Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to speak on the topic of Gestalt Product Strategy at the Global Product Management Blog Talk Radio channel. Cindy Solomon and Lydia Sugarman of Venntive were the kind hosts of the program. Here are a few thoughts and considerations around the topic.
What does Gestalt mean?
Gestalt is a German word that means a configuration or pattern that cannot be derived from the sum of its parts, but can only be represented by its unified whole. There’s a whole theory of neuroscience around Gestalt Therapy. This post is not about that. This post is about taking the Gestalt meaning and applying it to strategy and products.
I came across the term Gestalt when I learned about drawing using the perceptual part of the brain. Some years ago after an inspired reading of Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind, I took a five day drawing class in New York city with Brian Bomeisler, son of the famous drawing instructor Betty Edwards. As Brian unraveled how to shut off the thinking brain and switch to the perceptual brain, and then look at the Gestalt of the picture we were drawing, I couldn’t stop myself from relating this idea to the products we conceive and develop. What if we approached products as a whole in stead of feature by feature? What if we drew the outline and then built everything in it based on the discipline with which the outline was drawn – there are things that will go in and there are things that won’t make it. Simple in thought, difficult in practice as we all know. In drawing it is easy – don’t draw just the nose or the eye all the way through, but look at the whole picture and develop it simultaneously, line by line, shade by shade and the picture will emerge.
Googling Gestalt and strategy led me to Mintzberg’s Patterns of Strategy Formation paper. And why was I not surprised. Mintzberg, if you aren’t familiar with his work, is in my humble opinion, the greatest teacher and researcher on the subject of strategy. For those of you who have participated in my ProductCamp strategy discussions, you may recognize I’ve quoted Mintzberg’s works liberally and even handed out free copies of his works to lucky attendees that didn’t go to an MBA program and drown themselves in Porter’s 5 Forces.
But back to Gestalt. How do you know the Gestaltness of your Product or your firm? What does it stand for? Mintzberg says it’s two things that make up Gestalt strategy 1) the uniqueness and 2) the integration that results/or is behind the uniqueness. Where do these come from? Do they arise at the beginning of the product conception and development? Can they arise after a product is already launched? Is Gestalt Strategy a deliberate strategy or is that a result of emergent strategy? Who is responsible for the Gestaltness? Is it the product owner? Is it the founder of the firm? the marketer? Can it change with time? Can organizations be Gestalt at one period of time, lose their way and then come back to a totally different ‘whole’ than before/ What kind of organizations thrive in Gestalt strategy? What kind of leaders are capable of leading such organizations? These are all things to ponder.
As I think through these questions, following is what I come up with. 1) Market leaders typically have a Gestalt strategy – whether it is deliberate or emergent. But it is not exclusive to them. Even long tail firms can have Gestalt strategy. Gestalt is about uniqueness, about the whole that is a combination of integrated elements others/competitors cannot trivially assemble or copy. 2) Gestalt strategy is very much a founder or transformational leader led effort – you either need a clean slate to paint the whole picture or you need to start from scratch to build something new with a vision. It is hard to take someone else’s work and try to draw a whole around or within it.
A simple Gestalt example
What are some good examples of Gestalt strategy? The simplest I can think of is small and medium businesses, especially in the food industry. For example there’s an independently owned Thai restaurant that is two blocks away from where I live. Walking into the restaurant, there is a certain vibe and feel to it. Every single element inside is curated to reflect the Thai spirit and culture in them – the furniture, the decoration, the wall posters, the shelves in the connected grocery store. Arguably the owners of the restaurant can make more money if they also started selling things that aren’t part of their Gestalt. But, the owners made a conscious decision to only sell those that fit the ethnic Thai vibe the restaurant has. So you won’t see generic Asian grocery in the store shelf. It’s either Thai Jasmine rice or no rice. Just as the product, the customer service at this is restaurant has a friendly neighborhood vibe. The owner remembers the names of the people (including me and my daughter) that frequent her restaurant. So the product, the layout, the customer service – all of it together make up the strategy, the Gestalt. If I were to simply single out, for example, the Thai food is their differentiation it would be unfair and incorrect. There are other factors beyond the food, that make up the full picture. Disaggregating the value chain and optimizing each component of the value chain is good for analysis but isn’t how the Gestalt works because the whole is greater than the sum of individual parts.
Gestalt and leadership
But Gestalt also raises a huge leadership competency issue. Who is fit to lead the organization when envisioning and implementing a Gestalt strategy? Is it a generic executive who can operationalize things. It is someone who knows the subject deeply, is passionate about it. Is that someone that is an entrepreneur? Is that a serial entrepreneur? Is that a transformational leader? Someone that bridge many elements of the strategy into one coherent vision?
Referring back to the Thai restaurant, it so happens the couple that own is half Thai and half American. They teach Thai cooking classes. They are passionate and knowledgeable about the subject. They are also the founders, the entrepreneurs. Imagine if they sold their restaurant to some operator who is excellent at managing teams, but has no real understanding of Thai food or what makes the restaurant truly stand out in the neighborhood for its uniqueness. Would the Gestalt of the restaurant still stand? Doubtful. The former had authenticity of founding a business with a vision while the latter’s authenticity is suspect.
What are the problems we can see with Gestalt strategy? Founders, transformational leaders like everyone else can have their blind spots. The founders of RIM had a unique vision about their product. For years that product had, what seemed like a durable advantage. But they didn’t have the strategic agility. Perhaps the problems at RIM were far more than what the founders could handle, and/or their competition was simply too good and/or their cognitive bias was working against their new product strategy. In any case, Gestalt strategy needs to be agile and fluid even as it integrates every element to be unique.
The key for product strategists is to recognize when and how their Gestalt vision can work.
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