Kill Your Darlings
At a three-year product strategy meeting at Apple during the early 1990s, the McKinsey hired guns presented something I now refer to as the “99-idea slide” as the final summary of a strategy presentation. It was chock-full of information, presented in a visually compelling way. It showed all the viable product strategies we could pursue. With its combined richness and graphical simplicity, the 99-idea slide wowed all of us.
It was also useless.
With help from the consultants, we had done a great job of whiteboarding and research to generate a vetted list of many viable options. These myriad options had opened up a Pandora's box, however. Having such a huge list to choose from was, in some ways, worse than having a shorter, less-considered list of options.
What was missing was a way to decide which of the available strategic options made the most sense for us. We had no organized way to select a strategy from the list. And, at least as important, we needed a way to determine which of the available options we should not pursue. In other words, we needed a way to kill off options so we could focus on moving forward.
Perhaps you are thinking that any one of the options on the table in a given situation would have been good enough, and in fact that might be true. Sometimes good enough is indeed enough.
But more often, choosing the best option matters. In this case, the “best” option is what makes the most sense for this organization at this particular time, given the market conditions, matched to internal capabilities, considering allocated resources and so on. By selecting the best option, you have a higher likelihood of achieving the vision behind the strategy.
Is there really just one answer? I think there is. But let me be clear that by one strategy I mean an inclusive and complete strategy. So “one” is not about a singular idea. One strategy can contain many different ideas, but they must come together in a unified way. At an operating level, this might look like one channel strategy, or one retail strategy, or one enterprise strategy, or a combination of ideas, as long as they work as a unified whole.
Under the time pressure of everyday business and in the absence of a good selection process, teams tend not to build a rich list of options, since doing so often seems to make the decision process harder. That is, organizations and teams that have a selection process actually do a better job of generating options to win.
So what you need is a mental or process framework that allows your group to kill off ideas and get to the right strategy for that time and that situation. The framework that can help organizations make complex yet subjective strategic decisions that I like is one I call "MurderBoarding."
MurderBoarding is a kind of counter-weight to whiteboarding as a brainstorming tool. Instead of creating an unbounded set of new ideas, its purpose is to enable teams to evaluate many options effectively, yet still converge on the winning choice in a bounded timeframe.
It's not just the weak ideas that get killed; good options or ideas at the wrong time also need to go. Decent, but not great, ideas put forth by very nice people are also a target.
MurderBoarding is not about team spirit in any way. It is about a selection and decision framework that lets you and your organization make tough choices among good options.
Here are some sample questions that may signal a need for MurderBoarding: If your division could focus on only one thing in the coming year, what would it be? Should you take your product to another country to further develop and invest in it? Do you want to focus on your existing franchise and expand the customer base to mid-markets? Should you make more product improvements to keep up with the low-end competitors entering the space? Which idea makes sense? Has the organization lost its focus?
There are four basic steps in the MurderBoarding framework:
Decide what matters
This step is about gaining agreement and making explicit the things that all your stakeholders care about. It is figuring out, as a team, what is important to the business and determining the must-have criteria that should shape the strategy selection decision.
This involves making a first-pass comparison of options against the criteria of what matters. Sorting helps to triage possible solutions and to find out whether additional criteria will be needed to further evaluate the options.
This is about applying strategies hypothetically in context to see what insights develop. It is about going out in the organization to learn more, gather additional facts and refine criteria further. Within the testing process, you fix, toss, tune and merge ideas, molding them into fully vetted, executable strategy options.
Now you're ready to make the decision together. Choosing is the last and most vital phase of MurderBoarding because the result defines your strategy. If you don't choose and you don't converge, then you don't have a strategy. And you can't win.
Let's put to rest the notion that the goal of strategy creation is to get one big win. The ultimate goal is not to win once, but rather to build both the capabilities and capacity that power our organizations to win repeatedly. Getting strategy right depends on creating the conditions that let us outshine our competitors, and to outshine them on many levels - to out-think them, out-create them and out-innovate the other players in the market.