Are You Suffering From Prioritisation Paralysis?

Paul Boag

If I could fix one problem across the majority of the clients that I work with, it would be their inability to prioritise.

The most quoted thing I have ever said is this:

Offend nobody, design for somebody

It amazes me that this piece of common sense advice has spread so far. Why has it resonated so much? I believe it is because it highlights the importance of prioritisation. You cannot and should not be all things to all people.

With limited time, attention and resources you have to prioritise. There is no choice. You cannot focus on all your business objectives and meet the needs of all of your diverse audiences without spreading yourself impossibly thin.

Even if you did have unlimited resources, time and attention, it would still be an unachievable end because things clash. One business objective will at times be incompatible with another. Different audiences will want and like different things. You cannot accommodate all scenarios, desires and preferences. You must choose.

Why then do we find it so hard especially within organisation? I believe there are two reasons.

Prioritising hurts

People are social and like to work together. We look for common ground and compromise. It is our huge evolutionary strength and one of the primary reasons we have been so successful as a species. The problem is that when people have multiple ideas and you cannot implement all of them, you have to reject some people’s ideas. We hate that because it undermines the collective.

We hate choice because it hurts. Choice means upsetting people, rocking the boat, causing trouble. This is something we are conditioned to avoid.

We hate rejecting good ideas

The second reason we hate choosing is because it means rejecting good things. Its easy to choose between something that is good and something that is bad. However, presented with two good things, we are uncomfortable at turning something good away.

Organisations hate prioritising one audience over another because several audiences maybe ripe markets worth cultivating. The idea of turning down those markets or even giving them a lower priority is horrendous. It’s throwing away a good opportunity.

Good strategy demands choice

Unfortunately this is what good strategy demands. It demands focusing your limited resources on only the best opportunity. Spread those resources too thinly and you would fail to have an impact anywhere.

This is known as the threshold effect. You have to apply enough effort to exceed the threshold at which the effort provides a return. Spread yourself too thinly and you will fail to exceed the threshold. It is an effect well known in marketing. Unless a consumer is exposed to your advertising multiple times it will have no impact. You have to exceed the threshold.

This is why you cannot do every good idea or grasp every good opportunity that comes along. You have to choose.

This is something Steve Jobs understood when he said:

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things

We see people ignoring this advice in digital all the time by jumping on every new technological innovation that comes along. They start a presence on every social network even though they don’t have the capability to maintain them. They build mobile apps so neglecting the maintenance of their site and they try to design a site that appeals to everybody from a single mum to a top executive.

If you want your digital strategy to succeed, you must choose. You have to apply your resources to pivotal actions that will have the greatest effect. As Richard Rumelt writes in his book Good Strategy/Bad Strategy:

Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on one or a very few pivotal objectives, whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favourable outcomes.

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