Minimum viable strategy: the art of leaving things alone

The other day I was introduced to a lovely idea which I’m sure will resonate strongly with anyone who has to do something “creative” for a living:

The Queen’s Duck.

It comes from the development of a video game, Battle Chess, and more specifically a moment of ingenuity on behalf of one of the animators who worked on it.  Basically he had come to realise that no matter what he took to management for approval, they would always make a change.  This is unsurprising right?  If they didn’t make changes, then it would be like they weren’t adding value – so either consciously or subconsciously they felt they had to find fault, so they could justify their involvement.

Now naturally the animator never bought anything to management he wasn’t himself happy with.  He didn’t want any changes, and would have much preferred them just to say “good job”, and sign off his work.  So in order to encourage this outcome, he hatched a clever plan.

In the animation for the Queen piece, he inserted – completely arbitrarily – a pet duck, which flapped around her whenever she did her moves.  He was extremely careful to make sure the duck’s animation never intermingled with the others around it, and I think you can imagine why.  The duck was there purely to be killed; to give management something they could “fix”, thus protecting the rest of his work.

Sure enough they took one look, said it was all great, but “lose the duck”, and thus a new piece of terminology was born: The Queen’s Duck – a feature added to a product purely for management to remove, thus protecting the work of the creator.

It’s a lovely story, and an even better idea; one which I’m sure every one of us can relate to on some level.  If you’re a creator I’m sure you’ll have been in that situation, offering up a sacrificial lamb to your boss or your client in order to protect the things you love.  But equally if you’re on the other side of the table – management, rather than creator – you should be able to recognise truth in there as well:

The truth of our inability to leave well-enough alone; our unavoidable urge to tinker, to change, and, more deeply, to convince ourselves of our own worth and value.

I wonder how many actions taken in business have this insecurity at the heart of them?  How many of the things we do truly need to be done, versus being done for our own therapeutic purposes?

It’s this side of the tale – the decision maker’s side – that I want to examine in this piece, since that’s the side of my clients.  Indeed that is the side of strategy – choosing what to do and moreover what not to do – and so it’s important we’re able to overcome this urge to “act for action’s sake” if we ever hope to get good at it.

A strategically minded leader would have the confidence to make no amends, if they believed there were none to make.

So how can we do this?

Well, there’s once concept I’ve come up with which I think is helpful here, and that’s this:

Minimum Viable Strategy

We’re all familiar with the concept of minimum viable product I assume – the most basic version of a product which is still functional – and this is pretty similar, only it pertains to the most basic execution of a strategy.

You see, one issue I’ve found for leaders when following a strategy is the desire to do too much with it.  They have a direction (great), and then they start to explore what change they need to make to follow it (also great), but they don’t know where to stop (not so great).  They dig too deep, they ask too many questions, they follow the implications of the strategy too diligently, and thus end up with more changes than they’re able to handle.  Strategic transformation becomes overwhelming, and their desire to do everything, and to do it right, leads to a highly complex and ultimately paralysing plan.

Now I’m all in favour of far reaching, even extreme, executions of strategy.  Indeed as I’ve said before, that’s the key to a truly iconic business.  Taking things further than others would.  But at the same time, you have to pace yourself.  You have to get the order right.  You have to change the simple things before you can move onto the more deep and complicated.

And that is what Minimum Viable Strategy is all about.

To do it, you simply answer this question: what is the bare minimum we could change, and still be legitimately following this strategy?

Typically this list will be very short.  One change.  Maybe two.  And that’s it.  Everything else can be left alone; a single strategic tweak should be enough to turn the entire ship.

We need to remember that strategic advantage, contrary to assumptions, doesn’t come from being as different as possible.  That’s vanity, and takes us into murky waters.  No, strategic advantage comes from being totally generic, except for one small thing.  It comes from a blend of boringness and brilliance, not brilliance forced into every pore.

Perhaps a good way is to think of it in terms of percentages.  Consider these three businesses:

Business A: 100% generic
Business B: 97% generic, 3% different
Business C: 30% generic, 70% different

Many people would assume that it is business C which would have the most market leverage, but typically that isn’t the case.  Business B probably would.  It would be as functional, reliable, predictable, and safe as business A, but with a crucial “hack” which makes it fly.  Business A of course would lack this hack, and so would have to battle through the market with graft, price cutting, and marketing spend.  And as for business C?  Well, chances are it would simply fail.  Too difficult to run; too awkward to get a market foothold.

As a founder, particularly a strategically minded one, you will be tempted create a business C.  To sick your oar in, to make as many changes as you can, to feel like you’re really making a difference, or “steering the ship”.  People think of Steve Jobs getting down in the weeds of Apple, leaving his finger prints on every single detail, and creating something incredible.

Well, you’re not Steve Jobs.  Not yet anyway.  Mere mortals like us need to start only with the most basic, most trenchant changes.  The things that deliver the strategy, rather than the things that revel in it.

Then, as we develop our strategic sensitivity, we can start to go a bit deeper.  Start to make some more “optional” changes which move the business deeper into the strategy, whist keeping its feet firmly on the ground.

And finally, when we reach grandmaster level, we can begin pulling the strategy through everything: through our office furniture, through our hiring policies, through our accounting practices, through our factory layout, whatever.  We’ll know at that point how to tell the difference between a relevant change and an irrelevant one.  How exercise sound judgement, and get our priorities straight.

We will be confident, not insecure.

But until then, resist the urge.  Keep things simple.  Think “big to small” – of the couple things which really matter to the strategy, that will move you from zero to one.

Strategic showboating is glorious.  But it can wait for another day.

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