One of the well-known challenges of being a product manager is that you don't actually manage anyone. PMs are expected to deliver products and shape strategy through organizational influence, rather than direct management.
There are many ways to influence people and organizations: you can build great relationships, you can be a great salesperson, you can inspire with charismatic presentations. This post outlines another path to influence, which is through the development and distribution of strategy memes.
Strategy Memes Run Your Company
The biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term meme in The Selfish Gene. He defined it as any idea, behavior, or style that spreads person to person within a culture. There's an all-out meme war that is constantly taking place, as ideas take hold, spread, evolve, competing for limited mindshare.
A strategy meme is a short, simple, and memorable perception of reality that spreads throughout an organization. It is often the distillation of complex ideas or data into something that people can easily hold on their head.
Strategy memes are mental shortcuts. They present the soundbite of a much more complex reality. By reducing the cognitive overhead of engaging with the strategy, you allow others to familiarize and engage with the strategy. Strategy memes can align millions of people who have never met, in offices and places around the world. It can become a rallying cry, a clarifying focus, the difference between a project that fails to gain steam and a breakout product.
The strategy meme is like a picture (meme) of your vacation (strategy). The photo is easily shareable and provides a glimpse of the trip. It doesn't replace the actual richness of your experience. No one could look at a picture of Paradise Falls and claim they've been there.
Great Strategy Memes
Strategy memes can be big and small. You are probably familiar with many:7 Friends in 10 Days. Build the Everything Store. Don't be evil. It's the Economy, Stupid.
I've pulled two strategy memes below that are "great" in that they are influential, sticky, and viral. Note that these are all external memes — shared both with the company but also with customers. But many product strategy memes that you'll develop as a PM will be geared towards internal consumers like your sales, support, partners, or leadership.
Blend's on a mission to to deliver "one-tap access to the world's financial resources". Knowing very little about Blend, do you have a sense for what that could look like? Have you ever had to fax some form to a financial institution, or sit idly on hold while trying to talk to your bank?
The meme here is the metaphor of one-tap. One-tap is easy. It's fast. It's a familiar motion. It signals a future where the pain of dealing with personal finances is gone.
We have no idea what would be required to make this possible. It says nothing about the fragmentation of the lending market, the lack of APIs that the world's financial resources may have today, or the financial regulations that may stand in the way of one-tap. It paves over all of these into a simple and accessible.
Segment is a customer data platform that helps companies understand their users and deliver personalized experiences. It's a technical product that solves a problem for engineering, marketing, and analytics teams. It provides data ingestion, governance, routing, and monitoring tools to make data integration simple. How do you make that accessible and interesting to those who may not be as deep in the problem space, or don't know if they have this problem?
What Good is Bad Data was a marketing campaign that really started with a customer problem. We saw that customers were turning to our product to help clean up messy, untrusted data and confusing, fragile data pipelines. The ability to deliver good data was top of mind for many Segment customers.
What good is bad data is a simple tagline that represents a long-term strategy to deliver a product that allows companies to trust their (formerly untrusted data). It sums up many years of designing tracking plans, specs, schema controls, data monitoring capabilities that many people are too busy to think about.
What the heck is the GDP of the internet? Is that possible to measure? And how would one increase it? This strategy meme is great in that it feels accessible, but also makes you want to learn more.
Developing Strategy Memes
What's the recipe for a great strategy meme? Using the above examples, we can extract a few ingredients:
It's short - this is key. Keep It Stupidly Simple. KISS. People are short on time and have a lot on their minds.
It captures the essence - there is something insightful and reflective of reality. It makes you lean in.
It's memorable - It should stick out in someone's mind. Generally done through metaphorical name selection. "we're going to migrate from Mongo to MySQL" v. "RIP Mongo"
It's accessible - Everyone, regardless of their context, can grasp the meme.
What a strategy meme is not:
Unfounded marketing: While there's definitely an aspect of marketing, a strategy meme isn't selling something. Ultimately the ability for a strategy meme to be successful — and ultimately realized — is because it's based on a fundamental, complex reality about the world. The meme is the abstraction on that complexity and the vehicle for others to understand.
An Execution Plan: Note that none of the above get into the how. The ability to execute on the strategy is separate from a communication of that strategy.
How Product Memes Spread
So, you have a new initiative that you're excited about, that the team believes in, but no one else really understands why it's important. What's next?
Define the meme: Use the above ingredients to define your meme
Create some collateral: A good meme could use some visuals. What's the logo, emoji, diagram, elevator pitch that can help others understand the project and stick out in their minds?
Share: Memes spread when others share them. Help others understand the meme. Use it as a psychological short-cut in meetings. Avoid being annoyingly repetitive about it. If others aren't grabbing on to it it's probably not a great strategy meme!
Dark Side of the Meme
Meme's can also work against you if they are untrue, unfounded, or misconstrued. We'll call them Dark Strategy Memes. A few examples you may have experienced:
Sales: "The product isn't quality, I can't sell this"
Support: "The product team isn't responsive to the needs of the customers. They're just focused on their roadmap"
Leadership: "The product isn't moving fast enough...how can we ship faster?"
The same benefit of memes — that they spread quickly, that they create alignment — can be tough to fight if the meme isn't a shortcut for what's really going on.
The best way to fight Dark Memes is to stop the spread as early as possible. Try to understand the sentiment that's leading to this misunderstanding, and then share your perspective, facts, data, narrative as to what's going on.
As a PM, you're responsible for creating delightful products for your customers. To do that, you need to develop and align the organization around a product strategy. You also need to think about the distribution of that product strategy to get your organization onboard.
Different parts of the org will engage with your product strategy at different levels. Some will want to understand the full story, some will want to dig into the raw inputs, and most will want a soundbite.
Make sure you have packaged you product strategy in a way that's accessible to the consumer. One of the fastest ways to spread your ideas is via Strategy Memes, which is a short, memorable snapshot of your product strategy.
Make sure your Strategy Memes are grounded in reality. Don't be sales-y or gimmick-y.
Dark Memes will also spread in your org. The best way to combat them is to understand the sentiment behind them, trace the source, and present your facts to stop the spread.