low angle photography of cranes on top of building

How lessons from wargames can help you ship products and build strong teams

low angle photography of cranes on top of building
Photo by Danist Soh on Unsplash

We all know that product is hard, so here are some themes from a very playful activity that will help you get better at it.

Shipping products is rough, full of false starts, lousy execution, and a lack of will to kill products quickly. But a bad strategy creates a state of false hope, and can leave you and your team punched in the face after months of work.

As a product executive, I deal with the strategy all the time. One of my favorite jobs was as a product strategist at Philosophie. Philosophie focuses on innovation work in the enterprise, where ambiguity is the norm, not the exception. My job there was to focus my energy on finding the best strategies to create positive outcomes from the ambiguous problems of our clients, who usually didn’t have the time to deal with them.

Every engagement was different, and I had to learn how to apply different strategies to solve those ambiguous problems. The great thing about strategies is they translate well to other areas. They aren’t one to one, something I used to help a startup could potentially help a fortune 100 company, and vice versa. That translation is a good thing because to become a better strategist; one must implement a strategy. Like all product work, it doesn’t happen in your head. This wasn’t the first place I learned this, however. It goes back to one of my first loves, wargaming.

Wargaming is a hobby where people gather to simulate combat from different time periods. A game usually has a team trying to achieve an objective, using a rule set, dice and lead figurines to do so. In short, it is a bunch of people gathered around a table “pushin’ lead” and having a good time. Like wargaming, success, no matter how impressive your strategy, is not guaranteed. However, like wargaming, the right concepts can help any product manager increase their chance of success.

Wargaming looks like this:

Pretty cool right?

The great thing about wargaming is when there is a challenging scenario, both skill and luck play a role in finding success. Doesn’t that sound rather like product management?

We may get lucky with building something. With that said, if you want your product to make a recognizable impact on someone’s life, strategy is essential. If one isn’t in place, the team will fail, given enough time. Good news! I think there are some quick heuristics that I’ve learned playing wargames that can help you make sure that your product strategy is well rounded.

I’ve picked out three that have helped me think about my next steps, shape overall vision, and communicate effectively with the teams I’ve worked with to help us execute successfully.

1. Rules Affect Implementation, not Direction

You better know the rules if you want to execute, with that said though, your strategy shouldn’t be strictly based on the rules.

In wargaming, the rules exist to bring in some order. We have to know what system we play in to make sure the scenario is clear and fun. At the beginning of the game, the person in charge, known as the game master, goes over the set of rules for the game.

low angle photography of cranes on top of building
Photo by Danist Soh on Unsplash

In product, it may be the opposite. The market, stakeholders, and team dynamic make the rules. No one talks about them publicly, and you often have to figure them out as you go along. No matter though, either way, if you don’t know the rules, they can send you right to a confusing failure if you aren’t careful. With that said, you can’t let the rules dictate your strategy. If you are overly worried about a “morale roll” or a “stakeholder,” you can lose sight of the ultimate objective.

Remember: Strategies = Sets of rules. Knowing the rules changes your strategies on implementation, not the strategy.

2. The Goal Comes First, Everything Else is ego

At the end of the game, no one is going to care if your tank survived or you took Persia – did you win? In both product and wargaming, sometimes the name of the game is resource allocation. Questions like, “Where can I reinforce my attack?” or “What workshop can I do to improve alignment?” are always going in and out of your head. You can’t, however, forget that ultimately, every answer should serve the objective.

Sometimes, in wargaming, that means letting a territory go. In product, that may mean a feature has to die. If you don’t have a clear objective, every decision afterwards is tainted. If you have to stop and reorganize, do so. With that said, moving forward without your goal is a losing proposition.

Do whatever it takes to remember the goal in all things, even if that means you take the brunt of the punishment. Failure often happens because people get far too worried about what things “look like” and ego instead of the objective. Remember: Objectives = Vision. Sometimes we care about the aesthetics or the beauty of the code… in reality, we have an objective, and your job is to connect all the pieces together so the goal wins over everyone else.

3. Get Your Ideas out of Your Head, Then Commit

Talking with your teammates means focus and focus wins. When you huddle with your team, the best idea has to win. Ego leads us to believe that we have the best ideas. As a product manager, you may think that means your ideas are best. They aren’t, so don’t fall into the trap of having your title determine the strength of your ideas. That’s what happened to Napoleon at Waterloo.

Everyone has something to contribute, so get your thoughts out of your head. More importantly, facilitate other people to get involved. More ideas are better than fewer, so after they are out on the table, commit to the best idea.

low angle photography of cranes on top of building
Photo by Danist Soh on Unsplash

The key to good teamwork is high-velocity communication. It means you listen, use your judgment to sift out bad ideas (even your own) and once the team has weighed in, decide and commit. Operationally this means that you should get your ideas out on the table and see what lives. Once they are out there, find the best option and commit to it.

Commitment doesn’t equal blind fanaticism. The landscape changes and leaders are malleable. Product is all about finding shifts and exploiting them.

Listen to your team and keep people updated. Don’t be afraid to take a break to understand next steps. Sometimes continuing to work for the sake of “progress” will leave an army, or product, dead in its tracks. Remember – decide and commit. You don’t have the best idea all the time, and one way the best idea is going to win is high-velocity communication.

Key Takeaways

Product is about helping teams to visualize a direction and execute to make it happen.

As Dwight D Eisenhower said, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. You’ll make mistakes along the way, especially when the “game” is on the line, much like when you are in crunch time with a product. The world is ambiguous, and your job is to help see that through. Strategy gives you flexibility and a position to pivot from, as well as a method to communicate with your team.

Remembering that rules affect implementation, not direction, that the goal comes first, everything else is ego, and that you should get your ideas out of your head and commit, helps you, as a product person, keep communication and trust high. As a result, you’ll ship well and more importantly, with consistency.

Product is a constantly shifting environment. Understanding the rules, knowing your resources, and communication can be the difference between success and failure.

A good strategy is a way for us to stay consistent and make sure that we keep our teams prepared for what comes our way. Even though it doesn’t guarantee victory, it does help us grow a community and build trust with our teams.

So, go out there and roll some dice. Your team will thank you later.


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