Five Things a Clever PM Can Learn From Strategy Games

Five Things a Clever PM Can Learn From Strategy Games

In an earlier post, I talked about five things that a PM can learn from role-playing games.  Since I’m a pretty avid gamer, I realized that there are lots of things that PMs can learn from all genres of games, so I’m considering making this a recurring theme.  Today’s discussion focuses on real-time strategy (RTS) games — the Starcrafts or Age of Empires of the world.  These games typically simulate some form of wargame scenario, in which the player takes on the “commander” of a variety of units, starting with low-level units and few resources, and working their way up to a vast army of units with which to crush their opposition.  In many ways, this is similar to how a PM works with what they have to deliver high-value product to their customers.  To wit, my top five list for today:

1. Working with Limited Resources

The primary goal of any RTS game is to properly manage a limited set of resources better than your opponent.  Most games take place on maps where the resources that you need to obtain are strategically placed throughout the map, meaning that you have to scout out these locations, capture the resources, and defend them meaningfully against the opposition’s attempts to displace your control.

Especially in larger companies, this is a strongly relevant metaphor for the work that a PM does every day.  Development resources are limited; training resources are limited; marketing resources are limited; support resources are limited — and it can sometimes be a constant battle to position the needs and priorities of your users as the most important thing for these teams to work with and to work on.  You’ve got to understand all the competing motivations of the various teams, how to talk and convince all of them that working with your plan is the best outcome for everyone, and continually re-assert these priorities as new things come into the queue for all of them.  Knowing which resources to rely on, when to rely on them, and how to “defend” them is a key skill of any good Product Manager.

2. Queues and Timing Can Make All the Difference

In most RTS games, you have the ability to queue up units that will be created and deployed in the order specified.  But, different units cost different amounts of resources, and often take different amounts of time to “build”, with the bigger and more powerful units “costing” more in time and resources.  Thus, managing your queue so that you’re creating the right number and type of units at the right time is essential to a winning strategy.  Otherwise you might find yourself wasting time and resources building a big, bad, game-ending killer — only to discover that while doing so the enemy has whittled down your defenses to the point that they destroy you before your big bad ever sees the light of day.

A similar situation faces good Product Managers whenever they look at their product backlogs and roadmaps.  There are hundreds or thousands of things that you can do, some of them big, some of them small, some of them important, and some of them trivial.  But it’s not the backlog itself that matters, it’s the prioritization of that backlog that makes the difference between an okay Product Manager and a great Product Manager.  Knowing when to take on a gigantic strategic project versus execute a series of smaller, more tactical improvements is essential to balancing your product strategy.  Otherwise, you’re likely to find that someone else is either able to build their “big bad” faster than you, or while you’d been focused on the “big bad” of your own, their smaller improvements have whittled away your market share and thus your customer base.

3. Synergies Create Better Results

Many RTS games are based on some variation of Rock, Paper, Scissors — the classic kid’s game.  There are usually units that can handily defeat some subset of the opponent’s army, but that themselves are weak to another type of unit.  Because of this, it’s essential to create a variety of troops, and to deploy them on the field properly, so that your heavy armored support stays in the background, while your ranged marines stay in the middle, and your flamethrower troops take to the front.  Leveraging the strengths of your armies so that the units are protecting each other while pushing forward is a timeless strategy in RTS games.

And the same applies to Product Management – the more synergies you can identify within your product suite and backlog, the more powerful your releases, your marketing, and your overall thought leadership can be in your market.  Connecting the dots within your suite of features in new, interesting, and engaging ways can change the game, with little or no extra effort actually invested in the design, development, or deployment of those individual features.  Keep an eye out for things that work together, that build off of each other, and that are powerful individually, but home runs when combined together.

4. A Rush Hits Hard, but Can’t Be Sustained

There’s a classic RTS strategy known as a “rush” (or, more commonly, as a “Zerg Rush” after a race in the Starcraft series of games known for their cheap and effective early-game creatures, the Zerflings).  Basically, a rush happens when a player spends massive amounts of resources on relatively weak creatures, then sends them against their opponent(s) in a massive wave of attack.  Early on in a game, this can be devastating if your opponents aren’t expecting it, because while they’re scouting resources and building 2nd-tier units, in comes a gigantic rush of weak creatures that don’t do much independently, but in massive numbers can easily overrun an early-game defense.  The problem, however, is that if the “rush” doesn’t work, the player who focused on all of those lower-level units is out a ton of resources that significantly hamper their ability to generate the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th-tier units necessary to win a longer-term game.  They blow their wad on the rush, leaving them susceptible to later-game failings that others can easily take advantage of.

I liken the “rush” to the kind of product strategy that’s focused solely on meeting the Agile promise of “new features every sprint” — delivering short-term, small, incremental improvements that deliver small amounts of value to your customer, but in discrete, often disconnected components.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Agile principles.  But, when taken to the extreme, you’re doing nothing but “rushing” your competitors, and if you don’t have a long-term, effective strategy to grow your product and  your market segment beyond a series of small, incremental improvements, you’re going to find out that someone out there has spent 6 months focused on a single problem that you’ve ignored because “it can’t be done in two weeks.”  Never mistake tactical success for strategic direction – make sure that when you’re investing in short-term returns, you’ve also got plans in place to make longer-term strategic investments.  Otherwise, you might wake up one day and realize that all your Zerglings are toast, and you barely have enough resources to mine more Vespene Gas.

5. Keep the End Game in Mind

With all of that in mind, good RTS players know that each game is a war, not a battle, and that each engagement sets the stage for the next.  Probing your opponents’ defenses, identifying what units the opposition is building, and which they’re not; what upgrades they’re focusing on, and which they’re bypassing.  Every single choice that you make has long-term impacts as well as short-term gains.  You’ve got to play the game with a mind for the long-term, not just as a series of independent battles that you either win or lose.  At the end of the game, your score isn’t determined by how many units you killed, but rather by whether or not you’re even on the board at the end of the game.

And in a similar vein, a good Product Manager never chooses to put something on his or her backlog that they can’t reasonably connect to a long-term strategic goal.  Any amount of effort that’s spent that doesn’t push the product and the company toward a strategic goal is wasted time, money, and effort.  You can’t burn your developers our by insisting on an all-nighter just to get a couple features packaged and out-the door on the insistence of your CEO or VP of Sales, because doing so is going to make them less likely to want to help you in the future.  All of our short-term decisions as PMs have long-term impacts, and we have to be mindful of those potential consequences, and make it very clear to those with the power and authority what those consequences will be.  A good Product Manager always has the End Game in mind, and always points to the over-arching strategy as their guidepost for what should and shouldn’t be done.

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