostwriting service.
The product had become the equivalent of the proverbial “junk drawer”. It had all the stuff that you were sure you’d use one day –but not today. And because the tools don’t have any cohesive connection to the core solution, they feel confusing and extraneous.
Whatever You Need, We Do It!
The same thing happens in SMBs. A CPA opens an accountancy practice whose focus is small business taxes. But at some point a client requests a forensic audit. Or someone calls and is interested in bookkeeping. Or a client quits for a firm that can do its SEC filings. Instead of staying focused on the core business and simply building a better client acquisition engine, bit by bit the firm adds new and different services to its website. The brand is muddied. The clients are confused. The HR department has no idea how to hire. They’re now a Swiss Army knife instead of a small business CPA.
Like most issues that drive human beings, this too can be traced back to our innate biases and our individual anxieties. The scarcity effect is a cognitive bias that gets triggered when the infomercial host says there are only 27 units left and you MUST CALL NOW. It drives up our anxiety and our primitive compulsion to avert starvation. That’s how advertising manipulates us into taking action that we might not otherwise take.
It’s All About Anxiety
The catalyst for proliferating functions, features, services, and programs is anxiety over not capturing every possible customer –and relies on our tacit belief that clients are scarce.
But the scarcity is imagined, not real. Yet, it just feels SO real when you watch a client walk out the door.
Sometimes it isn’t scarcity that drives our anxiety. Instead, we are terrified that the product is insufficient without a surfeit of features. Each new feature becomes a kind of hedge against the possibility that we’ve failed at fitting our product to the market.
But whether fear over product market fit, or scarcity –the gnawing anxiety is the same. Every founder, leader, or business owner has it. No one wants to fail.
But the purpose of strategy is NOT to relieve anxiety –or to capture every possible customer. The purpose of strategy is to have a clear, testable, elegant method to accomplish that hard, unlikely goal. That includes a clear logical and strategic rationale for every feature, function, and service.
Being strategic demands that we endure the inevitable anxiety over every un-seized opportunity; over every possible function your customer could ever imagine; and over every new service that competitors offer and you don’t.
A strategy that will achieve the unlikely, breakthrough goal will yield the right customers. And eventually, that will allay the anxiety.