I like listening to podcasts while on head-clearing walks outdoors. I recently listened to a podcast episode that particularly interested me since I know both participants in the interview.
Both Brad Cebulski – president of BConnected and the host of The Sponge Show podcast, and Neil Mix, his guest in this episode, live near me. Neil has been a good friend for a few years and as you’ll see in this interview is a very wise guy (by which I mean he is “filled with wisdom” rather than “a member of the mafia”).
Neil does product strategy consulting and has a fascinating background, to include working for west coast based Pandora Radio from his home in the midwest as the company grew from only a few employees to over 2,000. While he was there Neil was a developer and overall product guru (by which I mean he was “knowledgeable” rather than “a spiritual guide of Hinduism”).
I have written in the past that if I were to pick the most important word in leadership (an unfair request, but it’s a thought exercise), the word would be “clarity”.
Clarity of mission and purpose enables teams to “form” and “perform” instead of “storm”. Breaking one stick is easy, but breaking 20 sticks bound together is hard. That’s what clarity and alignment deliver, and is why sports, military, and business teams that are aligned and clear on their objectives outperform those teams that lack those attributes.
A related concept, particularly in a world where unlimited wants and limited resources create tension (as well as the entire field of economics), “prioritization” is every bit as important. I urge you to watch or listen to the entire episode (video here), but the part I want to focus on here begins at about the 17:25 mark. Here’s my capture of the conversation:
Brad (discussing Neil’s extensive experience with both start-ups and large technology companies): “What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned”
Neil: “One of the things I talk a lot to my clients about now is that prioritization is THE most important thing. It’s not just deciding what to do, its deciding what NOT to do. You need to know how much work is involved/how much it’s going to cost, what’s it going to gain you by doing it, and over what time frame are you going to accomplish it. And you put those things together – put all your initiatives together – and you can effectively prioritize what work you’re going to do. If you leave that information out, if you go with your gut, you’re going to make mistakes. …If you’re not setting clear goals for what you’re going to gain based upon your spend and over what timeframe…you find these projects that go on forever and ever and nobody has the wherwithall to stop and say ‘wait a second – this isn’t what we signed on for’, and pretty soon you end up in these monster projects and big trouble.”
Brad: “And if you’re scaling very fast, I’m guessing the projects just keep coming and you just have to wade through them”
Neil: “And this is specific to software engineering, or engineering in general, but I’ve never seen an environment where the software engineering team didn’t have way more projects to work on than they had actual resources to build them. You don’t see idle software engineering teams, and so in a world where you always have more work than you have resources to do it, then your maximum value is going to come from optimal prioritization”
Wow. That exchange really made an impact on me, and demonstrates how important it is that we be reminded of what we already know, and how much effort it takes to return to basics and make the hard choices.
Let me highlight a couple phrases that should be turned into motivational posters or even tattoos for product owners or something..
- “…prioritization is THE most important thing. It’s not just deciding what to do, its deciding what NOT to do”
- “…if you go with your gut, you’re going to make mistakes”
- “…you find these project that go on forever and ever and nobody has the wherwithall to stop and say ‘wait a second – this isn’t what we signed on for’, and pretty soon you end up in these monster projects and big trouble.”
- “I’ve never seen an environment where the software engineering team didn’t have way more projects to work on than they had actual resources to build them”
- “…so in a world where you always have more work than you have resources to do it, then your maximum value is going to come from optimal prioritization”
That last one is the Big Conclusion, and bears contemplation for all of us holding eight pounds of priorities in one hand and a three pound bag in the other.
I don’t know. Maybe he IS a Hindi spiritual guide…..
Prioritization: easy to talk about, difficult to do.