The goal of goals is to help everyone focus and aim in the right direction. But sometimes, in the attempt to achieve more, companies are not willing to give up on any front, which means no focus at all. Here is how to regain focus and help everyone understand what they need and needn’t do.

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I always try to practice what I preach. When I talk about product strategy, I apply the same methodologies to my own company although my product is not technological. When I talk about time management, I share with you the methods that worked best for me. I do the same with planning. As I don’t have scrum teams, most of my planning is focused on goals and communicating them clearly to my team. It’s anyway the most important part of the planning process.

Loyal to the famous Alice in Wonderland quote, whenever I try to plan which way to go, I need to decide first where I want to be eventually. I took some time to think about what I wanted my company and my life to look like in five years. In my case, including life goals made sense, but even if you don’t include them in your business planning, I highly recommend thinking about them and shaping your future accordingly.

When I had my vision set clearly, I started to plan backward. If I wanted to achieve X in five years’ time, where would I need to be three years from now? And one year? Eventually, I broke it down to a quarterly plan which made sense.

I stuck to the guideline that says no more than 3–5 goals and chose them carefully. I also had a more detailed progress plan for each, which showed how far am I expecting to be each week within the quarter at each goal, so that I could track our progress on a weekly basis and know if we are on track or not.

It worked great initially. It felt like we are moving full power ahead, making progress on all fronts in the right direction. At some point, though, things started to fall off route. The weekly progress wasn’t as expected, and it was clear that some more attention was needed. Initially, that’s exactly what I did. But when the same situation happened in multiple goals, I wasn’t able to keep it as tight as I used to. Fighting full power on multiple fronts is not easy. It’s not just a matter of time and resources, it’s mostly a matter of attention. When you have so much to do, it’s easy to lose your way. Prioritization and focus are harder to maintain, and you end up doing things that are not necessarily the most important ones.

In my case, I ended up not meeting many of my goals. I realized that 3–5 goals are way too many. It looks like a small, attainable number, but in reality, it means no focus. What happened naturally is that I put more focus on a single goal, and the rest of them simply fell off the rack as the quarter went on. Realizing that I anyway end up having a single goal that I am able to really focus on, I shifted my planning to allow only a single goal per quarter. It allows me to choose more smartly and also prepare in advance to not making any progress on the other fronts.

If you are too comfortable with the idea of choosing a single goal, it might mean that you are not defining your goals properly. Strategic prioritization is usually very hard because a company almost never fights on a single front. I always tell my mentees that the product leader’s role is not to prioritize between important and unimportant things. Anyone can do that. Your role is to prioritize between things that are all critical, but you still need to choose. Here is the method that I’ve been using to do it well.

Note: as a product leader, perhaps you don’t get to call all the shots. This strategic planning impacts the entire company — that’s what makes it so powerful, but that’s also what means it’s not for you to tell everyone what to do. It is, however, up to you to come up with this thinking, and even your suggestion, and facilitate this discussion in management until you are all aligned. I highly recommend going through this framework twice: once with yourself, coming up with your recommendations, and then presenting it to management and letting them go through this process, either getting to the same conclusions that you did or convincing you otherwise.

To be able to plan for business success, you need to be familiar with your products’ business results. But hey, that’s exactly what you need to do as a product leader anyway, right?

If you are planning for multiple products that have separate teams working on them, consider conducting this analysis per product separately. For a single product, the best way to describe the product’s business results is through the phases of the customer journey, as described in the metrics for pirates (AARRR) framework. In this simplified model, you don’t even have to have a dashboard of the actual metrics for each category. Instead, merely by understanding what each category means for your product and business, you can give yourself a red-yellow-green rating for each. This should not take hours. It needs to give you the high-level classification of what works well and what doesn’t. Having done this with dozens of product leaders as part of the CPO Bootcamp as well as my consulting customers, I can assure you that you know the answer pretty quickly. It’s just a matter of thinking about it this way.

This is the context for the actual planning that you will need to conduct below.

I have a confession to make: I never liked SWOT analysis. Following the strict guidelines I learned in my MBA, I always looked to dig deep into the unknowns of the business. It felt like a dramatic, heavy, analysis to conduct, the outcomes of which should hold for years to come. I always felt like I’m unable to capture everything it needs to capture.

If you google how to conduct a SWOT analysis you end up with lists of dozens of questions that you need to answer, and most of them don’t have a straightforward or easy answer. As I read these lists I find myself needing to take a deep breath just to start thinking about them. That’s why I created a simplified version, which includes a single, simple question in each quadrant of the SWOT matrix. For each question, you can list as many answers as you want, but you don’t need to make the list exhaustive. That’s what makes it so simple — and quick — to use.

Weaknesses: in my simplified model I like to start with weaknesses and not strengths. The question to ask here is where am I not achieving my goals, and why? You can add additional areas besides business goals if they are strategic enough. For example, if you have an employee churn problem, it’s a good place to call it out.

Strengths: what is it that allowed you to achieve phenomenal results where you did?

Opportunities: what would make the business grow 10x (eventually, not within a quarter or even a year)?

Threats: if we fail, what would have failed us?

Now that you have a list of potential things that you want to focus on, it’s time to choose. You will most likely have more than five, let alone more than the one that you need. The first prioritization step is to choose a single candidate for each quadrant.

While the simplified SWOT analysis gives you the strategic status of your product, in planning you need to decide on what to do, not just where to focus. The simplified SWOT model I created guides you into action, again by giving you a single option per quadrant. You can either:

  • Protect a strength (make sure it continues to be a strength, or even make it stronger)
  • Resolve a weakness (fix what’s broken)
  • Pursue an opportunity, or
  • Manage the risk of a threat (create means to lower the odds that it would materials and/or means to lower the impact if it does)

Looking at your list for each quadrant, ask yourself which item would you pick for this category. For example, look at all the strengths that you mentioned, if you needed to keep just one to protect, which one would it be? When you ask it this way, choosing gets much easier. Do the same for all quadrants, so that you have a single item in each quadrant.

If you recall, I said that I only allowed myself a single goal per quarter, but here I have exactly four — one for each quadrant. That’s where it gets interesting. You need to look at the four candidates you listed and choose just one to focus on for the upcoming quarter.

Doing so allows you to make an informed decision on what matters to you most, rather than not deciding and then having reality choose for you, simply because you can’t get to everything you wanted.

This framework is powerful because choosing between four candidates is much easier than choosing between the infinite possibilities that you really have. In some cases, you might find a single action that will help on multiple fronts. For example, pursuing an opportunity to enter a new market might also mitigate the risk of having a strong competitor in your current market.

But even if it doesn’t, choose one. Remember that you have to choose because people cannot focus on two balls at the same time. What should make it easier for you, is that you only choose for one quarter, not for the entire year or even years ahead. You can always come back to handle another front in 90 days. You might need to put down a fire on other fronts if there is one, but you are not going to actively make progress there. It is a very powerful decision. To do it at scale, by the way, it could be that your first goal would be to add the mechanisms (health metrics) that would allow you to know when a fire is about to start.

The power of having just a single goal is that it serves as an anchor that you can always get to. Even if your day-to-day is very hectic, when the teams feel lost and need to regain focus, they always know where to look for it. It instills confidence, not less than productivity.

Make sure you communicate the goal clearly, including the reasoning that led you to choose it over others. Explain the methodology and the fact that you are not abandoning all other fronts, just focusing on a single one for 90 days. Whenever you feel the team lost direction, go back to this foundational goal and start over again.

If you do it extremely well and achieve it before the 90 days go by, you can always go back to your SWOT analysis and choose another one. But don’t do it before you actually achieved the results of the original goal. It’s the only way forward.

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