The only thing that matters and the pursuit of single-threaded leadership
How teams can focus on executing on their important goals, while organizations can continue to innovate and pursue several initiatives at a time
Building a product and launching a startup have a lot in common. One of them is raising a funding round or getting allocated a budget and headcount on the promise of delivering results. The most important part of pitching potential investors or your executive leadership involves articulating the next target milestones. This founder - investor alignment is critical as it serves as the success definition and a backbone of an organization’s roadmap. An early stage startup might need to validate product feasibility or establish product-market fit by securing initial customers. A more mature venture might focus on demonstrating scalability and profitability. A corporate division might commit to certain revenue goals. The point here is not about a specific goal, but rather the acknowledgment that a singular goal exists. This is "The Only Thing that Matters".
The importance of focus
The main principles behind "The Only Thing that Matters":
Clarity and Alignment: "The Only Thing that Matters'' must be clear to everyone involved. The team needs to be aligned and have the context on why this is important. Similarly investors or executive sponsors need to be aligned with the significance of this singular focus.
Focused Team Efforts: The goal must be the main focus of the team. While this may seem obvious, it's a common pitfall to get attracted to tasks that are more enjoyable or easier, rather than staying painfully focused on "The Only Thing that Matters."
Transparent Progress Communication: Progress towards "The Only Thing that Matters" must be communicated transparently. Ownership of specific Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) is crucial, with frequent reporting against set targets to maintain accountability.
If this was not clear by now, success at the team level means ruthless prioritization and alignment between the goal and actions to get there. Any activity not directly contributing to the goal is an activity that is negatively impacting the team’s ability to get where they want. As Paul Graham writes on How to work hard:
“I do make some amount of effort to focus on important topics. Many problems have a hard core at the center, surrounded by easier stuff at the edges. Working hard means aiming toward the center to the extent you can. Some days you may not be able to; some days you'll only be able to work on the easier, peripheral stuff. But you should always be aiming as close to the center as you can without stalling.”
Invention and single-threaded leadership
The downside of focusing too much is the opportunity cost of not pursuing a higher ROI initiative. Amazon would have never invented AWS if everyone's focus was on creating the best ecommerce business. Working on an initiative about web services would only be a distraction for an ecommerce company. How can companies address this paradox and maximize the probability of not missing out on big opportunities and market shifts while ruthlessly executing on their plan? The answer lies in single-threaded leadership, a concept which Amazon used very successfully to combine focus on execution and innovation. This is how companies can go from the team level focus of "The Only Thing that Matters" to parallel delivery on “Several Things that Matter”.
Single-threaded leadership refers to a leadership approach where a single leader or a small, focused team is dedicated to one initiative at a time. This approach ensures that each project gets the attention and resources it deserves. An important clarification is that the leader should be working on the initiative full time. If a leader is not fully dedicating their time on the initiative, they are not the single-threaded leader for the initiative. To identify the single-threaded leader, you go down the org chart until you find the one person that only works on this initiative. This setup empowers the leader to own the initiative, while maximizing accountability, and reducing context switching.
To quote Amazon's SVP David Limp, “the best way to ensure that you failed to invent something is by making it somebody's part-time job.”
At the company level, if leadership decides to pursue another opportunity they should ideally deploy a single-threaded leader (and eventually a respective team) to pursue it, while letting the rest of the organization execute on their goals. As I wrote on Product management lessons from Amazon’s success, Amazon did this very well with the creation of the Kindle, where Jeff Bezos appointed Steve Keseel, then VP of Media Retail, into a new role to lead the new initiative. Colin Bryar and Bill Carr refer to this story in their book Working Backwards:
[Jeff] put Steve Kessel, Amazon's VP of media retail, in charge of the company's digital business. This seemed strange at first. Steve Kessel had been overseeing sales of physical books, music, video, and more — a core component of Amazon's business. The company's digital media business, meanwhile, consisted of a new "search inside the book" feature, plus an e-books team of roughly five people, which generated a few million dollars in annual revenue and had no real prospects for growth.
But there was wisdom here. Jeff wasn't making a "what" decision; he made a "who" and "how" decision. This is an incredibly important difference. He did not jump straight to focusing on what product to build, which seems like the straightest line from A to B. Instead, the choices Jeff made suggested — even then! — that he believed the scale of the opportunity was large and that the scope of the work required to achieve success was equally large and complex. He focused first on how to organize the team and who was the right leader to achieve the right result.
The important detail is that Kessel left his past role to move to this new area of focus - he didn’t run both initiatives in parallel. With this setup, the Amazon Media team could continue focusing on their business inputs (selection, prices, and convenience), while the new team could focus on inventing the best digital experience for consuming media, which apparently included getting into a new domain of hardware development. As a bonus, the two businesses could compete for the best customer experience without the conflict that the same leader runs both and is therefore hesitant to cannibalize their P&L.
Best of both worlds
In a world of distractions and decreasing attention spans, focus becomes your competitive edge. By embracing single-threaded leadership and fostering an environment where focus is prioritized, organizations can not only improve their current performance, but also set the stage for future innovations and successes.
Note: For the image generation I used a DALL-E prompt where I first pasted the blog post and then started asking about different style iterations. The first image is a more abstract approach on the initial image DALL-E came up with, which was close to a stock photo for a corporate meeting.
Me: “I like the direction. Can you make it more abstract and less corporate?”
DALL-E: “For a more abstract representation we can create an image that symbolizes the concept of focus and alignment in startups and product development. Imagine a vivid, abstract landscape with a central, luminous path leading towards a distant, glowing target. This path is flanked by various abstract shapes and figures, representing diverse ideas and distractions. Among these shapes, small groups of figures, each led by a distinct leader, are seen moving towards the path, symbolizing the concept of single-threaded leadership and focused team efforts. The overall color palette is vibrant yet harmonious, indicating clarity and alignment within the chaos of innovation and development. This abstract representation captures the essence of focusing on a singular goal amidst myriad possibilities, a central theme of the blog post.”