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The 4 Step Process to Set Priorities in Your Business

Are you struggling with what to prioritize in your business (or life)?

You’re not alone.

I recently surveyed my newsletter of 10,000 readers.

One of the questions I asked was: what best describes your biggest challenge right now?

Here’s what came back:

your biggest challenge

“All of the above” aside, “I don’t know what to prioritize” topped the list of “biggest challenge” for close to 1 out of every 5 of my readers (more so than not having enough time, money, or connections).

I’m not surprised by this answer.

Readers often ask me for help, and this request usually boils down to: “what should I do now?”

Truth be told, I struggle with this myself.

With a thousand things any one of us can do in any given moment, how do you prioritize what to do next?

The solution is actually pretty straight forward, but you need to understand the root problem first.

Let’s start with a quick story…

Prime Air and Choosing Your Priorities

Last week, Amazon revealed their new “Prime Air” branded cargo airliner. According to Amazon, this is the first of many to come, and what could be another step toward owning the entire sales and distribution pipeline, from point of sale, to warehousing, to delivery (and even production when you consider the Fire tablet, Echo, etc.).

Crazy right?

I’m sure there’s someone sitting on a couch right now reading the news and thinking “Consarnit! I had that idea years ago…it’s time for me to finally start my new project, [place description of perfect business here].”

While it’s great when someone’s success leads others to attempt similarly ambitious projects, there’s actually a huge problem with this type of reaction and thinking.

Here’s why:

The Challenge with Creating Priorities (Version 9.0 Syndrome and Tom’s Law)

All of us are inundated daily with pictures, stories and videos of successful people and companies. This messaging inevitably fill our thoughts, our thoughts influence our perception, and our perception changes our interaction with the world.

Case in point: when a young kid (or adult) thinks about becoming an entrepreneur, they see Amazon in 2016, and start thinking about how to build Amazon (the 2016 version).

Survivor bias aside, there’s a big problem with this type of thinking.

I call it Version 9.0 Syndrome.

Here’s a quote from the above essay that summarizes my major observation:

The current iterations of [Facebook, Harry Potter, and others] are not only different than when they started, but are entirely different than the perfect, idealized version the original creators envisioned at the start.

Zuckerberg: “I just really want to see everyone focus on college and make a really cool college directory product”

Rowling: “I began to write ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ that very evening, although those first few pages bear no resemblance to anything in the finished book.”

And this is the dirty truth of version 9.0 that few founders, artists, and authors will admit (at least not at the outset):

The final version will never be the same as the original idea.

That last sentence is key:

The final version will never be the same as the original idea…

So when we think about Amazon Prime Air, or Facebook in 2016, or any other person or company just crushing it, these are examples of impressive businesses that are NOT how the founder or creator envisioned them at the start.

  • Zuckerberg wanted to create an online directory (and was pointedly against the “social network” idea).
  • Bezos wanted to sell books online.

Neither envisioned at the outset what their companies have become…and I bet if you asked them today what their companies will be in 10 years, and then check back in 10 years, you will see something vastly different.

This is important to understand because if either had planned to build the company they have now at the outset, they would have failed.

Why?

Because it would have been impossible to prioritize building what is now Amazon in 2016, back in 1994…

But prioritizing how to build Amazon (1994 edition) in 1994 – an ecommerce platform to sell books online – now that is something that is entirely possible. The scope isn’t nearly as large, there aren’t nearly as many variables, and most importantly, it doesn’t require something impossible to succeed.

Because I don’t know if anyone has written about this before, I’m going to call this “Tom’s Law.”

Tom’s Law states:

“Anything that requires the ideal end state at its inception is destined to fail.”

An “end state” is a term used by the US military that refers to “the specified situation at the successful completion of the final phase of a military operation.”

For example, an end state in an assault operation might be: (1) the enemy has been destroyed within a specific operational area and (2) friendly units hold key positions for follow on operations.

Now imagine if for that end state to be achieved,  you needed that to be the situation at the outset, well…you see the contradiction.

Yet this is how people approach entrepreneurship, and writing, and art all the time.

So what’s the solution?

The 4 Step Process to Set Priorities in Your Business

Step 1. Ask the right questions

In order to set effective priorities, we need to understand something very important, namely:

Everything in life is the culmination of a series of small decisions.

Success is the manifestation of (mostly) good decisions executed well and consistently over many years. Failure is the manifestation of (mostly) bad decisions, executed poorly and inconsistently over many years (with one exception: black swan events…but that’s a topic for another time).

Choices – specifically small, almost irrelevant decisions – can make or break us.

Therefore, in order to make the right, small decisions, day after day, we need to ask the right questions.

The “right” question is:

  1. Specific
  2. Clear
  3. Has an answer

Example of a bad questions:

  • “What should I do?”
  • “Why did that person succeed and I’m struggling?”
  • “How do I build v. 9.0 of my business?

Example of a good questions:

  • “I understand my objective is to sell 10,000 books this year, and I have sold 1,000 so far. What can I do this week that could help me move another 100 to 1,000 books?”
  • “I’m in the middle of a launch and sales are slow. What can I do today that would inspire my early adopters to buy and share with a broader audience?”
  • “I have just been hired for a new project. What are the list of things I do know and things I don’t know, and how can I effectively discover the things I don’t in the next three days before the presentation with my client so they feel like I fully understand their problem?”

Asking good questions is an art as much as a science. Rule of thumb: if your questions ever make you feel hopeless, you’re asking the wrong question.

Step 2. Start with version 1.0 (beta)

Stop trying to build the perfect, idealized version of your business. Focus on the ugly, barely passable first version that will allow you to get useful feedback from your target market today.

People in the lean startup space call this an MVP or minimum viable product.

The point of an MVP is not to cut corners, but to speed up the learning curve so you know what people want and waste as little time, money, and energy figuring that out as possible.

The key is to focus on getting feedback from real customers as fast as possible.

When you do, 1 of 2 things will happen:

You find your idea is great and has legs, in which case you can spend more time building v 2.0 (improving, optimizing, and selling)…or you may find your idea is terrible (nobody needs a jump to conclusions mat), so now you know to pivot and find something else that might work, thus saving you time, money, and energy.

Believe it or not, but learning either of these two things is actually a really big win (versus how most people go into starting something, which is blindly and with no criteria for success or failure)

Step 3. Plan for uncertainty

I originally wrote “embrace uncertainty” for this step, but that felt like too much of a platitude, like “believe in your dreams” or “shoot for the moon” or whatever.

But, I’ll say from experience (and anecdotally from interactions with hundreds of entrepreneurs, authors, and artists) – the people who can deal with bad things happening, can recover from setbacks, and can find a new way through or around any obstacle that comes there way (even though they could never have predicted it at the outset), are the people who are able to make the most amazing things happen.

There’s literally no way to predict everything that could go wrong.

So when I say plan, I don’t mean create a 90 page long risk mitigation document…

When I say “plan for uncertainty” I mean:

  1. Recognize and accept that things might not go right
  2. Accept that regardless of the circumstances, you will always search for a way through or around
  3. Accept from the outset the worst case scenario…if you can’t, you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing

Step 4. Define the Critical-Path

I write about the Critical-Path in Collaborate.

The Critical-Path is the sequence of tasks that must be completed in sequential order or the entire project will be delayed.

To share a highly simplistic analogy: it’s like Monopoly when you can pass GO and collect $200…you can’t collect $200 until you pass GO. Passing GO is, therefore, a Critical-Path item to collect $200.

For example, if you’re planning to self-publish a book, writing the book is a Critical-Path task; you must write a book before you can edit it, and you must edit a book before you format it, and you must format a book before you print and ship it.

In order for the final book to reach the hands of your happy reader, these events must take place in this order.

That doesn’t mean this would be the only Critical-Path…sometimes there are multiple Critical-Paths for a large project.

So, taking the same self-publishing example, marketing is something you can do simultaneous to writing, but it’s also something that has its own Critical-Path.

For example, if you want 50 podcasts to go live during launch week, you’ll need to coordinate with at least 50 outlets, which means you’ll need to reach out to at least 50 outlets (probably more like 300), which means  you need to vet these outlets, which means you need to build a list and make sure it’s appropriate…

You get the idea.

Here are some questions you can ask to figure out the Critical-Path in your business or project:

  1. What must be accomplished for the user to receive your [product / service / final product] and be 100% satisfied?
  2. What is absolutely necessary to do or create to deliver on your promise to your customer?
  3. What would delay the launch or release of this product or service if we do not do it early?

These questions will help you brainstorm all tasks for your project, and give you a good indication of what is something that needs to be worked on now for something else to happen in the future.

The key is to actually walk through, step by step, each supposed sequence of tasks that will help you reach your final objective.

What Are You Prioritizing Today?

At the end of the day, I think most people struggle with creating priorities because drawing a line in the sand and saying “thing 1” is more important than things “2 through 3 million” is tough.

It necessarily means we cut, scrap, and eliminate things that might be exciting, or fun, or interesting, so that we can focus on the stuff that actually builds your business (or helps you get your book or art out there in a meaningful way).

One way you know you’re heading in the right direction: if setting priorities makes you uncomfortable, and if that list of tasks in front of you aren’t easy.

In most cases (of course not all), the hardest task in front of you is the one that you should tackle now.

No, it’s not comfortable.

It’s not supposed to be.

So my question to you:

What are you prioritizing today?

If you were to set just one goal today…to complete just one major task, or item, or objective…what would it be?

A final note: action brings clarity. So if you don’t know what to do right now, do something. The rest will follow.

Good luck, and keep creating.

Started, finished, and shipped outside Aspen, Colorado

Writing time: 5 hours and 37 minutes

p.s. have you read my new book yet?

8 comments

  • Hey Tom,

    Great insight and advice to overcome a challenge I’d bet we all face at one time or another.

    I particularly appreciate how you outline the process to achieve the success we see in others by redirecting our attention away from their current success, remembering they didn’t start there, asking the right questions of ourselves, and focusing on the steps, pivots, and iterations WE need to be tackling to achieve our own success.

    It’s easy to forget that the roadmap to success isn’t just the “destination dot on the map”, then feeling overwhelmed or unsure how to get there. There’s always a starting point and a route that must be traveled to reach the destination.

    Thanks for the reminder to keep the destination in mind, but to stay focused on steps needed to stay on the route!

    • Karen – we develop a gantt chart at the outset of every launch we do, immediately after we finish our roadmapping sessions with clients. It’s a hugely helpful and enlightening process – makes the whole thing very clear (not the step by step, but the larger picture and how we will reach it).

      glad this was helpful!

  • I enjoyed the blog. I think many of us entrepreneurs have circumstantial ADHD – AD from all our multitasking and HD from all the coffee (or sugar). But thanks for this helpful reminder to pick one thing and break it down into steps. Now it’s different knowing what you have to do and actually doing it. Need a Life Coach to walk with you for that part? That’s what I do.

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