Focus is the scarcest resource in large organizations

April 2020

The ability to focus is negatively correlated with an organization’s size. What I mean is; as organizations get larger, they have a harder time executing on projects that require focus, for an extended period of time. This gets even more difficult if the project domain is orthogonal to the organization’s core business (even if solving the problem is existential for the organization). One of the hardest things for large organizations to do, is maintain focus for senior, highly effective people in the execution path, for an extended period of time.

For many people who have worked in big organizations, this experience will look familiar:

  1. There’s a big new project, it’s exciting but it’s speculative - it is orthogonal to the core business. Let’s call it the Shiny Strategic Project. Not everyone agrees about how important it is, but all agree that if it works, it will be a huge win. Conservatively, it will take 10 months to ship, and the founder/CEO/most senior decision maker (I’ll call them the GM for this example) is really excited. It might be for a new business line or new product that doesn’t leverage the core business, but it is not the core business.
  2. The company staffs it with a small team of highly seasoned, effective people who are dedicated, mission driven, and can be trusted to ship. Very often these will be pretty senior individual contributors (ICs) with a solid track record and reputation inside the company.
  3. The team starts work on the project and things are humming along. It’s not exciting but it’s foundational work, they have a lot of agency, few people are meddling. The GM checks in less frequently as the days go by. They’re thinking about earnings, fundraising, recruiting, the next announcement, the next product launch: all things where the payoff might be smaller, but it hits sooner.
  4. Around month 5, a crisis hits the core business. It starts small, then it gradually sucks more and more people in. This could be scaling related, or could be an exogenous/discontinuous macro change. In either case, the crisis is existential if left unaddressed.
  5. An executive who didn’t sponsor the Shiny Strategic Project (either someone new, or someone who didn’t really agree with the value but didn’t want to rock the boat, or maybe even someone overseeing the crisis) looks over at the Shiny Strategic Project and says “hey those people over there are really senior and we could really use their help”
  6. The people working on the Shiny Strategic Project haven’t shipped anything in a while (understandable; they've been working on this for 5 months) and they’re getting itchy. They want the dopamine hit, the business is shifting, it is perhaps questionable that this Shiny Strategic Project is that strategic given this crisis, and anyway, a new startup has emerged that has an API that can do that thing
  7. The Shiny Strategic Project execution team raises their hands to step into the crisis and help. As good citizens, they’re being selfless, the whole company is pitching in, morale is high, and everyone is stoked to be pitching in together. They stop working on Shiny Strategic Project. They pick up the slack, make a massive contribution, and the company has risen to the challenge of the crisis. Everyone celebrates.
  8. Shiny Strategic Project is (temporarily) unstaffed. What now? To go back, our project execution team has to now regain context. They’ve had a good time working with a new group, etc. Someone also needs to work on the crisis area and ensure nothing breaks again. A decision must be made.
  9. It’s the holidays, hard to get the right people in a room to make a decision. Everyone kind of tools around, and punts on making a decision.
  10. Everyone gets back, and agrees Shiny Strategic Project is still indeed strategic – the team was already halfway through when the crisis hit, and a lot of the foundation is in place. There’s still that startup with the API out there, but they’re not doing the exact thing the company wants, and any ways they’re only seed stage. The company assigns some new hires to the Shiny Strategic Project, and puts a couple of the original project executors back on it. The remainder of the original project executors get re-assigned to other teams, maybe even including the team managing the crisis, maybe for the new New Shiny Strategic Project, etc.
  11. By this point, its month seven. 2 months of productivity have been lost, and half the team is no longer on the main project. A project that originally took 10 months to execute will now take 15 (5 original months, and 10 additional months with half the original team)

Couple caveats; first, this isn’t the only reason why noncore big company projects flounder; it’s just one that is poorly understood. Second, founder/CEOs of very successful companies very often don’t understand this problem. This is because the projects they focus on actually tend get executed, because no one wants to risk messing with their baby, and to the people executing that project, the benefits are obvious, continuous and immediate in terms of CEO engagement, visibility, and so on. The pet project of the founder/CEO doesn’t go through anything that looks like this. Every other project with a long timeline in a large organization faces this risk.

Focus is a huge advantage of an early stage startup, because there really isn’t anything else to do. There’s no crisis impacting the core business, because there IS no core business. There's no need for a Shiny Strategic Project. There’s just the one thing you must do to survive, which is find product market fit, and if you don’t do it, you won’t survive.

Thanks to Temi, Dhanji Prasanna, Aman Manik, Ian Kar, and Jim Esposito for reading this in draft form.