Strategy needs a sacrifice

Strategy is one of those words that mean something different to different people. There is no one perfect definition, but we generally feel the difference between tactics and strategy.

The definition I currently like is:

“A strategy is a high-level set of choices and sacrifices designed to take us from where we are to a measurable position of advantage.”

Designed” is crucial. It means a strategy comes from deliberate thought and is not accidental or organic.

Measurable” is clear as well. We should rely on data and not on gut feelings.

Choices are what we decide to do, but “sacrifice“…?

Thousands of people get a gym membership on the first day of the year. They aim to get in shape, and their strategy is exercising more. Five times a week if they have to. Most of them give up quickly because exercising isn’t enough to get results: You can’t outrun a bad diet.

I firmly believe that a good strategy requires us to give something up to get to where we want to be. We need a sacrifice.

Let’s say we have a SaaS product that contains so many bugs that users are dropping out. We need to get this under control if we want to grow.

Our strategy could be, “we’ll fix all the bugs first.” It has a choice but no sacrifice.

It’s a weak strategy.

Not only does this upend the entire roadmap, but it also doesn’t address the root cause. While we are fixing bugs, we will probably introduce new ones. Progress on the product stagnates; sooner than later, someone will push for a few must-have features.

By leaving out an explicit sacrifice, we’re stating our positive intent while gently ignoring the negative consequences. Of course, we are going to weasel out!

“We will fix all existing bugs and cover all features with automated tests. Until we reach 0 bugs, we will not work on the roadmap.”

This is a great sacrifice! Not because it’s feasible in a business context (it isn’t) but because it is focused and makes its consequences clear. It’s a conversation starter to get to a set of choices and sacrifices that work.

Our strategy will end up with a set of choices. We will dedicate two sprints to fixing major bugs. We’ll adopt TDD and a bug-first approach. We’ll keep Fridays for roadmap work as a minimal means of progress—plenty of options.

But it will also contain explicit sacrifices. We’ll push the roadmap back by a month. We’ll cancel the redesign of the Customer Space. We will hire a Test Engineer instead of growing the dev capacity in Q2.

Those are some tough decisions. We leave no room to weasel out when we state decisions explicitly and agree on them. We’ll need to renegotiate the entire strategy if we want to deviate. That’s a powerful check.

Coming up with strategies feels great. We see where we are and fantasize about where we could be. We’re full of good intentions when we vow to improve. It’s like a new year’s resolution on an organizational level.

Sacrifices make sure we keep our feet on the ground.