Doing the Right Things is More Important than Doing Things Right

Posted on Jul 14, 2010 | 34 comments

Doing the Right Things is More Important than Doing Things Right

Yesterday I wrote a post about top-down versus bottom-up thinking.

There is a corollary to that advice, which is “doing the right things is more important than doing things right.”  Sounds simple but in practice I promise you most organization fall into the latter trap.

Here’s how it goes:

You have a business development group with two people.  They are tasked with “getting deals done” so they race around talking to tons of potential partners inking anything from channel sale deals, product integration, international distribution agreements, co-marketing arrangements, M&A discussions, etc.  You can often measure how many deals were achieved but there often doesn’t flow a steady stream of revenues / profits from these deals.

You have a marketing department with three people.  They’re tasked with doing … marketing.  So they create a task list of all the marketing activities an organization can do: press releases, web site updates, customer case studies, blog posts, daily Tweets, Facebook fan page, attending conferences, etc.  You get a lot of traffic – not always results.

When you hire people in functional roles they want to show that they’re achieving results and results are easiest to measure by tasks accomplished.  But many CEO’s and management teams fail to set clear guidelines on what the company objectives are and make sure that everybody is driving toward the same goal.  It’s actually quite hard to lay out an annual company strategy that is articulate and underpinned by facts.

So many CEO’s just carry on being … CEO’s –>  fund raise, get media attention, attend conferences, hire staff, “set direction”, whatever.  But this leads to organizational drift because staff will continue to produce “work.”

Let me give you an example.  Let’s say you have a marketing department with an incredibly talented leader who knows SEO, SEM, social media and how to hit the ball off the cover on press coverage.  So you generate a ton of traffic to your website.  If the traffic is unfocused you actually can be doing a disservice to your company rather than a benefit.  Your sales department has to have somebody has do deal with these inbound inquiries.  If the people who wind up at your site are not high quality leads, you either piss people off by not responding to them or you respond and burn up your critical resources trying to be helpful to people who are not likely to convert to become customers.

It’s why I’ve often start when running marketing campaigns the most simple of questions:

– with whom are we trying to communicate?
– what messages are we wanting them to receive?
– what is the best channel to reach these people?
– if they receive our message what actions (if any) are we hoping for?
– how will we handle those responses

And the reality is that you might be better off doing less activity but doing “the right” activities really well.  To do the right activities you need to start with a top down assessment with what you’re trying to achieve with your marketing.

Similar with product features.  One of the most important movements in software design in the past few years has been a return to simplicity – a move away from the Microsoft era of every release adding a new 150 unused features.  One of my favorite sayings in this area comes from a portfolio company, RingRevenue, who like to say “ease of use = use and use = revenue.” I love that saying.  If you don’t know WHY you’re adding features don’t do it just because you have a development team.  Better that they work on new initiatives, performance improvements, operational features to help internal management or anything other than just cranking out features for the sake of it.

But the counter case is equally ineffective.  You sometimes find CEO’s who want press coverage, want to speak on important panels or want features that their competitors offer without knowing whether their customers care about these features.  So they direct staff to meet these objectives without considering what the purpose of activity is and what the end result will be. People will certainly follow orders and do the things you ask of them.

Smart people produce high quality work.  As management your job is to make sure that everybody understands how their initiatives tie into the overall company strategy.  Do the hard work and try to define your companies objectives and get them on paper.  Everybody should be able to answer the question, “why am I doing this?”  Otherwise they’re likely to be doing things right, but not the right things.

  • MironLulic

    While I agree that you should avoid feature creep… especially if the only purpose is to generate press, I don't know if I agree that generating unfocused traffic is a disservice. Of course you want to keep your traffic targeted but eyeballs are eyeballs and it never hurts to expose your brand and product/service to more of them.

  • Brian

    “ease of use = use and use = revenue” is beautiful.

    My idea for our first product came from seeing a market opportunity that has been saturated by products that specialize in “death by feature”. All the feedback I'm seeing from our beta is positive and people are happy with the way we've managed to make things simple. My job now is make sure we keep it that way and down fall to the same fate as the incumbents.

    The rest of the article is a good reminder. I need to make a note to come back and read this every few months to ensure I haven't gone astray. Great post Mark.

  • Spencer Thompson

    “If you don’t know WHY you’re adding features don’t do it just because you have a development team. “

    Awesome line, and a great post. Most people (myself included) I think fall into this trap a lot of the time. We are always thinking of ways to make our product better, but WHY? (Start With Why is a great book). What is the purpose behind that feature? What is the core motivation behind the product? I think that if the company always remains focused on its core values, then most features will get thrown out the window and only the most important ones are focused on.

    This is also the result of constant media about the same companies. Instead of focusing on a core proposition a lot of startups will take things from other companies just because they want to be like them.

    Thanks for writing such great stuff Mark for entrepreneurs.

  • Justin Herrick

    Excellent Post Mark,

    After watching TWIVC today I have to wonder if you have these posts prewritten or if you just like getting all the work done in a single day, lol. Either way top quality content.

    I think this has a lot to do with the sayings of “work for work's sake” or just trying to “Be Productive for Productivity's sake”. If you are only attempting to get things done without asking why I am doing this, or without asking if this is the best allocation of time and resources, then you'll get results, but they may not be the most useful results.

    I tend to think that trips up many companies and their CEOs. They tend to look at the results they do have and see them as positive and never realize that with a more defined purpose and targeted direction their results could be greater than expected.

  • Aaron Dyson Xavier

    When reading this, I immediately thought of Google. For a while, and they still do this a little, they just cranked out everything they could think of in their “labs”. While Google basically prints money so they can afford to do this, I think it would have been better to improve their existing products at a more rapid pace. Luckily, for them anyway, they didn't really have any competition in their core products so it hasn't hurt them.

  • cthomaschase

    I agree that it's important for the CEO to map out how each functional area contributes into overall objectives to ensure players are doing the right set of activities. Are you arguing that each player should have a cognizant (Kevin Bacon-like) 6 degrees link to the end goal and that end goal is always income statement driven?

    I get that companies need to get the dollars in the door, but I'm not sure it's reasonable to have everyone in the company thinking about how the activities they perform are ultimately going to move the $$ needle. For example, a customer service rep might be focused on some quantifiable service satisfaction rating, and to them that's the end goal. However, the CEO and the senior team know that higher satisfaction = lower attrition = higher net income, but the guy on the line doesn't need to be taking it those two extra steps.

  • D. Matthew Landry

    Wow. This topic really resonates.

    Having a clearly articulated company vision, an MVP definition, a motivated customer target, and a concise set of top-priority business objectives provides a full set of measuring tools for evaluating whether any given activity is the right thing. Asking “why” is great, and having a rubric against which to test is even better.

    If the founders built a great development team, there are probably ideas flying all over the place. There are a million ways to get things done, and there are so many other tangential products, features, or developments that could be undertaken. They probably wouldn't even be much more work (of course)!

    But you have to go back to the measuring sticks. Of all the things we could be doing, from engineering to marketing to business development, which are the right things? Are we working on important things that help us to achieve the short term business goals that feed into a long term strategy?

    I can't imagine how many startups this post could potentially set back on the right path. Thanks, Mark.

  • hitesh gupta

    Great post. Yes you are right most of the companies fall into later trap – doing things right. Unfocused traffic may be not good for the business but it certainly catches up VC attention and an important parameter while raising fund.


  • Conor

    There is a story that I have heard attributed to John Asharaf the author.

    You are in a room at a meeting. There is a fly in the room. The fly buzzes against the window. It is trying to get out. It buzzes and buzzes and buzzes at the window. Four hours later you notice a dead fly on the windowsill.

    There was an open door 2 meters from the window. The fly was 2 meters from freedom if only it stopped buzzing at the window and tried the door.

    Many lives are like that of the fly. Fiercely buzzing and buzzing and buzzing on what is urgent, what is easy, what others are doing, what sounds good in a status report.

    As an entrepreneur with 8 years of experience I know that the time that I am most likely to engage in busy-ness activity is when times are tough, when my ego is suffering, when things aren't going to plan – just the key moments when taking a step back and refocussing on what is really important would be best. My emotional need to “feel progress” can be the single biggest barrier to actual progress.

  • Conor

    Keeping things simple… sounds so easy, but is so hard. Steve Jobs is a great role model in this aspect – when he returned to Apple he reduced their total product set to 3 laptops, 3 desktops… will he manage to keep this focus with iPads, iPods, iPhones, iDon'tKnows?

    Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, gives several examples of how humans can make a choice between 2 or 3 options, but when given 10 or 12 our brains just give up and we don't choose. In marketing, being good is identifying new customer needs; R&D new features; engineering new patches… so it really does come down to CEO and senior management to keep the overall product strategy simple.

  • MikeDuda

    Your streak of thoughtful posts continues.

    The very first questions I would ask e mArketing team without a doubt would be:

    Why are we marketing?
    What is the business goal we wish to accomplish?

    Alignment is absolutely a must…though so often as you point out, there are signs that marketing is being done for marketing sake.

  • Randall Green

    As you get older, those that are fortunate and have positive role models in parents learn (often to their dismay) that their parents were often right.

    My father (who is 79 now and ran one of the major radio stations in Los Angeles for 35 years) had a little framed placard on his wall right above his desk that said “If it is not worth doing, it is not worth doing right.” He used to point to that little saying often as one of his core business values since I was a child.

    Mark, thanks for the valuable post and reminding me of the message and in my case my dad. Randall

  • Al@SocialAnnex

    I agree that doing the right thing is important Mark – but I don't agree that in a startup “doing things right” is not as important. You can do the right thing – pick the right enhancements for your product, pick the right biz dev deals, the right strategy etc. – but if you don't execute them right, I am not sure what good comes out of that.

    In a startup, there is less room for failing in either of those categories. Startups unfortunately do not have the leisure of just doing the right thing – and not doing it right. Startups have to do the right thing AND do it right.

    Think of this – you picked the right direction for your product, the correct enhancements of what customers really want – but you didn't execute right .. where does that lead you. Lost time with minimal startup resources is as bad as doing the wrong thing. Isn't it ?

    My 2 cents …

  • Mark Essel

    I have some very recent real world pre-funding marketing that is in the works. With one of our services ( I'm expending small portions of money to compare subscriber efficiency.

    Here's what I'm using now:
    Local papers: Newsday & the Yankee Trader yard sale “hotspots”
    A 30 second radio ad, and Target Spot focused on my area
    Google AdWords, but focused within my zip code and a radius about it.

    The success of garage dollar as a subscription and alert service is growing over subscriber threshold in a fixed area. The buck to advertise your sale is much cheaper than paper classifieds, but caters specifically to people who want to know about sales in there area.

    Learning more about map API after setting up the paper ads later.

  • msuster

    Depends on what your company does. If you're a content site that sells advertising … maybe. If you're a software company that sells a product requiring human interaction to close a sale then this can be a real problem. I should have made that more clear but I was talking about the latter case.

  • msuster

    Funny – that book is on my night stand and is queued up after “The Big Short”

  • msuster

    Thanks, Spencer. Totally agree. It's like the lemming movement right now to add “badges” and “check-ins” to every new software product known to man. People do get swept up in the media coverage.

  • msuster

    I had written this before the show 😉

  • msuster

    I've been saying the same thing for a long time. Google is every bit as much of “peanut butter” as Yahoo! was accused of being except their core product is so successful nobody seems to notice.

  • msuster

    No, I didn't say it all has to tie to net income, although it could. I just think that everybody's activities need to be mapped to company goals.

    Take customer service – some companies may believe CS is a cost and are trying to map to a metric that says “shorter calls = less costs = higher profits” so they spend cycles trying to automate as much as possible through IVR or driving functionality to a website.

    Others may have the strategy (think Zappos) that more time = more profits. Higher satisfaction = more orders = less churn = more word-of-mouth free marketing.

    Either objective could be argued depending on the company and case. But all I'm saying is tie the teams objectives to how it maps into the company objectives.

  • msuster

    Yeah, good point, that might be. But then that becomes the identified objective and you at least know why you're doing it and the end goal you're driving toward.

  • msuster

    The perfect book on this topic is “Principle Centered Leadership” by Stephen Covey. He has people plot out on an axis that which is urgent (x axis) and that which is important (y axis). He says many people work on the extremes of the x axis because we have “the urgency addiction.” I certainly do. But the most effective people are the ones who work on the important, but not urgent issues.

  • msuster

    I LOVE that saying. I hope your dad doesn't mind if I borrow it! Such a funny, ironic play on the original saying that it takes a moment to digest and realize you've been duped.

  • Latif Nanji

    Awesome post! I think growing companies are challenged with having to do things right and be as efficient as possible – but its imperative they focus those efficiencies on the top priorities. I'm noticing in the PM world that with numerous requests its vital to focus on the top priorities to the business and not get bogged down with secondary items. Thanks!

  • Cynthia Brown

    “The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less” (Barry Schwartz) speaks to your point on feature overload. Companies, especially start-ups, fall into the trap of drinking their own technology Kool-Aid. Users want choice and functionality, but not so much that it is overwhelming. Pick something and do it well, and then do it better than everybody else. It's hard to do simple well but putting in the effort pays off – “ease of use = use and use = revenue” could not be more spot on.

    Awesome food for thought. Thanks, Mark.

  • The Biz Of WordPress

    Busted. That's me as CEO, and how I operated my company from 1994 to 2006. We had lots of success (#123 on the Inc 500 in 1999) , but we could have achieved so much more….

  • Mike Schinkel


    That was me as CEO and how I ran my company from 1994 to 2006. We had some significantly visible success (#123 on the Inc 500 in 1999), but we could have achieved so much more…

  • Balkar Saini

    Great post Mark! My CEO and you must be sharing notes as I hear similar comments from him on a regular basis – around more intelligent marketing. I don’t have a blog, but thought I’d post a blog-like response related to your article above here.

    I Would Love to Have That Problem!

    As a marketing lead in a start-up organization I think you need to walk before you can run – meaning I agree with most of everything you're saying but you still need to do some of the standard marketing activities. With a website as your only customer facing channel, you’d be a fool not to do any kind of SEO. Of course, any SEO should be focused on your offerings with the intent of obtaining qualified leads. Also, the disservice would only be the case if your sales team was not responding to inquiries, a problem I would love to have!

    I totally agree, simplicity is more effective and many times ‘less’ is ‘more’. With a small team, you really have to focus on “the right” activities, but how do you know what is “right”? You have to test the waters and see what works. At first you might try several marketing channels and through careful tracking and measurement you’ll learn which ones are most effective. In the worst case, none of them may work and you’ll try again either with a new message or new channel. On the flip-side, many of them may be effective and you might be unprepared for all the inbound lead generation, the next steps to take, etc. Another problem I would love to have!

    And finally, yes its great to dumb down your product offering (minimal features) to focus on the ‘ease of use” as this is a great way to test the market. People can easily download and install your software and they will hopefully ask you for more features. Why create features that you think may be needed, let the customers decide what they need and build for them. Of course, unless you have a unique differentiator, competitors will likely win the business… but at least you know your marketing is working – you got people to download and evaluate your software, yet another problem I would love to have!


  • Spencer Thompson

    So true. It is like a lemming movement right now. It's a funnel effect. It starts with what popular super-angels and seed funds are looking for (1. Real-time data, 2. Social Media 3. Flash Marketing), goes to media, and then funnels its way down to the entrepreneurs. We then feel like, oh no, we are not doing one of those three, and try to incorporate.

    Completely the wrong way to do business.

  • Lea

    As a former journalist, I have a talent for asking questions like the ones you point out here. From my experience, you'd better put a warning label on this post! There are very few management folks who appreciate having these questions asked, whether it's privately or publically.

    If you're going to ask the questions, be willing to have people hate you for it. As the questions often enough, and that action can get you fired. Of course, if that's why you're being fired, you probably hated the company in the first place.

  • Evan_Hamilton

    Great post. Hits a little too close to home…definitely looking at some of my recent projects and wondering if I'm just doing them to have done something. :)

  • Donna Brewington White

    Really like how you laid out the questions to ask in a marketing campaign — seems that so often the thinking stops at the third question and never gets to:
    – if they receive our message what actions (if any) are we hoping for?
    – how will we handle those responses

    I understand that the marketing example was just that — an example (of the overall concept of doing the right things) — but even as a standalone it's pretty valuable insight.

  • K. Warman Kern


    Really glad to see you have added this post to the top down thinking post. Because top down thinking without the discipline of asking the questions you discuss and putting it down on paper is a recipe for disaster.

    As a marketing/new product development veteran, I was trained to use a Marketing Planning checklist to develop a one page (albeit single-spaced with very narrow margins) document.

    The checklists provided thought provoking questions which help articulate assumptions, set expectations, and anticipate problems that will need to be overcome. Importantly, they also provide benchmarks to monitor performance.

    And these documents were written to provide management, r&d, sales, advertising creatives, media planners, promotions, etc. with a common roadmap to reference.

    Could they be updated to be more relevant to today's more competitive market of abundant choices? ABSOLUTELY. Could they be improved with technology to enable real time collaboration and performance monitoring. YESSSS.

    Indeed this is my passion and what we're immersed in and we're here to find others who share our interest.

    Katherine Warman Kern

  • vlade

    Agree 100%. It may be Mark's bias that he assumes people can execute – in fact, I think that most people struggle to execute. I'd much rather have fifth best thing that can be executed by the team I have than a plan for the best possible thing that only a few teams in the world can execute.

    In fact, I'd argue that doing right the third best thing beats doing the perfect thing not so well in 90+% of cases.