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Vicious Prioritizatoin

Focus, focus, focus.  Something I preach to entrepreneurs all the time.  The best entrepreneurs want to conquer the world.  They believe that their new product or service is going to have a huge impact and will change how many people work, play, or communicate.  They have to have this big vision in order to motivate them to put in the long hours with low pay that a start-up demands.  Who's going to work that hard to build a marginal company that will have little or no impact?  The prize has to be bigger than that.

But, entrepreneurs have to balance this vision of global domination with a focused effort that gets them started on their limited resources.  The challenge is to leverage your existing resources on the most highly leveraged activities that move things forward and keep you on the path to the big win.  If you spread yourself too thin to capture the big vision all at once, you'll fail to get the most important things done.

This is why big thinking visionaries have to be balanced by practical operating executives who can motivate and build a team to make daily progress toward a goal.  It is a very rare person who can bounce back and forth between these two roles.  And, both roles are critical.  Also, as a company starts to make positive progress, it will be presented with many more opportunities for expansion and partnering.  These can dilute what started off as a very focused effort.

As a Board member and investor, I demanded that CEOs exercise vicious prioritization.  Cut the list of tasks and cut it again.  Make sure you have sufficient resources on the most important tasks so that they are done successfully.  I use the word vicious to emphasize that most people don't want to let go of what are good ideas.  Don't let them go, just push them off to Rev 2 or next year's business plan.  If a particular idea is so fantastic, which of your committed plans would you drop to get it done?  CEOs have to be able to prioritize in this fashion to make sure they can achieve their most important goals.

Also, companies have to plan on having some slack capacity.  Product development schedules will inevitably fall behind.  Crises will emerge with key customers or partners.  Hiring may take longer than planned.  All of these situations will demand that existing staff step up their commitment to keep projects on schedule.  But, if you are already scheduling people for 14 hour days 7 days a week, you don't have any slack capacity.

One of the best Engineering VPs I ever worked with would never schedule engineers beyond 5 10-hour days per week.  That's already a heavy workload, but probably not a full start-up workload for an early stage company.  This Engineering VP was a thorough and meticulous scheduler, but he always left slack time in his schedule for critical new features, bugs that were hard to fix, or parts of the project that proved more difficult than planned.  The engineers never worked only those 50 hour weeks, but once in a while they would get a relatively easy week and a weekend off.  That kept them fresh for the start-up marathon.

If you have clear and vicious priorities, you can manage the slack capacity at your company to remain nimble and deal with the unexpected opportunities and problems that every start-up faces.


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