The three major modes of product strategy

Being able to see the three major modes, and switching between them effortlessly is the path to great product leadership

It’s 2009 in the hip neighborhood of Yaletown in Vancouver, Canada. A team of ambitious people are coming together—led by Stewart Butterfield, back in his home town, apparently fully recovered and revived from some time travelling after a rollercoaster journey at his previous company, Flickr, which had been acquired by Yahoo!

Flickr had been spun out of the ashes of a game Stewart had been building, called ‘Game Neverending’. He was determined to build the game this time and so founded ‘Tiny Speck’, a games company which quickly went to work on their first project, a non-combat flash-based multiplayer game which takes place in the minds of 11 giants.

This was supposed to be a great game. Maybe it was. But somehow, by the end of 2012 it had failed to really catch fire the way it was supposed to and Stewart and the team were ready to admit defeat.

Meanwhile, in service of better communication, the team at Tiny Speck had built an internal communications tool. It had turned out to be pretty useful. The team were able to quickly message each other while working together. They decided to develop it. By March, the team had enough to work with that they were using the product themselves. By May they were ready for more users. August, they announced and by 2014, Slack was in the market, and—one team at a time—it was catching on.

In 2019 Slack went public for $23bn.

The story of how Stewart Butterfield has tried twice to build a gaming company but ultimately built two entirely different businesses is known to many. But how, is almost unfathomable to imagine for many product leaders.

All too often, I meet product leaders who are hamstrung by their data and unable to pull back and see the real picture. Statements such as ‘that which cannot be measured cannot be put into action’—which are practically mantras at places like Amazon, are often misinterpreted as an almost religious-like obsession with increasingly small optimizations to an existing product that might not be working. Or worse might not be known to not be working—meanwhile a competitor somewhere is outpacing you by being more generative, ingenious and creative, by thinking through the customer problems from first principles.

This is why I believe in understanding the three primary modes of a great product leader. The best product leaders I know can effortlessly switch between them to suit the moment.

  • The mode in which you seek feedback, ingest information and seek to understand.

  • The mode in which you use data to clarify assumptions and advance.

  • The generative wild creative mode in which you bring creativity to the work and make ‘leapfrog’ level advancements or pivot entirely.

But how do you model the mode in the moment, especially when, as a product leader you are in uncharted territory?

Switching modes is hard, and all too often I see product leaders without the self awareness to know which of their modes is dominant, and unable to calibrate their energy.

This is where the first mode comes in. Seeking feedback is a critical part of user experience design, but not as many product leaders seek feedback on themselves as they continue to grow. Hopefully by now, more and more product people are seeking feedback from their peers, their bosses, their team and listening to it. Creating the space to really listen, appreciate it and build ways to unpack it by having partnership with somebody—sometimes outside the organization, who can really make sure they are hearing what they need to. Modeling a feedback culture helps product leaders improve the most important thing they ship every day, themselves and understand whether they are behaving the right way as a leader.

The second is a depth of understanding of the data. This is not purely about being able to manipulate the data enough to see it, but also to be able to understand the insights and tell the stories it surfaces to the rest of the organization. Of course this means a depth of affinity with the kind of metrics and data that will actually advance the story, too.

The third is often the hardest for most product leaders that I meet. Stewart Butterfield spent the first five years of his life living in a log cabin without running water or electricity. Through all his innovation, he has proven that he understands the value of constraints, and can align his energy within those constraints to look for opportunity and create wild, untold innovations.

It’s hard to be creative, but through the power of diverse teams with diverse skills and lived experiences, through an understanding of the primary needs of the customers, through an understanding of the movable and immovable constraints you are facing, you can build a greater affinity with creativity.

Everyone has their own way. Reframing problems. Meditation. Taking mental breaks. Changing their context by ‘being’ somewhere else. Look for the things that will spark your mind in tangential and analogous ways and encourage your team to do the same. At different moments in your product’s evolution, you will want to look for ways to model the right mode for the moment, and over time, switching will become a muscle that you can exercise, so that you can name the moment, make it explicit as a leader and lead the team in the right direction.

Most product leaders I know can deploy one of these modes with great success, the best can deploy all three—and have honed the instinct to model when. More of that, soon.

In the spirit of learning I love to read comments, builds and things that will make these more useful—and would love to hear from you, feel free to drop comments below, or get in touch. Unlike other crap DJs I also take requests for what to spin next.