There’s always an endless list of things that all seem to need urgent attention. Customers, employees, board members, circumstances, and many other sources of pressure compete for space on your priority list. It took me a while to learn how to isolate the few things that deserve focus. Along the way I created a simple three-part prioritization framework that helps me a lot. Here it is.
1. Don’t Break What’s Working
Hopefully some things are working well. They can always be improved, but they’re working well enough that there doesn’t appear to be a lot of uncaptured potential.
The sales team at VividCortex is an example right now. They’re managed well, performing well, and hitting their numbers. More importantly, I don’t think there’s anything they’re not doing that could dramatically change their performance for the better.
I have no intention of messing with the sales team or processes right now. I tell them to ask if they need me.
2. Manage Or Contain What’s Not
Some things suck. They’re a source of irritation or frustration. They’re frequent, but often short, reminders of something that isn’t as good as it should be, and when you encounter it you always want to fix it.1 And yet they don’t have a lot of upside potential—just downside. This means that they’re a nuisance, but there’ll be no return on investment from fixing them. No matter how hard you work on them, you won’t generate great outcomes, you’ll just mitigate the nuisance.
When the deck chairs on the Titanic are in disarray, the right answer is often to simply manage or contain the problem. These problems deserve at most enough focus and resources to neutralize them. Deck chairs might trip passengers on their way to the lifeboats—so pick up the ones on the escape path and throw them aside. Leave the rest as they are and loudly explain why.
This is a delicate topic because it often raises questions about undervaluing investments in quality, technical debt, or people. But a big part of your job as a leader is to help people connect their work to the impact it has. If you do that well, most people will understand that although we want to get to that problem and fix it, there may be more valuable things for them to do right now.
When something isn’t as good as it should be, but there’s no benefit to perfecting it, try to figure out how to duct-tape it as cheaply as you can.
3. Invest Heavily In The Top Three Game-Changers
Of the rest of the things that could merit your attention, there’s probably a very long list of stuff that has the potential to create outsized returns. These are the things that, if done well or if you get lucky, could add a big multiple to your results. But there’s going to be way too many for you to actually focus on.
Three is a magic number for focus in my opinion. You can focus on one, or two, or three things—but it’s virtually impossible to dedicate meaningful focus to more. When people say they have 8 priorities, I cringe a little.2
Pick the most impactful three items and focus on them. Objectives and Key Results can help.
My current three priorities at VividCortex are marketing, product management, and engineering. Each of these has the potential to swing the company’s results this year, either directly or through amplifying something else. For example, marketing can make sales easier and enable the sales team to outperform in a way they can’t do by simply working harder.
What about the rest of the list? Those have to go somewhere, and they do. They fall into the category of stuff you need to manage or contain, for the time being. Explain to the team why it can’t be a focus yet, and thus needs duct tape now.
It’s A Strategy
My three-part framework is actually a prioritization strategy.
A strategy is a plan to prioritize resources to achieve the desired objectives optimally, while considering the most important constraints and circumstances.
In summary: focus on investing in things that can produce outsized returns, fix or neutralize nuisances if you must, and stay the hell out of of what’s working.