Product Strategy Lessons of the Great Wall of China5 min read
How Strategy Shaped the Rise of a World Wonder
Walls are built to protect. So, when a Chinese ruler of old first united the many disparate, regionally-purposed walls to form the Great Wall we think of today, they did so for one main reason: to keep their country safe and strong.
In the same way, your digital product is built to keep your organization safe (from losing steam in a highly-competitive market) and strong (durable against the test of time). And whether it’s customer-facing or internal, like the Great Wall of China, it must start and stay strong. That only happens if you approach it with a sturdy, innovative product and usability strategy.
A Brief History of the Great Wall
To create an effective approach to the future, we can look for guidance from the past.
Creating a Strong Foundation
Before China unified, it was subdivided into many autonomous states, all of which needed to protect themselves. After all, they were at war with each other for quite some time (about 254 years, to be exact). It was during this warring period—long before China (as we know it today) even existed—that the first sections of the Great Wall were built.
Each section of the wall was constructed out of whatever materials each state had available to it locally—some rock from the mountains, some tightly-packed earth from flatter, foothill areas. This approach capitalized on each unique state’s strengths, maximizing manpower, financial resources, and the ability to fend off enemy attacks.
Your Takeaway: It’s okay to start small.
It’s okay to build and ship small phases. It’s okay to start small and launch an MVP. But when you do, make sure you do it exceedingly well. Else, you risk creating a weak foundation. Small successes are the foundation for larger successes, but only if each small step is durable enough to withstand future additions and updates. Just think: if the early sections of the Great Wall were flimsy, leaders would have needed to start from scratch in order to truly progress.
Using Unique Strengths
After the Warring State period, Qin Shi Huang (the first emperor of China) decided to unite each of the disparate wall sections into a single, grand barrier against invaders from the north. This move protected the critical trade enabled by the Silk Road. While some sections of the wall had to be rebuilt early-on, many were stable enough to simply link together. This meant the work of many different people merged into one, grand creation.
Your Takeaway: Seek out input from your teams.
A lot of different people probably have a hand in your digital product. And yes, you ultimately need decision makers to steer high-level strategy. But much of the innovation and durability of the Great Wall stemmed from the different technologies, perspectives, and efforts of many disparate groups. View your own internal teams and individuals in the same way—as unique resources to provide valuable product input.
This means expanding your notion of what a development team is. Who knows? Your UX pro, content strategist, designer, or front-end developer just might be the source of your next major innovation.
Proactively Modifying, Extending, & Developing New Technologies
After leadership officially formed the Great Wall, they didn’t just cross their fingers and hope that it would keep working well for them. Over the course of many centuries, leaders continued to rebuild, extend, and modify the wall as new and better technologies developed. These changes also accounted for new and increasingly complex uses of the wall: signaling/communication, military storage, cross-country transportation, and more.
Your Takeaway: Make changes in bite-sized chunks.
If you want your digital product to last, be proactive with updates and overhauls long before it reaches a breaking point. That means continuously improving bit by bit (and going for that major redesign when it's time).
Not sure which changes to make? Keep track of evolving user needs through careful analytics tracking and constant user testing, observation, and interviews. That goes for before and after you implement changes to features and functions. And by the way, avoid focus group roundtable discussions with large groups of users. They won’t help much with digital product evolution. You are looking to understand actual user behavior, not opinion.
Adopting a New Product Vision
Eventually, Chinese rule extended into inner Mongolia, meaning the Great Wall was no longer useful as a line of defense. The wall sat untouched for about 300 years, the longest it had gone without modifications since it was created. But eventually, rather than tearing it down, a new ruler began restoring the wall as a symbol of Chinese culture and a national and international tourist destination. With this new strategy in mind, the wall lives on in history as one of the 7 wonders of the world—and as a major source of economic stimulation.
Your Takeaway: Know when it’s time to adjust your product vision.
Exceptional product visionaries and company leaders pivot when it’s time. Take Netflix. If their product strategy still revolved around lending physical DVDs, we wouldn’t still be talking about Stranger Things (and Blockbuster might still exist).
If your digital product is built to last, you must be prepared to update its vision to keep it working for your users as they change. Not sure if it’s time for a new vision? Check and see if your digital product is measuring up to your goals.
Strength Over Time
The Wall, though architecturally brilliant (and downright cool), was a means to an end—not the end itself. The same is true for your digital product. It only exists to make your company stand the test of time.
And that means you need an excellent strategy that gears every aspect of your product lifecycle (small successes, leveraging teams, evolving features and vision) towards ultimate success. That strategic awareness in even the most granular decisions will put your company in a strong leadership position.
Intrigued by the Great Wall’s history? Check out the source article for this post.
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