Don't Do Everything

By Patty Azzarello

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The most successful executives are successful because they don’t do everything, not because they do. They focus on getting the right few things done, not getting “everything” done. Think about it. If you are trying to do 50 things vs. a peer who is focusing on five, you will never be able to even do those five things as well because you are diluting your efforts.


If you pick the right five and you do an outstanding job, you will get better results for your company, and you’ll get more visibility, recognition and credibility in the process. You have probably seen some very successful executives drop huge areas of work and irritate and disappoint a lot of people along the way, but their careers thrive anyway. This is because they have chosen their work carefully, and have done exceptionally well on a few key things that really matter.


If you learn to live with the fact that you can’t do everything, you can allow yourself to focus on the few things that will have the biggest impact. And you can do it in a way that does not disappoint people.


Here’s how:


1)   Set Ruthless Priorities

2)   Discuss what you ARE doing, not what you are NOT doing

3)   Put things “at risk” vs. not doing them at all

4)   Do some things at lower quality on purpose

5)   Clear the IT Backlog once in a while


Set Ruthless Priorities - In selecting these “Ruthless Priorities” for IT, it is critical that you understand and align with the overall business priorities. When anyone sees your list of IT priorities it should be clear specifically how it supports the business. These few Ruthless Priorities are the things you commit to yourself and others that you will get done to a level of excellence, no matter what.


Every month or quarter you should have a short list of three to five things that you will not put at risk under any circumstance. Also make sure to describe your priorities in the language of the business, not IT terms; e.g., the heading should be “support expansion in Eastern Europe”, vs. “hire and train Oracle database contractors.”


This may seem like marketing because it is, but it is also a critical part of running a successful IT department. This alignment with critical business initiatives gives you the negotiating room, and the justification you will need to maintain focus on the top IT tasks, with the people who are most likely to try and get you to do everything—your business counterparts.


Discuss what you ARE doing vs. what you are NOT doing - This approach implies that other things will not get done, but you never want to lead with that. Negotiate and ratify the list of critical priorities with your boss and your team. Get agreement that “these are the things we will not put at risk”.


That way you are talking about the important things you are doing, not what you are cutting. You can show the cut list too, just don’t lead with it. When something outside the agreed priorities does not get done, you can pull out your list and remind people what was agreed to. Assure them that these key business priorities are on track.


Having these discussions, and getting these agreements ratified up front, ensures you can “not do everything” without surprising or disappointing people along the way.


Put things “at risk” vs. not doing them at all - We tend to think about all or nothing when we set priorities. A good way to make yourself and others feel more comfortable with the cut-list is to say that it’s not that we will not do these things at all, it’s that we will not put the critical priorities at risk to get them done. They may get done or may be delayed.

Do some things at lower quality on purpose - Here’s another way to look at things outside of the critical priorities. Consider not trying to do everything at the same level of top quality. This frees up loads of time and ensures more focus on the top few things.


This is an important topic in an IT organization where technical elegance often wins out over speed. Sometimes this is good, for example, if you are building an architecture to do things more efficiently in the future, but sometimes it serves no real purpose, and takes up a lot of time.


It helps to make time/cost budgets a natural way of working, and to develop an understanding of where and when to apply “good enough” thinking throughout the organization. Get your whole organization aligned on the Ruthless Priorities, and make it clear where technical elegance and top quality is necessary and valuable, and where it is not.


Clear the IT Backlog once in awhile - When people make IT requests and they hear there is a two year backlog, that does not help the business, nor your credibility. Instead, think of resetting the backlog based on business priorities. Make sure you are always addressing the most important things vs. just dealing with a growing backlog of requests which may not remain as business critical over time. Another way to do this is to put a cap on the backlog at six months, and when it goes over, it’s time to re-assess business initiatives, and set Ruthless Priorities again.




There are many aspects of aligning IT with the business. Keeping focus on priorities is one of the benefits. If you are clear about how your IT focus is supporting key business priorities you will get support to do a few things really well. You will give yourself a chance to perform at a level of excellence not possible if you were trying to do everything.


Patty Azzarello became the youngest general manager ever at HP at the age of 33. She ran HP’s $1B OpenView software business at the age of 35, and was the CEO of an IT software company, Euclid Software at the age of 38. She has been working with IT executives to build their careers and put their IT strategies into action for many years. Today Patty Azzarello is the CEO of Azzarello Group, www.AzzarelloGroup.com.