If you want to have the most impact you have to prioritize! But how? Based on what criteria?
Do a little of everything? Pick what’s top of your list and work your way down? Do whatever comes to mind and grabs your interest at the moment? Don’t know, so rather stall and don’t do anything at all?
Well, the above approaches don’t seem like great strategies, so let’s take a more structured approach instead.
At Amazon there are limitless opportunities – always – and as a result, we constantly need to prioritize and make trade-offs. Actually, when candidates ask me in interviews what the hardest part of working at Amazon is, I tell them “it’s to decide what not to do”.
There is often quite some ambiguity on how one should make such decisions. I see this across individuals and organizations, way more often than I would have expected. Most people have a good grasp of how they should prioritize, but then they mix and muddy things as they get into the details.
Prioritization is about discipline – both in thinking, as well as in execution.
The operational discipline is something you need to develop for yourself. The mental model is easier to share though. Here is a prioritization framework that works in most cases.
How to prioritize
- P0: Things that HAVE to be done to support a strategic goal or prevent a strategic risk. Those are typically set top-down as company or organizational goals. If things MUST be done to support those organizational priorities, they need to be treated as non-negotiable (P0s). The important thing though is that this only applies to blockers (!) for such goals; it doesn’t include all of the nice-to-have things one could do for that space. Nice to have work must stand on its own cost-benefit analysis. It’s not a P0 if it’s not a blocker without a feasible workaround!
- P1-3: Things that provide the highest ROI (return of investment) / best cost-benefit ratio in sorted order. Everything else you do need to be evaluated under the criteria of ‘most bang for the buck’. Don’t spend energy on something that will be useful in the future (hopefully), but not just yet. If it will yield a higher return than what you’re doing right now, stop doing what you do and switch over; if it doesn’t, then double down and finish what you started. Sort the things that you need to do by ROI, nothing else.
- Exceptions from the rule. There are some reasons why you might have to invest in some projects with lower ROI. The clearest is if you hit a scaling limit by putting more people on a problem. If adding more people to a project doesn’t scale your delivery pace (close to) linearly, you should deploy them somewhere else. Similarly, if you need to make investments to lower your operational cost or substantially increase future delivery speed (e.g. re-architecture), you need to prioritize those accordingly. However, I might argue that those effects can and should also be quantified and expressed in an ROI decision. The other reason to keep some capacity for work that is not ROI-prioritized is to diversify your opportunities and/or make room for experiments to explore new areas. Be very conscious though, as to how much time and energy you want to devote to such activities.
Pitfalls to avoid
Don’t mix criteria. If you make ROI decisions, make ROI decisions. Don’t mix ROI and opportunity or something else.
If you go to a supermarket and shop for oranges, all other things equal, you will pick the ones at the lowest price. You will not pick a bunch of the lowest priced ones and another bunch of the expensive ones, just because they are there. ROI is your metric, stick to it. Opportunity only tells you that you can buy oranges, it doesn’t tell you that the price is right.
Side note: ROI doesn’t need to mean dollars – it means the impact (return) of your resources (investment) on the metric you care about most (e.g. cost, speed, quality, precision, satisfaction).
Don’t take previous decisions as gospel. Don’t block yourself by perceived constraints or previous decisions. As you get more data and understanding, challenge previous assumptions! For example, a goal is not a value in itself, it might have been set based on an incomplete understanding of the total opportunity. As you understand the opportunity space better, re-examine previous goals – if they no longer express the most important thing to do, make a pitch to change the goal!
Elephants get chained when they are young and too weak to break those chains. They learn that chains define their limits. As they get older, they don’t even try to break those chains anymore, even though they easily could. Don’t be chained by previous assumptions, re-evaluate what you know and question what you believe as you learn more!
Invest the intellectual energy to set strong and data-driven priorities. Exercise the operational discipline to focus on those goals without distraction. Nurture the curiosity, flexibility, and courage to revisit those decisions and underlying data to verify that you are still pursuing the right goals.
Did you like this article? Want to read more?
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