Preparing For War
Recently Ben Horowitz posted yet another very thought-provoking article, this time on the different type of leadership that is needed for when things are going along fine (“the peacetime CEO”) versus when things get rough (“the wartime CEO”).
I find this perspective of peacetime versus wartime an interesting way to frame the issue. I realized that most of the time that a company asks me for help, they are usually under attack, they know they need to change, yet they are essentially unarmed.
Startups are born into war. They are fighting for their very survival. Yet larger companies usually achieved their success earlier, and have been riding the growth of their early products for several years.
I used to view these cases mostly as the Innovator’s Dilemma. These were companies that created something great years ago, but now they are struggling to innovate and generate new sources of revenue.
I still think that’s sometimes the case, but in many cases, rather than the company digging in and protecting what they have, it may be more the situation Ben describes – the leaders and culture had been established during the time when the company was thriving; leading in its category and growing consistently for several years. But now there are serious threats to the company’s future, others are stealing their customers, and they know they need to change but they don’t know how.
I often meet companies that have been in peacetime for a long time, and while they weren’t looking, new competitors have emerged, and the methods of doing battle have changed considerably. The enemy has built skills that let him experiment faster and more aggressively, execute faster, and provide better solutions for their customers.
I don’t think the wartime analogy is perfect because it tends to make us focus on competitors, but we’re not really fighting our competitors. If we’re fighting anyone, it’s usually ourselves, especially in larger companies. The real battle is for customers. The companies that win are the ones that consistently innovate on behalf of their customers.
So how do you prepare for war?
Preparing for war means moving to a strong product culture, one where we can learn quickly. Not just minor learnings like we do when we optimize, but fundamental learnings that enable entire new sources of revenue.
It means getting good at product discovery – both qualitative (especially user prototyping and user testing) and quantitative (especially live-data prototypes and split testing).
It means getting serious about user experience design. It means utilizing your best engineers for more than just coding.
Preparing for war also means getting clarity on roles and responsibilities, and raising the bar for everyone in the company. It means abandoning such luxuries as a consensus culture in favor of a truly collaborative culture, with true empowerment but also accountability.
These are some of the fundamentals, but preparing for war mostly means getting serious about the products and services we produce for our customers.
For what it’s worth, my view is that at least in the technology industry, I’m not sure we’ll ever enjoy “peacetime” again. I say that because the industry moves and adapts so quickly now, that I don’t see any leadership position as safe. Staying on top means a relentless focus on customers and continuous innovation.