Choosing Business Priorities: Trump, Welch, Gates and Buffett

A friend of mine who designs websites once characterised the typical client dilemma with a hint of sarcasm:  “I want everything to be prominent.  Everything has to stand out above everything else.”  This is something we all experience.

I often see good organisations drowning in “corporate priorities”.  A great long shopping list, hundreds of items long emerges at Business Planning time. I see this often with large organisations, particularly those providing a public service.  It’s not acceptable to say this or that isn’t a priority.  And, as everything becomes a priority, the fog descends and nothing is a priority.  It all gets mushy and grey, difficult to manage.

Some time ago, there was a dinner party.  Among the guests were Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.   The hostess (I think it was Gates’ mum) ask “To what do you attribute your success?”  Gates and Buffet used the same word – “focus”.  They explained, doing one major thing at a time and doing it really well.

The odious Donald Trump is another practitioner.  Rumour has it that he doesn’t have a diary.  “I only work on one or two things at any one time.  Working on more than that will mean I don’t achieve anything.”

Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, is still the manager who has achieved more corporate growth than any other.  One of his proud boasts was that, over 35 years, he only ever had a handful of priority initiatives.  Yes, they were big ones – number 1 or 2 in every market we serve, globalisation, service revenues, six sigma, digital transformation …  But the reason he achieved something was that these priorities became major organising themes and were the subject of relentless focus.  He only ever had 2 to 3 initiatives running at any one time.  To have too many would risk achieving none.

So the wise MD will ration the priorities to create organisational focus.  Imagine what you could achieve if you ran priority themes such as:

  • Perfect Service
  • Right First Time
  • Maximising billable time
  • Zero Infection Rate
  • Best Product in the market
  • Best Youth Employment Rate
  • Commercialising Innovations
  • Highest Market Share
  • Lean and Keen Processes

And if they ran for a realistic timeframe – three, five, ten or more years.  That would give you time to change.  Time to develop and deploy the skills, to roll out the projects and reshape processes.  Time to learn more of what works.

The fact is, too often, resources and attention are divided across too many seeming priorities.  As a result, they never get the intense and continuous effort and drive that is usually required to shift things forward.  And so we can end up dabbling with lots of spinning plates, drowning in guilt, wondering why we are not moving ahead as decisively as we could.

De-prioritising goals is not saying they are not important or will not get done.  But it does allow the real game-changers to emerge. Less is often more.  “You can do anything but you can’t do everything” is very sage advice.