Dandelion/Elephant Strategy Rubric

I discussed the nature of conditions that encourage dandelion or elephant strategies, but I only skimmed a little bit the topic of why one would choose these strategies. Here’s a sketch of digging a bit more in depth of this particular “why”.

A rubric that we want to use here stems from the observation of environments leading to the thriving of the organizations that chose either strategy. The environment must be complementary to the strategy.

Elephants and other K-selected species choose their strategy because the environment makes this strategy viable: there is a well-defined, stable niche into which the overall shape of the species’ activities fits. This niche is usually crowded: there are other species within that niche, and the game of life is mostly about optimizing the shape to vie for bettering other species. In this way, the environment of an elephant strategy is shape-focused.

This helps us define a rule of thumb for choosing to pursue the elephant strategy: if the shape of our technology or product is well-known and well-understood (and thus strongly expected) by our market, the elephant strategy is likely warranted.

The word “shape” here is meant in a broader sense: it’s not necessarily the physical dimensions of some object. Rather, it’s the whole set of expectations and constraints that define the niche in which we’re playing.

Using this definition, we can see that the basic shape of a mobile phone is becoming more and more entrenched in the mindshare of the world’s population. It’s the iconic iPhone shape that Steve Jobs revealed in 2007. There’s an expectation of a touch screen and a camera, of GPS, and various other sensors that are considered table stakes by the users. Should a company decide to ship a phone that does not fit into that shape, it will be playing at a different, less populated table.

Everyone who wants to live in this niche must be engaged in a strongly elephant-leaning strategy: year over year, continuous, incremental improvement of what can fit into the shape defined by the niche. We think of elephants as being slow, and that’s where the metaphor falls a bit short. Pursuing the elephant strategy is all about steadily accumulating mass and gaining velocity through momentum. Maybe thinking about how a capital ship reaches their tremendous speed would help here. It’s the game of consistency and compounding momentum, not leaps of faith or moonshots.

Prioritizing while pursuing elephant strategy, we must ask ourselves these questions: does this work help us accumulate momentum over the long term? Does it contribute to optimizing for the shape in the niche we’re playing? Does it help us better understand the nuanced nooks and crannies of the shape that might be critical for the relentless striving of shape-fitting? 

Having impact in pursuit of elephant strategy means contributing to gaining momentum. If I did something impressive, but not aligned with this larger goal, I probably wasted my energy – or worse yet, slowed down the ship. As I described before, top-down cultures tend to be effective here: it is easier to understand what to align with.

As a thought experiment, compare two teams: in one team, planning happens as a top-down process, and in another – bottom-up. In the top-down team, the direction is clearly stated at the beginning of the planning, and all team members must shape their work to align with this direction. Conversely, in a bottom-up planning process, the members supply what they are planning to do and then the sum vector of this work determines where the team will go. Which team will have a greater consistency of momentum accumulation over time?

On the other hand, dandelions and the r-selected species they represent choose their strategy because the space in front of them is wide open. This typically happens when a technological breakthrough suddenly provides the means to build something new, but the actual product-market fit – the shape of the product or technology – is entirely unclear. There are no right or wrong answers – yet. There aren’t clearly defined constraints and the perceived limits seem to give when pushed on. Everyone else is doing roughly the same thing: stumbling around to find out what the heck this new space is all about.

To turn it into a rule of thumb for choosing the dandelion strategy: if the technology or product space is ill-defined and little-understood, pick the dandelion strategy.

I already used the AI-generated media space as the currently-unfolding example of this scenario, and it’s still very relevant. It is not knowable where this thing will go. Early attempts to discern constraints or define a shape will likely look foolish in the long run.

It is fairly easy to see how trying to build a new dreadnought or turn the existing ship toward this momentum are both activities fraught with peril. When we don’t know where dandelion seeds will land, we are better off letting go of our habit of predicting the outcomes.

Instead of investing into enterprise-strength, scalable software, we can be better off with duct tape and popsicle sticks when adopting the dandelion strategy. Throw something together, make it go, ship it, and see what happens. Do it again. And again. Watch carefully for surprising developments. If our tiny app suddenly gains a small following – that’s something. Avoid presuming that we know what this “something” is. Very often, in a new space, even when given an opportunity to tell us directly, our users might not be able to articulate it, either. Revealed preferences rule over the stated ones. The trick is to keep trying and learning and making sure that the learning propagates to some common pool of wisdom.

In such an environment, bottom-up cultures work amazingly well. Returning to the earlier thought experiment, can you see how the fortunes of these teams will be reversed? The top-down team will form a tight fist, punch hard in one direction … to never be heard from again. In contrast, the bottom-up team will diverge in a cloud of divergent direction vectors, thus maximizing their chances of stumbling onto a fertile niche.

Here, being impactful means uncovering something interesting and surprising as quickly as possible – and bringing it back to the team. Trying and failing is just as useful, because it uncovers where not to go, or go about differently. The key difference between measuring the impact for the elephant strategy is in contributing to the common pool of knowledge while exploring a direction that’s different from the rest of the team. This can feel rather unintuitive: members reinforcing each other’s approaches can be a source of blindness when applying the dandelion strategy. The way to structure incentives here is to emphasize individual agency while rewarding contributions to collective knowledge of the space.

How does a bottom-up team prioritize? In an uncertain environment, prioritization is emergent. There aren’t well-defined metrics and clear lines to cut. Instead, the team’s stumbling into novelty is the source of knowing what’s important, leading to recurring waves of swarming and scattering. This may feel rather mercurial and drive some engineers and program managers nuts. The trick here is to zero in not on the ever-moving objects of prioritization, but rather on whether the information about these objects is flowing as quickly and clearly as possible.

To summarize these two rules of thumb, I will bring them together into a rubric. Ask these two questions:

  1. Is the shape of the product/technology niche in which we are playing well-understood? 
  2. Are we playing in (or closely adjacent to) the space that just opened up because of a recent technological breakthrough?

The answers form a 2×2.

For the environments where the shape is well-known, with no new space opening up, we are looking at a strongly elephant-leaning strategy. Get that colossal ship going and keep it rolling. Don’t get discouraged when first outcomes are unsatisfying. Elephant calves need nursing and care.

If the answer to both questions is “yes”, we’re probably seeing increasing potential for a new product category in a previously-stable space. Something curious will happen soon, and we don’t want to miss it. Deploy the “fuzzy elephant” stance: structure most of the team to adopt the elephant-leaning strategy, with a modest-sized group making dandelion moves. Given the recent rate of technological advance, this is an effective posture for any large player: there will always be an opportunity of surprise.

The full-on dandelion approach is warranted in the presence of a technological breakthrough in a brand new area with few well-defined niches. Manage divergence and get that insight flow going – who will be the first player to spot a niche?

The final quadrant is a bit puzzling for me. If the shape is not known and there aren’t any breakthroughs, why are we playing here? It feels like there might not be enough evolutionary pressure to get the selection process going – which means that if we find ourselves in this space, we are better off looking for a way out.

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