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David has been writing and publishing since 2006.  

Your Fifth Strategic Goal Isn’t That Important

Apr 18, 2024 | Reflections

There is tremendous power in curating your goal list

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Several years ago I was at an event for a non-profit’s leadership team, board members and most engaged volunteers.  In the course of the keynote speaker’s remarks, he asked for the mission/vision statement of the organization.  Like many of these sorts of statements, this one listed four or five priorities that the organization wanted to address.   After hearing it, the speaker took a minute to reflect on each of the priorities and offer some thoughts on each that would be worth considering. 

The most interesting moment of the whole talk occurred when he reached the fourth and fifth items.  Rather than elaborate, he just simply stopped and said something to the effect of, ‘these are actually not that important to you and you probably will do very little towards reaching them.’  His point was that if they were of greater importance they would have been listed higher in the order.  But it felt bad to leave them out entirely, so they were relegated to the end of the list.

In the same vein, another non-profit executive I know well seems to roll out a new major initiative once a month, regardless of how last month’s worked.  The net result is confusion for those tasked with following the actions of this leader.

For those in pursuit of excellence for their organization(s), there is no doubt a limitless to do list of things to address on that journey.  Sadly, the human brain can only focus on a handful of things at a time.  In his 2010 paper, “The Magical Mystery Four: How is Working Memory Capacity Limited, and Why?” Nelson Cowan notes that our working memory can only keep three to five items in mind. 

From personal experience, five feels like too many.  Three, with maybe four, is a reasonable number. 

Far too often in organizations, there are too many key priorities, too many core values, and too many initiatives.  When that happens, the extras get dropped off or the overwhelm factor (think Cheesecake Factory menu here) is so large that effort gets diluted across the massive list – meaning none actually get done. 

The most critical thing for a leader then is the curation and ultimate selection of the three things that matter the most at the current moment.  There is an old saying that if you have four hours to cut down a tree, you are best served by spending the first three sharpening your axe.  In a business context, narrowing the list of priorities is the analogous form of axe sharpening.

Doing so may feel overly simplistic or reductionist.  Yet having spent the first 10ish years of my career analyzing companies, for nearly all, there are really only 1 or 2 key drivers that really matter.  If you understand those and their trajectory, you can get pretty darn close to understanding where the business will go. 

This is Pareto principle-esque thinking.  Similarly, there are likely only a few priorities that are mission critical for today.  That does not mean that other things may not be important for tomorrow.  But the sequencing of when they are addressed matters. An apple picked early is bitter, but one picked at the right time tastes sweet.

Once these priorities are identified, they must be communicated.  A subject we will consider in a future post.


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Nashville, TN