Can Do Vs Must Do

Over the past few months, I’ve been reminded about the difference between “can do” and “must do” and how companies often confuse the two.

With the abundance of capital sloshing around the tech sector, our portfolio companies often have the resources to do more than they can and should do. They greenlight a bunch of projects that are “can do” projects but not “must do” projects. And a number of not so great things happen when they do this, including but not limited to:

  • Core resources (like infrastructure, security, payments, design, product management) get stretched supporting so many efforts.
  • The team loses sight of the mission and strategy as so many projects are being tackled at the same time
  • Senior leadership gets pulled in many directions and loses alignment as a result
  • Projects slip or don’t ship at all, leading to malaise and morale issues
  • Headcount grows quickly to support all of these efforts, creating more management issues

I saw a presentation recently with a “plan” that had ten “near term focus items” on it. I told the person presenting the plan to me that I don’t think a plan should have more than three things on it. I am a big fan of the rule of three. I am not sure where I heard it but it says that you should not tackle more than three big things at one time, no matter how large your organization is.

But regardless of whether you have two, three, or four big efforts this year, you should test all of your initiatives agains the “must do” vs “can do” test. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

I’ve written about the importance of strategy and saying no. Strategy isn’t saying no. It is figuring out what is the most important thing for your company and deciding to focus on it and say no to everything else.

In order to figure out what the most important thing is, you need to understand your products, your customers, your market position, where things are going, and where you want to be in three to five years. Once you have figured all of that out, you can figure out what are the most important things you need to do in order to get there.

It is also true that the “most important thing” changes. My partner Albert told me that he thinks doing a startup is like playing a video game. Each level requires you to master one thing and once you do that, you level up and then there is a new thing to master.

I like that metaphor a lot even though it trivializes the company building process a bit. It is a very clarifying view on how you must think about things and prioritize things.

So if you are frustrated by the pace of development (and not just engineering development) at your company, I would suggest you think about how many things you are trying to do at the same time. If it is a lot, then run them by the “can do” vs “must do” test and kill all the things that are not “must dos”. That might even mean parting ways with people you don’t need, which is painful but often helpful.

Executing well on all of the “must do” things is the hallmark of a well run company. And that usually means that there aren’t many “can do” things on the roadmap at the same time.


Comments (Archived):

  1. Dan Epstein

    The rule of three is interesting. Might make a good post. My first question was how it applies to big cos like Google/Alphabet or Apple.

    1. JamesHRH

      The rule of 3 is an organic human constant.Human thought requires 3 data points – live action brain scans have shown 3 different areas fire when someone creates a thought.Fred- meeting – Plan sparks “Plan is not Finished” into existence.All experienced people have 3 point breakouts or 3 point plans or some rule of 3.Every opinion / point of view or idea is basically a version of Black – White – Grey.So, 3’s create information, an abundance of information is reduced into 3’s to be effective and 3’s are like Pi, the Speed of Light & Gravity, except we know why the 3 constant exists.

  2. Jeff Hohner

    Yes. Trying to execute on too many things at once results in getting stuck in the middle, being mediocre and not doing anything that well. Customers see it and staff begin to feel it – painful on many fronts. Perhaps this is a sign of the beginning of the end – won’t reverse unless the laser focus is brought back and maintained moving forward.

  3. David C. Baker

    The people who support “can do” instead of “must do” projects are frequently the ones closest to you. They are encouraging, they see all the possibilities for you, and they want to be seen as helpful in your life. But those are the people you need to disappoint most acutely.

  4. PeterisP

    This maps well to the Warren Buffet’s… approach – you should intentionally avoid doing e.g. the thing that is your priority #10, because *those* are the things that will steal your time, attention and resources from priorities #1 and #2 if you just let everything flow.

  5. Rob Larson

    Good rule. Obviously it doesn’t apply if you are Jeff Bezos. But it turns out the vast majority of us are not him. (Or Elon Musk for that matter.)

    1. JLM

      .Actually, Bezos is a focused guy: “Your margin is my opportunity.”That is the essential driver of Amazon, no?Elon Musk has never met Elon Musk.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

      1. Rob Larson

        Yes, he is ultra-focused. So focused that he can have his company do 10 things without losing focus. Most everyone else only has enough internal focus to manage 3 things.

  6. Stuart Kime

    With my Exec teams I frequently use a Stephen Covey quote, “the main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing”. But in my experience nothing creates practical focus like Four Disciplines of Execution (4DX) by Covey’s son. The most important part of a Board’s year for me is approving the two WIGs. Then approve the budget.

  7. Maurya Couvares

    Good analogy for life in general 🙂

    1. karen_e

      Agree. These management/leadership topics often make the best posts of all.

    2. fredwilson


    3. JamesHRH

      I think it is again Warren Buffet that says, if you want to be successful, say No a lot and if you want to be really really successful, say No almost all the time.

      1. Twain Twain

        I say NO to a lot of projects. I’ve had Apple execs try to sidetrack me from my mission by building them a “Snap meets YouTube with Machine Learning.”I’ve had incubator mentors tell me to pivot and build a derivative of Disqus.I’ve been absolutely singular in inventing my system.

  8. Mario Cantin

    In five words: “Don’t spread yourself too thin”, although not as memorable as the post itself however.

  9. William Mougayar

    To add to this headline, I would say “do well”. Of course, they can do whatever…, but you can only do a few things well, and they must be the most critical things. Some startups under-estimate the fact that time is finite, and they can’t keep adding to their priorities. Each time you add something significant, something else needs to go, or go down in priority. This applies to business or life, in general.

    1. JLM

      .Most of what they are doing is misunderstanding the differences amongst strategy, tactics, objectives. They think objectives are strategic. They are not.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  10. awaldstein

    It is also true that the earlier you are in the cycle, the less you can do.The more diverse the touchpoints to the market the more critical it is to have the narrative baked into the product and how it is sold of course.

  11. Anne Libby

    Yes!Also, what is each “thing”? What does it look like when you’re done? When should it be done? Who should be working on it? How will you measure success?I’ve been surprised when people don’t want to add some of these simple questions (and their answers) to the planning process.

    1. JLM

      .Hahaha, excuse me. I couldn’t help myself when I read “planning process.”The single greatest failing of American business is failing to plan which means they are planning to fail.The average American businessperson cannot differentiate amongst strategy, tactics, objectives. I have seen this so many times.Strategy — the view from 30,000 feet (founder, manager level)Tactics — the view from 10,000 feet (departmental, functional level)Objectives — boots on the ground (individuals)I have seen companies dramatically transform themselves when they spend four days working through this stuff. The change is dramatic. If they update it every six months, they are gods.Hahaha, planning process.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

      1. Anne Libby

        I have seen companies dramatically transform themselves when they spend four days working through this stuff. The change is dramatic. If they update it every six months, they are gods.Exactly. If it’s a small team, even one day of planning can hold enormous potential.

      2. sigmaalgebra

        Am I behind on planning? Maybe not! Okay, I’ll update my plan. … Just did that.Okay, here’s my plan update:Get this project live and making money with base data to solve a nicely selected and focused part of the whole problem ASAP.Simple.Main steps — right, rule of three:(A) Do some routine stuff.(B) Publicity and beta test.(C) Go live.After going live — rule of just one:(A) Grow the business as planned and would be expected and fully routine.Steps:(1) Do some computer systems management mud wrestling. E.g., some hardware problems resulted in some data corruption, so need to restore from some backups.(2) Check a third time the correctness of the software for the core applied math.(3) Tweak some of the UI — I have an idea to make the UI a little nicer and more effective; simple change of a few lines in just one place in the code.(4) The present approach to a Web site log is not good enough for production. So, copy the code for the session state server (wrote own code instead of using Redis), rip out most of that code, and, thus, get code for a better Web site log server; the code for the two servers is much the same; the session state server is simple; the log server is even simpler.(5) Get some more good base data.(6) Write some little chunks of code to make it easier to include new base data in the SQL Server data base.(7) Do some more testing.(8) Try to think of a way to break it. If break it, then fix it.(9) Get an extra e-mail address, one for feedback from testers.(10) Get going with the ad networks — write little pieces of code as necessary.(11) Review the security of the Web site. Of course, there’s no chance of SQL injection. This will likely be mostly just routine system administration following well documented, standard precautions.(12) Routine stuff to be ready to go live — domain name, certificate authority, tax ID, business bank account, “doing business as” form, business name. Delay LLC for now.(13) Do some alpha testing — from a list of testers I have.(14) Start the publicity effort from a lot of materials I have, early contacts with tech writers, etc.(15) Do the beta test.(16) Go live — (14) – (16) all close together in time and coordinated to be mutually reinforcing.(17) When receive checks, deposit them and get going with a bookkeeper/accountant, withholdings, filings, etc. If get direct deposits, already have looked into how to download the account traffic; the syntax is dirt simple; easy to write little pieces of code to do what is necessary with that data.(18) Study the Web site log (write little chunks of code using dirt simple syntax of own Web site log server) to see what is most important to do next in base data to grow the site.(19) Likely grow server farm capacity; have already done a lot of good shopping for parts. Already have plenty of room for some shelves and/or racks. Later, not yet, have an electrician run some power to the server rooms and do well with uninterruptible power supplies and a generator in a hut on a pad out back).(20) Get with Cisco on a router with some good security and monitoring.(21) Look into how to modify the Web site code without interrupting the users of the site.(22) Get a lawyer and an LLC.(23) Start growing the base data as planned — write a little off-line, batch code to help with that.(24) Keep up on system monitoring, management, and administration. If want to have a fun few days, then implement own, old novel work on high quality, real time, zero day anomaly detection; if it looks interesting, then use it to get some publicity.(25) Likely sign up for the Microsoft BizSpark program; reviewed it recently and it’s a lot better than it was at first.(26) Let the site grow in base data, usage, ads, server farm capacity, revenue, etc.(27) Look into implementing own ad targeting ideas — maybe implement them ASAP.(28) Look into getting an office with room in the back for a significant server farm and with a relatively good Internet connection.Hiring? None planned.Equity funding? None planned.Okay, that’s the plan. No surprises. Not difficult.Long RangeThe problem I’m solving is important to nearly everyone in the world on the Internet.So far the available solutions are at best poor. My work provides the first good solution and a really good solution (from some astounding properties of some of the core math, amazingly good).The solution is fully safe for work, totally squeaky clean, and, really, uplifting — a nice to humanity and step up in civilization.The solution has at its core some original applied math I derived using some advanced pure/applied prerequisites.Users will not be aware of anything mathematical, and essentially no would-be competitors will be able to duplicate or equal my core technology based on my math. So, my math is a Buffett moat.Long term, my site stands to get on average about 30 minutes a week of eyeball time from 2+ billion unique users at which time they will see about 50 ads.For a revenue estimate, call that 400 million people in the more developed countries with revenue (with my good ad targeting) of $2 per 1000 ads displayed.So that annual revenue of52 * 2 * 50 * 400 * 10**6 / 1000 = 2,080,000,000with about $2 B pre-tax earnings.This arithmetic is fast and simple, but from 50,000 feet up, all things considered, it should be possible to increase the pre-tax earnings by another factor of 10 to 15. So, sure, the company could be worth $1 T.But now the thing to do is to make the company worth $1.

  12. Girish Mehta

    Directionally – applies across many aspects of life, not just business.Attached video from Tim Ferris (Tools of Titans).”If its not a Hell Yeah, its a No.”…

  13. LE

    Agree and I’ve experienced this way way back.What I found was that I would add products and services to our product mix (and machines to produce those). I could fully understand and comprehend, easily and immediately, but others couldn’t. Not only that but new hires went from having to learn 4 things to having to learn and understand, say, 20 things. The upside was that we were well diversified. The down side was that it created quite a confusing cluster****.That said it’s all a balance and an art as with anything in business. The diversification really helped with fluctuations in demand as opposed to specializing in a few small niches. Additionally, as is often the case, things that you do can become a large part of your business and that’s sometimes really hard to predict initially as a ‘must do’. (AWS as an example).

  14. Chimpwithcans

    This is the crux of life itself! I can do many, many things if I want to. To be of use I must do relatively few.

  15. jason wright

    wealth vs health

    1. Girish Mehta

      Fit with a blank calendar – is wealth.

  16. Jim Peterson

    How do you stay committed to the main thing? Every quarter we make a 1 page “what by when” document that outlines each departments goals in support of the main thing. We ask, “if we are successful does this move us towards excellence in our main thing?” Everybody gets to see how what they do contributes. It also avoids “I thought you said…..” as people go off and work on what is most fun to them versus what contributes.

    1. JLM

      .In a vacuum, people WILL go off and do what they like to do.That is both a curse and a blessing.It is a curse because people will equivocate on your nickle.It is a blessing because if you can find people who love doing what you assign them to do, they will crush it.The best hires I ever made were people who loved doing what they were assigned to do. I was doing it by the seat of my pants at first, but it dawned on me why it worked later.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

      1. JamesHRH

        Success in life is a ratio of what you are doing : how much you love it.

  17. JLM

    .The Rule of Three comes straight from the military. Every element of the military has a clear and simple mission. Most of the time, it’s three, but sometimes it’s one.The Army itself: “Shoot, move, communicate.” [You can go to the War College and they’re still saying the same thing.]The infantry: “Follow me.”Combat engineers:1. Aid the mobility of the friendlies;2. Impede the mobility of the enemy; and,3. Fight like infantry.Airborne: “Anywhere, any time, any how — death from the skies.”Rangers: “Rangers lead the way.”[Comes from the WWII Pont du Hoc landings (Saving Private Ryan’s Ass) in which it is debated whether it was: “Rangers, lead the way” with the comma or “Rangers lead the way” sans comma. Inside Ranger joke which requires four beers to debate on the appropriate level of intellectual rigor.]Special Forces: “Free the oppressed.”Clarity of vision and mission is the single easiest thing for any organization to rally around.When I was building high rises, my company was all about: “Build great buildings.” There was an elegant Ayn Rand/Howard Roark simplicity about it.I always preached any organization should have such clarity of vision and mission you could get an inexpensive tattoo on your inner forearm.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    1. JLM

      .A stick of paratroopers focusing on the mission with clarity.…Shows you what I was willing to do for $60/month when I was twenty-two. See if you can figure out which one is me.The first segment is a C-130 dropping jumpers from a single door. The guy in the door is the jumpmaster looking for the drop zone and the pathfinders.The second segment is an entire platoon going out both doors on a C-141. They can use both doors because they are far enough apart and the jumpmasters keep an eye on the other door so nobody smacks into each other in the air.Put the volume up high.JLM

      1. sigmaalgebra

        A US soldier could get hurt jumping like that. I understand some of why we did that on June 6, 1944 and some other times, but I hope we have better approaches now. Or the song is right: “It’s a Hell of a way to die”. To win a war, don’t die for your country; make the other guy die for his country. There are much better uses for silk, e.g., for the girl back home!

        1. JLM

          .Those guys are going out at 1200 feet for training. In combat, one may exit as low as 500′.When I was jumping T-10 chutes, they were supposedly designed for 165 lbs troopers. I used to land like a sack of crap.You have to be able to execute a perfect PLF (parachute landing fall) and curl you body perfectly to spread the landing shock.I got caught in a high wind one time and landed heels and head, knocking me out. I got dragged across the drop zone until somebody finally ran me and my chute down and cut us loose.When I woke up, I drove on and never missed an hour. I do remember having ringing ears for a month. Used to put oil in your ears to get them to stop ringing.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

          1. James Ferguson @kWIQly

            Bounced like a tin-solider and never jumped again…Was how my mate described misreading a scrub landing as deep (there were rocks !)

      2. Susan Rubinsky

        I owe serious tuition today to you, JLM.

    2. BillMcNeely

      the Marines did a study and found the most folks you could directly influence was 3. 3 fires teams 3 squads 3 platoon 3 companies etc. honor courage commitment

      1. JLM

        .Which is, of course, good because a line company has three maneuver platoons, etc.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

        1. BillMcNeely

          I always get a chuckle when I here folks having 30 50 100 direct reports

          1. JLM

            .I agree more with you than you do with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. There is a lot to be learned from the military’s bifurcated chain of command and operations.Officers command the Army. NCOs run the Army.The Chief of Staff approach to running complex organizations is a “new” idea which has been around since Helmuth von Moltke the Elder’s German general staff command structure.American business just discovered it a couple of years ago.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

          2. sigmaalgebra

            Long ago a guy at the Colorado School of Mines recommended for business a book on the German general staff. I never knew just why. And I’ve wondered why the US military is so long on staff and just why.

          3. JLM

            .Staff specialization in the military at the point of the bayonet is critical.If you think of a battalion — 3-5 line companies (185-200 men each) commanded by 24-28 year old Captains commanded by a Lt Col of 35-42 years old — a great S-3 (plans and operations, the primary staff planner for offensive operations) and a great XO (executive officer, second in command and heir if the CO gets killed) can make a unit excellent.A good S-3 was a company commander and knows exactly what it’s like to run a fight when your platoons are out of your direct line of vision. He did that himself.A good XO can put steel in the spines of the officers and apply a boot to those who need it.That combination of a great S-3 and a tough XO can make a unit fight and win.The CO has to set the fight, but the S-3 and the XO manage the way it’s going to be fought.Business is just learning this management technique.Larger units (brigades and divisions) rely upon a Chief of Staff. A Chief of Staff may be a very experienced Colonel who is never, ever getting a star. They are the institutional memory of the Army.There is no better soldier than a 35-year experienced Colonel who knows they are not getting a star. 100% soldier and no politics.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

          4. sigmaalgebra

            Gee, I’m learning stuff here today.With irony, hopefully the learning is worth the effort!So, IIRC you’ve said You don’t get what you expect. You get what you inspect. So, maybe it’s the XO who makes sure there’re lots of inspections, maybe in the style of white gloves.In all the organizations I’ve been in, government, academic, business, I’ve nearly never seen anything even close to a real inspection.So, okay: In the inspection, go to each person and ask them what the three most important things they are focused on. Maybe they just say face to face or maybe they even have a foil for each of the three.Do this white glove thing to everyone in the whole darned organization, say, once a quarter.This little effort could flush out a lot of the usual multi-level organizational nonsense, goal subordination, fighting with people down the hall instead of the competitors outside, people deliberately ignored so that they won’t compete with the people in the in-group clique and, instead, provide bodies to fill in the bottom of the competitive ranking (GE, Microsoft, IBM, etc.), managers who give their three focus items but where those were not visible either above or below that manager in the organization chart — I’ve seen all such things.

          5. JLM

            .Formal inspections are useful, but they are fake because the people have an opportunity to prepare for them. What you want to gauge is how does the enterprise function when nobody is watching.I call this technique “managing by wandering around.” You go see someone and ask them a few questions or walk through the warehouse or the work area and get an idea of the pulse of things.In the military, an XO comes down and watches a company take PT and sees if the officers and senior sergeants take PT with the troops.I used to make all the officers and sergeants take PT with the troops and I would rotate who led it amongst the same bunch.There is always some Staff Sergeant (E-6, squad leader) who was a hand-to-hand combat instructor at the NCO Academy who gets stuck with leading PT. He likes doing it.Not in my units. Even I led PT and I always ran with the troops. This formal suffering with those you lead pays enormous dividends.A good XO comes to see the younger company commanders and spends time with them letting them talk through their problems. Every company commander in the history of the world has the same problems.I worked with an XO in Korea and he taught me so much I used to buy him a “tuition” beer at our little Officers Club. It was our joke. He was a great big guy with a harsh tongue and a very tough manner, but it was perfect for my learning style.Every startup CEO has the same suite of problems and that’s why coaching from an experienced former CEO can be so useful.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

          6. sigmaalgebra

            Walking around, suffering with the troops, e.g., going to advanced SQL Server class, numerical linear algebra class, statistical resampling class, scripted, multi-variate, least squares spline interpolation class, a lecture on the completeness of sigmoid curves, automated system (Windows, SQL Server, .NET Framework, etc.) install and configuration class, Windows Power Shell class, Cisco network monitoring and security class, etc. with the worker bees, walking around, sitting in various meetings, presentations at the worker bee and first and second level management, etc., eating lunch with several guys, etc. great.Can the XO grab a private, sit him down to lunch, and talk to him one on one; that is, is such communications forbidden by the “chain of command;” that is, would the private or XO be in trouble for skipping over the chain of command?> Formal inspections are useful, but they are fake because the people have an opportunity to prepare for them.Okay. In a sick organization, there is a lot of “fake” stuff. Sooooo, and to be brief I omitted but maybe implied, have the inspection, with the foils, and keep copies of the foils. THEN three or whatever months later, have another inspection, also with foils and for each person compare the two sets of foils. Now should be able to get a good handle on what was fake.Here not really trying to blame the privates, non-coms, or the lieutenants and, instead, are trying to check out the mid levels of the chain of command to see if they are getting real stuff done or are just goofing off, ignoring their subordinates, letting bad things happen (some sargent getting fat, drunk on duty, trying to corner some of the females, extorting money from the privates, etc), etc.These seem like really simple issues, but I’ve seen a lot of really sick-o organizations. The core reason for the sickness was that for far too many people really doing well on the real work of the organization had much lower priority than other things, e.g., form a clique, get power, and dump on everyone else, hide in a corner, don’t be noticed, and have extra time to work on deck, garden, RV, etc. at home, make money running a midnight supply house selling anything not carefully accounted for, turning the place into some version of a sex club, for any goodies that might have been available sabotaging everyone else’s chance at the goodies, using gossip (Yentas) to sabotage others, when a subordinate does something really good, take credit and keep the subordinate out of site, etc.

          7. JLM

            .The Command Sergeant Major is the one to sit down with the enlisted men. When he gets back to the Battalion HQ, he sits down with the XO and tells him what he learned.The typical CMD Sgt Mjr has been in the Army for 25 years while an XO (Major) has been in for less than half that number.The officers command the Army.The NCOs (non-commissioned officers, sergeants) run the Army.CMD Sgt Mjrs don’t talk to Lieutenants as they consider them to be cock roaches.CMD Sgt Mjrs might salute a Captain but only if a Captain has a lot of experience, is a combat veteran, and has some ribbons.One does not trifle with CMD Sgt Majors. When you talk to them, even if you are a General, you call them “Sergeant Major.”My Dad was a CSM. I never appreciated what a bad ass he was until I was actually in the Army. When sergeants learned my Dad was a CSM, I got better treatment.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

          8. sigmaalgebra


    3. sigmaalgebra

      Wow. That’s taking focus up to a central technique of leadership.My project is plenty focused, but I’ve never formulated a succinct statement as a means of leadership of others. Since I’m focused, I won’t do such a formulation now, but I’ll revisit this issue before any hiring.I’ll keep that post.

  18. Thomas Luk

    It’s not about saying no, it’s about focus, focus, focus… the essential success factor.

  19. Pete Griffiths

    +1I prided myself on focus.And made EXACTLY the same error. It cost me dearly.It’s insidious.

  20. Twain Twain

    This is Kotler’s sequential value chain which helps to focus on bottom line must-do’s to deliver value. https://uploads.disquscdn.c…This is the OCTOPUS that is getting the machines towards Natural Language Understanding. They’re all the things I’ve solved for, at the same time.They’re all the things Silicon Valley and AI research has not even started to look into yet.https://uploads.disquscdn.c…The reason AI research hasn’t started to look into it yet is because 95% of engineers doing AI and/or data science are men.Here’s the neuroscience of how men solve problems. Meanwhile, language understanding requires some female knowhow men simply don’t have.This is why Google’s male PhDs are all stuck on the NLU problem and can’t solve it. https://uploads.disquscdn.c…So I’m organizing a workshop for female engineers to get up the curve on AI because that will increase the chances of making machines capable of NLU.Just as Babbage would NEVER have been able to build his Analytic Machine without Ada Lovelace, so male AI researchers have 0 chance of building an AI capable of NLU without modern equivalents of Ada.And, just like Ada who translated and annotated the writings of the Italian engineer Menabrea to create the world’s first-ever computer program, the inventor of the NLU system would need to translate the works of another Italian master engineer.Leonardo da Vinci himself.

    1. creative group

      Twain Twain:we are unashamed to admit the influence of our mothers nurturing and support of everything women.Your post reads everything men have denied you in recognition of your accomplishments in life and you constantly highlight the disparities in your posts.Hopefully this isn’t bitterness. There are men who can acknowledge the greatness of women as well as men.Your ideas and opinions are duly noted but defeats the equality of women with the them verses us approach. There are both brilliant women and men.No qualification required.Very difficult to ever address an accomplished woman because it is a lost taken at the start.How many of the brilliant people who contribute to this blog are known outside their field without highlighting their qualifications, what they worked on, etc? Few…..The brilliant person doesn’t tell everyone they are brilliant they show it.Captain Obvious already excepted addressing the obvious as a lost.

      1. Twain Twain

        Sorry, but clearly you have the wrong end of the stick.Please read this:*…*…*…*…*…*…*…Now, if after reading all the extra hurdles women have to overcome and you can show this:(1.) You have invented a system to de-bias data and get the machines towards NLU.(2.) You have organized an AI workshop to get 50 female engineers power-tooled in AI.(3.) You have been published by a well-recognized startup community on your ideas of XY collaboration in code.(4.) You have won 8+ big hackathons in mixed gender teams.(5.) You have certified apps published on Apple / Amazon / Google.So you see? I am already SHOWING how serious I am about all the must-dos. I have already done them.My can-do is: I could do nothing.And then, in 10 years, we have the same MIT Technology Review headlines about how sexist and racist and biased the AI is.

        1. Susan Rubinsky

          An aside: I can’t stand that the links in this blog are “_parent” rather than “_blank” — I then have to go back to my email, open the original post and find where I was in the thread. Happens all the time. Being a creature of habit, I need to retrain myself to right click>save link then open in a new tab. Still clunky. Sigh.

          1. Susan Rubinsky

            I’m going to read these later. Thank you for sharing!

    2. JamesHRH

      You are breaking the rule of 3, pretty badly. TT.

        1. Susan Rubinsky

          On Design Thinking:When I show charts like these as part of a pitch or bid, I never get the project. When I switch it to a 3-step process, I almost always get the project. In reality, I am often using the more complex process, but I just don’t tell the client that. The only exception is when I find that the key decision maker is an extremely smart, complex thinker. I then slip in the complex slide and talk about it.The way that I get the client to buy in along the way, is that the complex process produces better, more creative ideas. When I get to the better idea, I slip it into a Status meeting and say, “I know you approved X idea and here’s where we are with it, but I also have this new idea. What are your thoughts?”

      1. Twain Twain

        Since I couldn’t find a b-school framework I needed, I created my own.https://uploads.disquscdn.c…If I’d followed the rule of 3, I’d have ended up building another edge in the box where everyone else in AI is, competing in a hugely crowded space and replicating the data bias and NLU algorithm problems they are.Instead, by breaking rule of 3, my system is exactly where it should be.@fredwilson:disqus — MIT has a Disobedience Award for folks who, “You don’t change the world by doing what you’re told. Sometimes we have to go to first principles and consider whether the laws or rules are fair, and whether we should question them.”If the rules of Probability were invented in 1654 to model the fairness and biases of dice but they don’t actually measure the fairness and biases of humans and this prevents the machines from getting to NLU … Then, well, someone has to invent by first principles and correct a wrong of 350+ years. https://uploads.disquscdn.c

      2. Susan Rubinsky

        I am loving every minute of it.

    3. Susan Rubinsky

      Are “Creative Genius” brains more similar to the female ones? What about Classical musicians compared with Jazz musicians?I like to refer to “Creative Genius” because some people can technically be a genius but not accomplish anything.* I think it’s what I like to call “Right Brain Left Brian” that produces innovation.*I’m over simplifying, because circumstance can play a huge role in why some people don’t create/innovate.

  21. leigh

    Lack of focus is the kiss of death for any strategy. It always amazes me however, how people can rationalize almost anything to be part of a larger bucket or initiative. It’s important that the three things are big enough to make a difference but focused enough that you can’t drive a truck through them…

  22. Marc Romano

    “must do” is at times defined by a vision and expectations that can be unrealistic and unachievable unless there is a commitment to invest the necessary resources to achieve what “must” be done. The expectations and vision can be grand, but they can be unachievable if there is an inability to devote the necessary resources. Talk is cheap. Intelligent, informed actions and a grasp on reality and the fundamental truths, is what is often missing, particularly in enterprise organizations where decisions and paths are muddied by grand ideas that lack necessary commitments and informed intelligence. Intelligent people who are in control of situations are not only capable of understanding what must be done, they are capable of understanding it in the realm of what’s realistic and achievable. The biggest enemy of a “must do” agenda are the people who design them yet lack a grasp on fundamental truths and what’s needed to achieve it.

  23. Laurent Boncenne

    Doesn’t apply to just to engineering but to sales or marketing as well, too often organisations are trying too much, too hard and too fast!There needs to be some kind of reflection that happens within teams and businesses to understand what they can actually achieve as a collective and how they can drive their efforts forward rather than getting distracted trying too many things at once.

    1. Susan Rubinsky

      When I am “interviewing” a potential new client, the key thing I try to find out is: are they an “Activity or Momentum” organization?I used to be surprised at how many “Activity” organizations there are. Some of them are going nowhere fast and some of them are going nowhere like snails. But, in the end, the place they are headed is nowhere.

  24. David Semeria

    Great post Fred. Whereas you frame the question (rightly from your POV) in terms of strategy, I always frame in terms of resources and resuability. For example if a big client asks for some functionality we don’t have, my first questions are (in order) 1. How much do we risk if we don’t don’t do it?2. If we do do it, will it enrich the platform for everyone? 3. What will it take to deliver?

  25. jer979

    I love when you do your “student of business” type posts. This is the kind of the post that a true fan appreciates it. The casual fan sees the running back score, the true fan knows it was the block by the tight end that made it happen.Ultimately, it comes to strategic clarity which (and I know I’m biased) is the essence of marketing. What position do you want and why? Everything flows from there. Too often ppl think of marketing as “emails, banners, etc.” This is the deep thinking stuff. It’s why Drucker said ” the business enterprise has two–and only two–basic functions: marketing and innovation.., everything else is just a cost.”Thanks for this. Always good to sharpen the saw.

    1. Susan Rubinsky

      Always a good reminder to get back to Drucker.

  26. Vasu Prathipati

    Any thoughts around frameworks of deciding between what’s a nice-to-have vs. must-have?Also, what level of decision-making are you talking about?- Board-level strategies?- Departments? Sales Org vs. Product Org.?- Other?

  27. sigmaalgebra

    Sounds like you are right. I’m shocked that a USV company would have a CEO who would so willing to lose focus — no, actually really surprised and shocked, not as in”I’m shocked, shocked to discover gambling going on in this place!””Here are your winnings, sir.”. In my startup, I’ve got lots of ways to lose focus but have not except for a bunch of unpredictable, external (independent exogenous) interruptions. Otherwise the work has proceeded just as I envisioned it.E.g., the project is ad supported, so ad targeting is an issue and for me a big issue because for some of the data that is a byproduct of the rest of the project and some math I’ve derived I stand to have some especially good ad targeting, but the code for the ad targeting is not on the back burner — it’s not even in the kitchen. All the early revenue will come from ads from ad networks with whatever ad targeting they can implement.E.g., publicity? Sure, it’ll be important, and as I find writing on publicity glance at it and keep it. Otherwise, not much on publicity yet!

  28. sigmaalgebra

    Okay, rule of three. Seems like not everything but common and worthwhile. So, let’s see:Transgression. Retribution. Redemption.Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.The Godfather, I, II, IIIPieces of classical music, each in three movements — fast and loud, slow and quiet, fast and loud.The three parts of the Bach Chaconne, D major, D minor, and D major.Wagner’s Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.Common three act plays.The Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.Ready, aim, fire.Ready, get set, go.Ah, enough trivializing big parts of Western Civilization!

  29. @mikeriddell62

    Developing our currencyDeveloping our marketplaceDeveloping our network

  30. @mikeriddell62

    War. Huh. What is it good for?

  31. Donna Brewington White

    With the abundance of capital sloshing around the tech sectorWhat a well-turned phrase.This post is gold. Thank you.

  32. Robert Heiblim

    Great post and so very true Fred. In fact that may be why you were uninterested when I pitched you long ago. I have learned from real and often harsh experience that less done well is way more, and that focus especially in young firms is critical. Thank you for the observation and now to share your advice.

  33. Sprugman

    I find the ideas in this post appealing, but their application very difficult. Not because it’s easy to get distracted or lose discipline, though that’s certainly challenging, but because of the questions of scale. We just went through a quarterly planning exercise and came up with 180 projects for our ~200 person R&D dept. Perhaps that means that each person has on average one thing that they’re doing. Or perhaps those projects can be bundled in ways that roll up to about three things at the company level. Or perhaps we’re trying to do waaaay too much. As a middle manager it’s pretty difficult to impose the rule of three on that list, or even on the subset that I’m responsible for, unfortunately

  34. rickfield

    I completely agree with the importance of the number three. In my first career, producing TV promos, we launched most campaigns with three spots. This gave the campaign some heft. In my current career, making pickles which are sold in grocery stores, having three SKUs on the shelf gives you a brand block. One SKU is an orphan, two feels incomplete, but three gives a true sense of presence on the shelf. So I’ve boiled it all down thusly: one is an idea, two is a concept, three is a campaign.


    Love this post.