Behind the Grind: Lessons from a Product Leader, Episode 4 – A Unified Theory for Mission, Strategy & Experimentation
May 2, 2022
As a 0->1 product builder, you have strong conviction at the 100,00-foot level. You’re uber-confident in what you’re trying to build, how you think it will work, and why you believe it critical to be doing this specific work at this moment in time.
But, at the 1,000-foot day-to-day level, you probably find yourself wondering what exactly you should be doing today to advance your goals for tomorrow. You may be getting frustrated over why friends, colleagues, investors and the media can’t see the opportunity or your vision for the product as clearly as you. And while it’s never easy to admit, you may also be “mistaking motion for progress,” a proven death blow for 0->1 teams.
Hello again, and welcome to Episode 4 of our Lessons from a Product Leader series. Today, I’m going to share with you my Unified Theory of Product Development, which covers Mission, Strategy, and Experimentation and is proven to help with the all-too-common dissonance described above.
A Common Diagnosis
The most obvious (and common) cause for the above uncertainty is simple: We tend to not expect or invest in much structure due to the relative chaos surrounding 0->1 product building. And this makes sense; as we’ve previously covered, this process is a non-linear, wildly unpredictable journey. Knowing just how non-linear it can be, how could one hope to have any order amidst a sea of chaos?
The answer: You can, should, and need to put controls on your input; even though you can’t control the output of this high-risk, cutting-edge work. It’s critical to adopt some semblance of structure to your inputs so you can have a blueprint, build, and share it with others on your journey.
But how do you do it?
Welcome to the Unified Theory
Starting from the top and working our way down, imagine a pyramid with 3 levels:
- Mission: What am I trying to solve?
- Strategies: How am I trying to solve it?
- Experiments: What am I doing to prove that I’m on track to solve it?
Level 1: The Mission Level
Mission statements often get knocked for being too abstract and fairly useless in a vacuum, but that’s usually by the people outside looking in. But, when you’re just beginning building something big, you need guardrails because you don’t have any product or customer inertia yet to keep you on track. For 0->1, I think of the mission statement like bumpers at a bowling alley: it keeps me in the lane I signed up for.
So, what is a mission statement? Simply put, a mission statement describes what you’re trying to accomplish, and equally important, not how you’re trying to accomplish it. Let’s look at some mission statements from large public tech companies:
Google – “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
Meta – “To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
Tesla – “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”
Amazon – “To be Earth’s most customer-centric company, Earth’s best employer, and Earth’s safest place to work.”
Do you notice anything in common about the above mission statements? There isn’t a single mention of a product!
Google doesn’t say “search engine,” Meta doesn’t say “social network” or “newsfeed,” and Tesla doesn’t say “electric vehicles.” That’s because the mission is independent of the product(s) that serve that mission. In other words, missions transcend products, and products exist to serve missions, not the other way around.
Envision that progress toward achieving our mission is like a gear that slowly turns every day. But what’s actually turning that gear? For that, let’s head to Level 2.
Level 2: The (Product) Strategy Level
In reality, this is actually where most startups start. First, they see a problem that nobody has solved, or maybe they have, but not sufficiently.
Next, they identify a new solution. It could be twice as good as what’s available, maybe 10x, maybe 100x better if you’re defining an entirely new category! Then you build/launch it to a core set of users and iterate/rinse/repeat until you reach PMF (Product-Market Fit) or die trying.
It’s important to remember that you’re often wrong with where you start as a startup founder. In other words, you’re going to need more than one revolution to turn the gears at Level 2 enough to move the cogs in Level 1 and make progress on your mission. At the end of the day, you may find that your initial product strategy misses the mark entirely, or is incremental value-creation instead of disruptive value-creation, or the insights lead to an even more ambitious way to achieve your mission. At that point, you’ll need more gears at this level to have a chance at moving the massive gears in Level 1, as seen below.
In this context, changing product strategies is analogous to what we commonly refer to as “pivots” pre-PMF. Consider it a transition from gear 1 to gear 2 when gear 1 isn’t enough to turn the mission cogs on its own. That movement from Gear 1 to 2 is the equivalent of sunsetting your initial product strategy in favour of a new one, one that hopefully uses the learnings from attempt 1 to inform attempt 2.
But, how do you know if your product strategy is even working? The answer is efficient, high-velocity experimentation; as we drop down to the last level in the pyramid.
Level 3: The Experimentation Level
Your day-to-day job as a 0->1 builder in the pre-PMF phase is validating or invalidating hypotheses before you burn through your runway. As you may recall from Episode 2, we set up experiments to constantly assess these hypotheses that underpin our Product Strategy. Put another way; these are the gears that are turning very fast and daily, which serve to progress your Strategy to an end state. Putting this all together, you’ll see that you can encapsulate your pre-PMF journey as a set of gears turning on 3 levels simultaneously, all at different speeds, like below:
I encourage everyone to apply this framework to your current 0->1 efforts. Use the pyramid graphic above, and try to segregate your work into the mission, the current strategy, and the current set of experiments you’re conducting. If there’s history (you’ve run a ton of experiments, pivoted your product strategy, or even changed your mission), try to add those as separate gears. Anytime I listen to a pitch or see an early-stage product in process, I try to overlay this framework and ask the founders to fill in the blanks for me. I’ve used this framework with multiple teams, and it serves to help clarify their thinking and either help translate day-to-day work to bigger-picture outcomes or re-adjust if they can’t connect the various pyramid levels.
So far in this series, we’ve covered the fundamentals of the nature of 0->1 work (Episode 1), the process of shipping experiments (Episode 2), the team required to succeed (Episode 3), and the ways your mission relates to your day-to-day work as a builder. But, how do you know that you’re building something worthy of the opportunity in front of you? How do you know that something can be “disruptive,” or that you can create a new product category for the world? For this, we’ll see you for Episode 5.
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