The Manifesto of Ruthless Prioritization


Get Shift Done: Management

Every company needs to be smart when setting their priorities. Startups need to be ruthless.

Tick. Tock. That’s the clock counting down to the moment when your startup runs out of money. Whether your goal is profitability or hitting some proof point in order to raise the next round of fundraising, make no doubt about it, each moment is precious. Every feature you build, every a/b test you start, every customer acquisition strategy you implement, and every single question you ask your users is important. You are making a choice at the expense of something else you could be doing. It’s a zero-sum game.

Big companies may be able to burn their gold on frivolous initiatives in order to feed the hungry beast. Late-stage companies may be able to use their war chest to expand into adjacent categories. A startup can do neither. A startup can only focus on the top two or three priorities or, preferably, focus only on the number one priority. This is really hard. Doing this in practice maximizes your chance of success, but screw this up and you’re dead.

The ability to know what to do and the discipline to focus only on that is ruthless prioritization. Here are three ways to ensure your company is on the right track.

Solve only the important, hard problems.

Most of us in the world of technology or startups are problem solvers. We love rolling up our sleeves and solving a good puzzle. Whether it’s solving the New York Times crossword, kicking ass in Civilization VI, or figuring out how to crack the $400B home services market, we like a meaty challenge.

The problem is that just as much as we like to solve a puzzle, we also love getting things done and crossing them off our list. In a startup context, there’s a danger here. The danger is in being seduced by smaller, more solvable problems instead of going after the big motherscratcher. Knocking out a bunch of second order problems feels good in the short run until you realize you’ve built little value and have no competitive moat. Don’t do that. Many failed startups have solved some interesting easy-ish problems, but every successful startup has solved at least one really, really hard problem. The Googles, Apples and Facebooks of the world have solved a few of these mega problems.

Ruthless prioritization means having the discipline to solve the big, really hard problem rather than being seduced by all the small, easier problems.

Often it’s difficult to know whether you are solving an important problem or a trivial one. It’s useful to try to think beyond tactics, processes and features. Think about what brain-splitting pain the customer is experiencing and how you can make that go away. It’s been said a million times, make pain-killers not vitamins. The Jobs-to-be-Done Theory can help in understanding what the real job is that your customer is hiring your product to do. This is exemplified by something economist Theodore Levitt once said, “people do not want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter inch hole.”

Don’t fall in love with the product, fall in love with the mission.

It is easy to get attached to the wrong things and that attachment can lead your prioritization astray. That cool beta app that you’ve soft launched, that slick signup flow you’ve built, the homegrown javascript framework you coded, that beautiful homepage carousel you designed–it’s easy to fall for the shiny artifacts you have created. Beware! Your love affair with these things may lead you to protect them even when they are no longer useful or not the best option. Maybe that cool app is actually cool, but does it really drive the business? Maybe the world (and your business) doesn’t really need another homegrown javascript framework to maintain forever. This goes for your team as well. Perhaps you no longer need three widget makers. Two would be sufficient and you could use invest the difference somewhere else.

Any startup worth its Kind Bars has an inspiring mission to build something meaningful and make a positive impact on the world. This is where you should focus your passion. Fall in love with the mission. Obsess over every priority, every decision, every current situation as to whether it gets you closer to your mission or not. If it doesn’t, you know what to do. Cut it / change it / do something else.

Ruthless prioritization means falling in love with the mission, not the product.

Culture is necessary for ruthless prioritization.

When you are saying ‘no’ to thousands of good ideas, when you are saying ‘no’ to your CEO, when you are saying ‘no’ to your colleagues and customers, this creates a lot of tension. Serious tension. This is why culture is critical to the practice of ruthless prioritization.

Most companies get the first half of culture right. Through happy hours, holiday parties, team building off sites, and trust falls, team members get to know each other and start to care for each other as human beings. When you care for each other, it’s likely you’ll want to do good by your team, fulfill your commitments, and make others like you. Strong personal relationships also lead to empathy and a willingness to help each other out. These are crucial attributes of a startup culture (any culture for that matter). But, while caring for each other is important, it is not enough.

Most companies don’t realize that it’s critical to create a culture where honest, challenging feedback is normal and expected. A culture where everyone cares about each other but doesn’t give feedback creates, as Kim Scott (Founder of Radical Candor) would say, “ruinous empathy.” Luckily, this is a pretty easy problem to fix once you are aware of it.

At TaskRabbit, we send every new employee to a two-day training where they learn about giving feedback, having those hard, tension-filled conversations, and how to navigate common pitfalls that teams often succumb to. It’s a big investment for us but everyone confidently leaves those two days with common tools and language for giving each other feedback. We refresh those learnings several times a year with the whole team. Now, when someone simply says “feedback” the word itself often pops people out of their normal mindsets and opens them up to input. The investment pays off!

We are not perfect at TaskRabbit, but if there’s one thing we are great at, it’s the balance between caring for each other and the ability to challenge each other directly. Ruthless prioritization depends on these two facets of culture existing in harmony.

A culture balanced between direct feedback and camaraderie is key in ruthless prioritization.


I need to wrap this up and get back to my top priority. I told you this was going to be hard, but, see, I am working on a really difficult, important problem. The world is going to be a better place when I solve this! I know you’ll understand. I know you appreciate directness. Adios!

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Thank you to Derya and Luis for feedback on this article.

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