What I learned about product strategy from a video game
Strategy is probably one of the key parts of being a product manager, but it’s not something I learnt in my comprehensive school education. I didn’t learn it working as a chef either…although that taught me heaps about delivery models and managing teams! When I started working as a product manager, I read blog posts about it like most people do. But I don’t think I ever really got strategy, really understood it, until I started playing the video game Rome: Total War last summer.
What is product strategy?
Put simply, a product strategy outlines how a company or organisation will achieve its vision, showing where it’s going and how it’ll get there. Depending on the vision, you might tie together a few strategies to get there incrementally. Going for world domination from the outset just won’t work, you have to start smaller and learn as you go.
Often, a product strategy will be communicated through a roadmap, showing the value you’ll deliver for users now, next and later. Things you’re doing now will be well defined, but anything later will likely be broad strokes.
I won’t go into product strategy too much but Marty Cagan is pretty good at breaking down vision and strategy. Simon Wardley managed to cogently boil down Sun Tzu’s The Art of War – the canonical text on strategy – into a blog post about being lost.
How does the game work?
In Rome: Total War you take command of one of three Roman families: the Julii, the Brutii or the Scipii. The ultimate goal (the vision) is to become emperor by conquering provinces during the later years of the Roman republic.
Each family has its own advantages, a bit like companies and their products: the Julii have powerful armies, for example, whereas the Brutii start off with more money. Each faction begins in different parts of the map, too. The Scipii are sea-farers and will find it easier to hold the shipping lanes, but eventually they’ll need to conquer the eastern provinces which the Brutii neighbour with.
As you start conquering provinces, you’ll manage the inhabitants, the economies and work with their cultures. Those people generate income, provide weapons and train armies, and if they’re not bought into the vision, they’ll rebel.
So on a macro-level, you’ve got a purpose as a faction (product) and a landscape (market) to enact it within. There are competitors around you, and how your faction fulfills its objectives – how it runs its business – can decide its success.
Achieving the vision in sequences
The game is turn-based, meaning you have a set number of moves to make each turn. You can tweak the economies, create armies in provinces, build ships and train spies, and move armies and consuls across the map. If you move your entire army to one province, an enemy could walk right in to your capital and take it over. So you have to think a few steps ahead and work defensively as well as offensively.
You almost have to build a roadmap in your head to visualise the parts of the strategy.
Working with multiple disciplines
When you get to the nitty-gritty, the actual battles, you have to think on a micro-level. For example, placing spearmen in front of your soldiers helps to protect against charging cavalrymen. Standing archers on a hill gives them extra range. Hiding light infantry in a forest off to the side gives you the element of surprise.
You have to work with the skills and advantages of different disciplines, directing them to work at their best.
Don’t be a dictator
There’s plenty of parallels between Rome: Total War and product management, but the analogy breaks down when you consider styles of management. The Roman republic was an oligarchy which largely relied on public obedience or oppression. It gave way to the Roman Empire, when Julius Caesar declared himself dictator and passed the position on.
Product teams are at their best when they can explore a problem space together and apply innovative solutions. People don’t react well to unethical leadership making questionable demands these days. If a team isn’t progressing well, perhaps let them play a few video games – they might pick up a whole new perspective.