Alex Weinstein
On Growth, Product, and Leadership
Avoiding Tradeoffs, or Your Focus Needs More Focus

Last week, we examined “shiny object syndrome,” a strategy failure mode seen all too often. This week, let’s look at its cousin: avoiding tradeoffs.

Let’s be honest: as leaders, a frequent thought that goes through our minds is “can’t we just work harder?..” Can’t both features X and Y be done in 6 months, instead of each of them taking 6 months? Can’t we launch a new push notification program every week and have exactly zero quality issues? Can’t we pay employees at the 50th percentile of the industry and have 90th percentile retention?

walking and chewing gum sometimes ends badly

These questions are, sadly, a reflection of us: of our own inability to make decisions - the most important ones, of the prioritization kind. So instead of making tough calls - feature X matters, do it well, and screw feature Y; velocity of learning matters, let’s sacrifice some quality; employee retention matters, let’s sacrifice some costs - we create this half-hearted narrative that externalizes the problem, putting it on our teams. Can’t they walk and chew gum at the same time?..

Well, one thing is having high expectations. Another is having unrealistic expectations. If you intentionally set aspirational goals, or if if you even suspect that your goals might be tough to hit, it’s prudent to think of a tradeoff framework and instill it in your team. If you don’t, the team will make the tradeoffs on their own, and you won’t like the results.

Importantly, different teams may make misaligned tradeoffs - and the result will be an execution cacophony. For example, one team will push to launch a bunch of experiments quickly, while another team that works in concert with it will slowly pursue a stable platform; as a result, you’ll neither have stability nor speed of execution. Preventing this kind of cacophony is the conductors’ job.

Some examples of clear tradeoff frameworks

moving fast and breaking things doesn't work for some jobs

“Move fast and break things” from the early days of Facebook - and even more clear comment from Zuck, “Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough,” is a crystal-clear statement of values. It helps everyone in the organization know what is OK to sacrifice: quality, that is, mistakes are ok. This approach isn’t right for many organizations, but this is precisely what makes it a real framework for tradeoffs. It’s the opposite of “motherhood and apple pie.”

Amazon’s infamous personnel practices are another solid example. With an average tenure of a newly hired software engineer at under 1 year, Bezos managed to make processes and systems so good that making software became akin to a factory. This approach has been extremely effective for Amazon and is clearly counter to the “common wisdom of Agile.” I’m not sure if you want to emulate this approach, and it won’t work for most organizations, but it too is a great example of a real tradeoff framework.

One of the leaders I admire, Eric Ferguson, values having a single owner for a problem almost above all else. He often said, “I thought about this problem for 15 minutes… surely, a smart person owning this problem for a month can do a lot better than I can.” This results in distributed ownership with a higher velocity of decision-making - instead of a command-and-control, but slower apparatus. Diffusing power this way also states a clear tradeoff framework: move faster, have higher throughput in your area - even if it means that cross-initiative coordination is weaker.

A Tradeoff Framework Doesn’t Have To Be Permanent

This year, preventing customer churn might be more important than getting more orders from active customers. Next year, it might be the other way around. When you state what’s important and what can be sacrificed, block some time on your leadership’s team calendar 6 months from now to revisit this framework. Things might be different then.

Strategy Is the Art of Saying “No.”

Your team will make tradeoffs, whether or not you want them to. In too many organizations, these tradeoffs will be made on auto-pilot, without explicit choices made by the leader. If you take a moment to give guidance on what is OK to sacrifice, and what isn’t, the overall output will be more cohesive.

You’re paid the big bucks for having the team focus on the right stuff; for teams executing in concert, with aligned values and emphases. Shiny object syndrome and avoiding making tradeoffs are two certain ways to fail. Don’t let these happen on your watch.