Startup lessons learned (by playing XCOM) Startups are all about making tough calls with limited resources. So why not add aliens?

A long time ago, exhausted after extinguishing some firedrill for the product I was working on, a younger me flopped down on the couch, exhaled deeply, and fired up a new game I had bought, called XCOM: Enemy Within.

I didn’t have high hopes I’d enjoy it, to be honest. First of all, it was turn-based, meaning I’d take turns with the computer, maneuvering our competing squads of soldiers around the tiled playing field until one side or the other was the last man standing. It made me feel like the equivalent of a lonely old man playing Chess in the park – except indoors, by myself, with a game controller. Hardly rock n’ roll, right?

Secondly, I’d heard the war stories from passionate players about how brutally unforgiving the game could be, which is usually an immediate red flag for me that I shouldn’t waste my time on a game like this. And yet, something about it called to me, so I decided to – gingerly – dip my toe into the unknown waters.

"Closssserr..."
“Yesss, a little closssserr…” ~XCOM (Source: Mark Barrison, Alligator)

Now, roughly 2 years later, I’m about to finish my first runthrough of the game, and it’s been, in a word, a revelation for my perspectives on building products, in addition to being one of the finest games I’ve ever played. Read on, and I’ll tell you how playing XCOM changed the way I think about startups, managing product teams, and finding growth for your web & mobile app.

Hold up, WTF is Xcom?

It’s the alien apocalypse, and you’re in charge of repelling the global invasion on humanity’s behalf, as the leader of XCOM – kinda like the UN Peacekeepers, but dedicated to kicking wholesale alien ass. But instead of personally picking up the nearest shotgun and going all Rambo like most other games, in XCOM you start with a small band of wimpy rookie soldiers under your remote command. It’s on you to tell them where to move, what to do, and who to shoot. A couple minutes of the video clip below should give you the gist.

To begin with, they’re massively outgunned and panic at a stiff breeze, but as you guide your squad to victory and research new equipment for them, they evolve to gain new skills that turn them into forces of nature on the battlefield against those dirty aliens – if you play your cards right.

That’s a big if, though – unlike almost every other videogame ever released, when these plucky soldiers entrusting you with their digital lives bite the dust in XCOM, it’s permanent – forcing you as their Commander to find ways to fill the gaping hole left in your team’s skillset with an inexperienced new recruit.

Mash together Independence Day, Starship Troopers, Chess, and Saving Private Ryan, and you’ve got an inkling of what it’s like to play XCOM: Enemy Within. But once you look beyond the military sci-fi pastiche and get acquainted with the game’s mechanics – the behaviors it encourages, and the kinds of approaches it punishes – you’ll find it’s an incredible training tool for strategic prioritization that’ll challenge your gray matter like nothing else I’ve encountered.

XCOM: Enemy Within is like Independence Day, Starship Troopers, Chess and Saving Private Ryan, all rolled into one.

The more I played, the more parallels I observed between my day-to-day workplace challenges as a product manager, and the missions I was tackling as the stony-faced commander of the XCOM counter-invasion task force. Here are some of the things I’ve learned as a result.

Parallel Thinking: Prioritizing spending & investment

At the end of each month in the game’s accelerated timeline, funding trickles in from the countries you’re defending. Resources and materials used to create better weapons and equipment for your troops are scarce, and concrete intel with which to plan your next move is similarly hard to come by. You’ll be making tough decisions about where to invest your resources in order to get the most out of every dollar.

It's hard out there, with scarce resources - make every drop count.
It’s hard out there, with scarce resources – make every drop count.

Should you buy that tough new body armor for your soldiers to increase their survival odds against the slavering alien hordes? Or instead spend the money fostering stronger relationships with the countries funding your entire war effort? Neglect one course of action, and you face a rising body count – ignore the other and watch your tapped bank account grind your operation to a halt, leading to a rising body count. Heavy is the head that wears the crown…

“You go to war with the army you have – not the army you might want” ~ Donald Rumsfeld

This, to me, is the very essence of startup product management – we face these kinds of decisions every single day. To make progress and drive growth, we learn to deal with constant resource scarcity that requires shrewd spending of time/money/effort and a relentless focus on getting results with less. So I found XCOM was a nice way to get some practice with making these kinds of choices, and watching the consequences play out (y’know, without my job, or our business on the line).

Takeaways:

Ignore price, go for value – Always question where you’re investing your limited resources, and ensure they’re being spent to directly benefit the overall objective, whether that’s acquiring users, increasing retention or even just aiming for an important launch date. Don’t let the price tag distract you more than necessary – it’s the value delivered by your investment that counts.

Parallel Thinking – Always be on the lookout for what the military calls Force Multipliers” – single investments that, once matured, confer multiple benefits to your business. To use a common startup scenario, you could spend money buying more servers to handle the load of all your users, or you could instead invest in optimizing your app to run more efficiently on your existing hardware – thereby also increasing the capacity of every additional server you purchase in the future. Using parallel thinking to capitalize on opportunities this way enables you to make progress on multiple fronts, which further extends your startup’s runway.

Source: R/DV/RS, Changed Priorities Ahead sign
Source: R/DV/RS, Changed Priorities Ahead sign

Misdirected momentum is not momentum – While constant questioning of the priorities can sometimes lead to short term disruption in momentum as you pivot, it’s almost always better to periodically stop and reorient your team in the right direction, than to complete all the to-do’s for the wrong plan.

Teamwork: Moving & acting with one mind

Source: o.did, img_8256
Source: o.did, img_8256

Your soldiers are supremely squishy early on in the game – most of the enemies you encounter can put them down by landing just one or two shots, so you learn early on to maneuver and direct your squad’s attention as a single entity. Each soldier must cover each other’s backs in order to survive out there, leveraging their individual strengths to press the advantage and simultaneously minimize their comrades’ vulnerabilities.

In addition, you’ll get used to prioritizing which threats you should focus on removing first in order to keep your squad safe, and who should be responsible for taking the shot to put that slimy, tentacly sucker down.

Takeaways:

Know your role – I can’t help but shake the sense that this is very similar to how I’ve worked with product teams in the past – at any given moment, my role was to decide Who on my team was best to tackle What, and When, in order to best reach our objective.

It’s a cliche, but Team > Rockstar.

Beware an over-reliance on rockstars – The game and my own experiences have taught me to be far more cognizant about distributing training and development opportunities across the team, to spread the growth around more evenly. If I wanted to progress, I had to constantly resist the temptation to rely too much on favored team members with the most experience in each area. Doing so puts your team in a precarious position, and it’s not fair to that team member, either. What happens if they’re suddenly unavailable due to the flu, (or a lucky alien headshot)?

Rotate your bench – As and when circumstances permitted, I’ve found it was actually more beneficial to allow less-experienced team members to work on tasks they’re not the most efficient at. Over time, their skills grew, resulting in a robust product team with far more depth and flexibility. It’s a great reminder that growing your understanding of how others work with your output also makes you better at your own job.

triage: How to deal when everything goes to shit

helmuth-von-moltke-large“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” ~Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, Prussian Chief of Staff

Yes, I did just quote a 19th century prussian military officer, while using a videogame as a vehicle for talking about product management – this is just that kind of blog, ok?

One of the things I best love about XCOM, and which I found most applicable to my day-to-day, is the way it forces you to never go in with just one plan of attack. Your troops aren’t perfect, and will sometimes miss 99%-certain shots on enemies standing right in front of them. As their commander, you face constant uncertainty – not knowing what’s around the next corner, nor what exactly your enemies are capable of.

Takeaways:

Learn to roll deep with contingency plans – Hey, that’s startup life, right? As founders and product managers, we’re often forced to scramble, adapt, and work with whatever options we’ve got left to construct a viable Plan B. After this happens to you a few times, you learn to roll deep into any situation, with solid plans C and D comfortingly nestled in your back pocket.

Overlapping skillsets broaden your options – As I said above, rounding out your team’s capabilities gives you more leeway for creative solutions when you’re backed into a tight corner

In summary: Like building products? Play XCOM

Speaking as a relatively new product manager in a startup environment, I found XCOM: Enemy Within came in real handy as a prioritization training sim of sorts.

The game’s mechanics helped me practice making similar decisions to the ones I faced day-to-day, including:

  1. Choosing where to invest our time/money/energy for the most effective return
  2. The importance of keeping the team in-sync and focused on the objective, and
  3. How to adapt when the plan falls apart

Now, I’m not the most amazing product manager around, but I gained a ton of perspective on the craft by playing it. So give it a whirl, and perhaps you’ll start to see things differently, too!


Speaking of products, if you’ve developed a web or mobile app, and aren’t sure what to do next with it, I can help you find easy ways to grow. Check out GrowthLook.com

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