It has been a year of adjustment, consolidation and cutbacks for BIG tech. But, in dealing with market uncertainty and slowdown, can we learn anything from Big Tech’s troubles? Well, as it turns out quite a bit!
As leaders, we are all faced with growing uncertainty & slowing growth but the impact on big tech has been greatest.
The boost to online during the pandemic led to expectations of continued fast growth and fuelled ‘hiring binges’ in organizations such as Google (Alphabet) and Facebook (Meta)1. Today, growth expectations are much more cautious, resulting in tech share price crashes and major job cuts.
While the business models and share valuations of big tech and social media may be unfathomable to many business leaders, big tech’s experiences are valuable for any leader facing slowdown and uncertainty.
From all that was printed and blogged about Big Tech’s troubles in 2022, there emerged one BIG lesson: ‘Disciplined Prioritization‘.
It deserves the attention of every leader as they strive to sustain performance in resource constrained and uncertain times. But first the background.
In July 2022, Meta (formerly Facebook) announced plans for ‘disciplined prioritization and work with a high level of intensity to reach its goals’2. Although, a variety of language is used, ‘Disciplined Prioritization’ is a strategy or theme that runs through most of the announcements made by Big tech in the past 12 months.
Disciplined Prioritization has practical relevance for almost every organization at this time. Indeed, we have voted it the number one leadership skill of 2022, although it could claim the same distinction for much of 2023 and subsequent years too.
For some time, organizations have been trying to do too much. Fired-up by a ‘conquer the world’ ambition they’ve been launching strategies projects and initiatives in a rapid-fire sequence. Leaders have been doing what they were told to do – to dream big and to set ‘big hairy and audacious goals’.
While this has been particularly prevalent in the tech sector, it applies in many other industries too. Even sectors, such as financial services, that are conservative and cautious have gotten carried away.
The result is a proliferation of priorities, projects and initiatives competing for scarce organizational resources, as well as management time and attention. The number 1 trend of 2022 has been consolidation and cutbacks.
All this has happened because traditional approaches to planning and prioritization just haven’t been disciplined enough! This explains how we got to where we are today, but it is also essential to finding the best path forward. The decisions made now as organizations prioritize, consolidate and cut will either save them millions or cost them millions.
Each team member had 5 minutes to share their Top 3 priorities to year-end. When all members of the team had shared, the list was a lengthy one. A total of 27 priorities were identified across the team, with very little overlap between them. ‘No wonder we don’t have enough time or resources’ said the team elder in a reflective tone. Listening intensively to what was being said, the team leader pondered out loud: ‘Are we trying to do too much?’ ‘Do we need to prioritize our priorities?’ she added.
Prioritization is a key strategy in time of uncertainty and slowing growth. But it is something that many leaders struggle with.
Traditional planning results in long lists of ‘priorities’. New priorities get added to the list all the time, with little, if anything, being removed. But how good are these lists?
Research backs up our findings that initial (or quickly prepared) lists of priorities are only 50% accurate3! This is worrying indeed. It means that half the priorities on your list may be suspect – most likely some so called ‘priorities’ need to be removed while others are yet missing.
Q: How confident are you that your list of strategic priorities is 100% accurate?
If lists of priorities are flawed, it is because the process of prioritization is flawed too. In a word, the process lacks discipline.
Prioritization require more discipline and rigor – this can be achieved by applying 6 criteria to what gets prioritized and what does not:
Applying the above will improve your prioritization. But regardless of the criterion used, prioritization cannot be once-off. Priorities must be progressively prioritized, re-prioritized & de-prioritized on an ongoing basis with progress being reviewed on an ongoing basis to ensure that the priorities set are reflected in how resources (incl. people’s time and attention) is actually being spent).
Facebook’s parent META wants to develop ‘Disciplined Prioritization’ as a skill, but: How disciplined is your prioritization? Let’s explore the answer based on these 6 factors talked about by Big tech (and increasingly by others too).
You can think of the above as 7 different ‘hats’ – a kin to de Bonos 6 Thinking Hats for lateral thinking / creative problem-solving4. We ask the members of leadership teams to adopt a particular ‘hat’ through their conversations about strategy and prioritization. The objective is to ensure a more rigorous and disciplined approach to prioritization.
For example, one executive will take the principle of ‘trade-offs’ and ‘wearing that hat’ will bring up the issue of trade-offs throughout the dialog, making sure that any required tradeoffs are made. Another will push for ‘simplicity’ and another for ‘intensity’ and so on. With each ‘hat’ a new level of discipline or rigor is applied to prioritization.
Explore each of these 6 factors or ‘hats’ by clicking to expand the headings below.
When resources were plentiful organizations didn’t need to make choices. Now that resources are scarce choices must be made.
‘Scarcity breeds clarity’ is how Alphabet (Google) CEO Sundar Pichai explained the need for focus and prioritization in a memo to employees in June 20225.
With scarce resources not every project, program or initiative can go ahead and certainly not at the same time. Organizations are required to get clear on their priorities, making the required decisions and trade-offs.
Imagine hiring 10,000 people in under two years. That is exactly what happened at some big tech corporations6. But such a pace of hiring is unsustainable, especially in a tight labour market. It also presents practical challenges, with organizations learning that hiring and aligning resources are two very different things.
Many organizations have been operating under a false assumption – an assumption of unlimited bandwidth. The result is a proliferation of projects, priorities and initiatives. Now, many CEOs are concerned that their organizations have too many projects & initiatives competing for scarce time, attention & resources. The ‘proliferation’, which often stems from a lack of clarity regarding priorities, is coming to an end. One of the key trends of the moment – ‘the great consolidation‘.
Q: Has ‘scarcity brought clarity’ to your strategy, project or team? Where is greater clarity needed?
Clarity is not the natural order of affairs within large organizations. Nor is alignment, with each department, unit or team pursuing its own agenda. It often takes scarcity to force clarity regarding choices, priorities and trade-offs.
Not only is clarity required in terms of the overall priorities, but also in terms of what the priorities for each priority are. This is the critical bridge to execution – a clear and actionable set of priorities to deliver quick wins, ensure fast learning and deliver on the goals set.
Q: Is there a clear set of priorities for each of your priorities?
As one of our coaching team says: ‘People talk a lot about resources and not enough about priorities. People will say ‘more resources are needed’ but the primary issue isn’t resources, but priorities. If priorities are not clear then there will continue to be lots of strategies, projects and initiatives competing for scarce resources. Resources will continue to be spread like peanut butter, with those most important projects and initiatives being starved of sufficient resources to really succeed’.
Clarifying priorities means leaders can focus with a new intensity on key priorities. Rather than being spread thinly across everything, resources are allocated where it matters most. Thus, accelerating those key projects & initiatives that are most closely linked to success.
Q: How can you bring a new level of intensity to key priorities / initiatives?
Disciplined prioritization means focusing with a new intensity on key business priorities and scaling back on everything else. This is important when it comes to the sweeping consolidation and cuts taking place at this time. The objective must be to re-align scarce resources to accelerate key business priorities. By necessity, that means cutting in areas of lesser importance, so you can invest more where it matters most – that requires wearing all the rest of the hats (hardcore, tradeoffs, etc.).
But what do leaders mean by ‘a new intensity’? Well, we hear the following:
All this boils down to the leader’s need for greater confidence around the execution of their ambitious strategies and initiatives. This is what the pitstop approach does, with our analytical tools and frameworks specifically pin-pointing how to ‘intensify’ any strategic initiative, program or project.
Meta (formerly Facebook) announced plans for ‘disciplined prioritization and work with a high level of intensity to reach goals’ (July 2022)9
In a complex & uncertain business environment the last thing you need is unnecessary internal complexity (processes, committees, etc.) that hinder speed, agility or innovation. Google launched a ‘Simplicity Sprint’ in mid 2022 to ‘deliver better results faster’.
Q: What might a ‘simplicity sprint’ achieve within your organization?
‘A leadership team with 20 priorities is more than twice as complex as one with 10!’ says one of our leadership team coaches. She continues ‘A business unit with 80 projects and initiatives is more than twice as complex as one with 40! Complexity drains energy and resources, it drives cost and kills speed. It is time to simplify!’
Q: Is the number of priorities, projects & initiatives adding unnecessary complexity to your business?
To simplify, leaders need to consolidate the number of priorities, projects, programs and initiatives. Timing and sequencing priorities is essential. This is very much related to the next aspect of ‘Disciplined Prioritization’ – ‘going hardcore’.
Of course simplicity is something to be applied, not just in terms over the overall strategy or set of priorities, but at every level. This is closely linked to the ‘clarity hat’ ensuring that there is a simple and clear road map in terms of actionable priorities regarding execution of each of the priorities.
Q: where is there unnecessary complexity in respect of any of your key priorities and initiatives?
Major layoffs in January 2023 marked the end of Amazon’s ‘everything era’ as it embraced simplification as a strategy10. The organization has long touted “Invent and Simplify” as one of its Leadership Principles, but as CEO Andy Jassy announced the 18,000 layouts the emphasis was on simplification, rather than world beating innovation11
Organizations are ‘going hard core’ (in the words of Elon Musk/Twitter). They are focusing on the core of their business & it’s sustained performance. They are minimizing the number of side-shows & distractions.
Q: What might ‘going hardcore’ mean for your unit/team?
What exactly is core or hardcore? We have an analytical tool kit that guides executive teams to what is core and what is not. This enables them to get the balance right between business as usual and business unusual initiatives. For example use the matrix below to map your key priorities.
In this time of greater business uncertainty and increased pressure on performance it is natural that organizations will prioritize initiatives that are focused on the core and have the potential to boost performance in the short and medium term (i.e. 1, 4 and 7 in the matrix below).
Q: Are we sufficiently focused on (enhancing, sustaining and protecting) the performance of the core of our business ?
Beware however, short-termism can be dangerous and costly. You cannot just press pause on a project and expect to continue where you left off after 6, 12 or 18 months have passed. The people will be lost, the ideas will be lost, the momentum will be lost. In many ways it could mean going right back to the start.
Q: Do your priorities reflect the right balance of core, adjacent and new?
Manging multiple time horizons (ST, MT and LT) can be a challenge. So too, balancing business as usual (todays’s performance) with business unusual (the source of tomorrow’s success). Getting the balance right can be a challenge and requires following a deliberate process.
Hardcore also means focusing on the core of any strategy or initiative. This includes ensuring clarity and alignment in respect of the ‘business fundamentals; of their key priorities. These fundamentals include business needs, market reality, business impact, business urgency and so on. They are the link between any priority to strategy and to the concerns of senior management.
Q: Is there a clear link between your priorities and business needs / strategy at the C-suite?
The concept of Strategic Choices is central to strategy. But unless the choices are difficult & entail trade-offs it is probably NOT a real strategy or plan! So, shouldn’t any plan or strategy list the trade-offs that are being made?
Q: How good is your unit/team at making trade-offs?
‘Why are we not spending more on A, B and C?’ asked the host of the TV debate. All the candidates for leader of the UK’s governing political party appeared ready to promise more spending in all the areas mentioned. One defied expectations and said: ‘There are no choices only tradeoffs… If we spend on A, then we will be taking the money from B or from C. We cannot do everything!’ But, did the candidate’s lesson in practical economics pay-off? Well, she didn’t make it to the second TV debate!12
A key question for any leadership team is:
Q: How many projects or initiatives did we scrap or stall in the last quarter?
The answer to this question has the potential to reveal more about how disciplined the approach to prioritization really is.
Adding new priorities to the top of the list is meaningless if the list simply gets longer. Removing items from the list is the essential element of prioritization, but it is also the one that organizations struggle with most.
The reality for leaders is that ‘while starting things may be easier, than stopping things, you must do both!’
There is a danger of treating priorities as ‘stand-alone’, rather than connected. When this happens priorities can end-up competing with, rather than complimenting or supporting each other. They may pull the people in different directions, rather than unifying them in the achievement of over-arching business goals.
Adopt a portfolio mindset, thinking of your priorities and initiatives as a ‘strategic portfolio‘. Such an integrated approach can:
Q: What are the linkages between your different priorities and initiatives?
Q: How effectively are linkages between priorities & initiatives being managed?
Discipline means prioritization that is more rigorous, repetitive and unrelenting. But, if you are relying on discipline alone you will likely be disappointed. Especially, if you have a narrow and old-fashioned view of discipline – one that befits the workhouse rather than the modern workplace.
The above (scarcity, hardcore, etc.) are all very rational and logical. But given how challenging prioritization is for organizations, discipline and compliance won’t be enough. So, what’s missing? Well, it is the 6th hat: Passion!
Q: How well does your list of priorities tap into people sense of purpose and passion?
One of our coaching colleagues has a stark warning for leaders who want Disciplined Prioritization: ‘Listen and watch carefully as people talk about priorities – If you don’t see high levels of energy and engagement in the room then don’t expect to see it when people leave the room – when they set about taking action or making it happen’.
To return to our coaching colleague’s wisdom: ‘Prioritization cannot just be about listing off what we are going to do, or not do. It has also got to be about ‘why’ we are going to do it. Why it matters. That includes not just why it matters to the organization, but importantly to those who are charged with making it happen.’ It is not just about business impact but people impact too.
Q: How clear and compelling is ‘the why’ behind each of the key priorities?
Passion is what fuels will power and what makes people unstoppable. When it comes to people’s discretionary effort then discipline is unlikely to be enough. More is needed.
Great teams execute on their projects and plans, not just out of obedience and self-control, but out of commitment and purpose too. They persist in their endeavors, not because of the threat of discipline, but because of a commitment to their goals as well as to each other.
Our research therefore points to two approaches to discipline – one that is based on compliance, another that is based on commitment. Organizations and teams need a balance of the two, especially if discipline is to be sustained over time.
Leaders want their people to be passionate about their projects and initiatives – but what happens to all that passion when something suddenly is no longer a priority and a project or initiative comes under the knife? People had to fight to get their project off the ground, are they expected to simply lie down when the project’s future is in doubt? Just how long will it take for them to get passionate about the next project or role they are given? In prioritizing as well as deprioritizing projects leaders must manage the level of passion.
Having reviewed the 7 criterion for disciplined prioritization (i.e. the 7 hats) pause for a moment to consider:
So, just how disciplined is your prioritization? Let’s apply the ‘7 hats’ to find out.
Apply ‘the 7 hats’ to your list of priorities using the table below. Rate the priorities you have chosen on each of the criterion (where 1 is low and 5 is high). Are there any gaps? You can apply this for each of the top 3-5 priorities individually, or for the priorities as a group.
|Disciplined Prioritization Criterion||Rating (1-5)|
|Linkages & Synergies|
|Total Rating (max. 35)|
When you have completed the table pause to consider: What is the overall score and what does it reveal? Hint: Above 30 is a high level of disciplined prioritization, 25-30 is a moderate level of disciplined prioritization and below 25 is low.
Some pundits suggest that ‘if you haven’t made the difficult choices by now, it is probably too late’13. Well, when it comes to difficult choices it is better late than never.
When to get disciplined about prioritization? The answer is today, tomorrow the next day and every day after that! The 7 hats of disciplined prioritization won’t be of much help if you only wear them once or twice a year.
Discipline means prioritization that is more rigorous, repetitive and unrelenting. prioritization cannot be once-off. Priorities must be progressively prioritized, re-prioritized & de-prioritized on an ongoing basis with progress being reviewed on an ongoing basis to ensure that the priorities set are reflected in how resources (incl. people’s time and attention) is actually being spent).
Moreover, disciplined prioritization is an ongoing requirement. In an environment of uncertainty, business needs are dynamic rather than static. That means the priorities set out in quarter one may not be the same in quarter 4.
Being disciplined about prioritization means being able to de-prioritize last year’s and even last quarter’s priorities if they no longer make sense.
Q: Are there opportunities for more ‘disciplined prioritization’ within your strategy, initiative or team? In particular with respect to: 1. Clarity 2. Intensity 3. Simplicity 4. Hardcore 5. Trade-offs 6. Linkages and 7. ‘Passion!’.
Need help with Disciplined Prioritization? Or in other areas such as consolidation of projects and initiatives, energizing and aligning you team and its stakeholders around strategic priorities? Talk to us.
Disciplined Prioritization is the number one leadership skill of the moment, but it isn’t easy. We can help.