A "single-threaded owner" (or "single-threaded leader") is a new role describing a general manager who is 100% focused and 100% accountable to making a company's new initiative succeed. The single threaded owner is given their mandate, which could be anything - invent a new product, launch a new line of business, migrate a company to the cloud - and every day they and their team wake up with one question: "how do I make this initiative succeed?". But in practice, single-threaded owners are given very hard problems to solve. Focus and accountability is a necessary step, but you still have to make your program succeed, from strategy to execution.
The single-threaded leader can't succeed without a winning strategy.
1. Illustrate a vision
Amazon not only coined the single-threaded leader role, but also published guidance on how an STO can be successful in setting strategy for their initiative. While traditional strategy starts with corporate vision and mission statements that are groan inducing in today's day-and-age, Amazon advocates making the vision come to life by literally illustrating what it will look like when you have succeeded. Document a press release, FAQ and portrayal of the customer experience imagining the product is already in the customer's hands. This gives the team, stakeholders and the market a common, detailed and exciting vision of where we're heading. Then start to work backwards on how to make that a reality.
2. Pick your strategy based on what will make a great CX, not just what you are already good at.
Traditional strategy also usually starts with a SWOT analysis, where you look at your strengths and weaknesses and how to best use them to tackle opportunities in the market and dodge threats. For example if you are tasked with creating a new product line, you would want to take stock of where your own company's strengths lie.
Amazon argues this should not be the starting point, however, as it can narrow the strategic thinking too early. Instead, start with the customer in mind. In the words of Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham, what would deliver an "insanely great experience?" Develop a list of CX possibilities and only after should you look at how your SWOT plays into them.
3. Don't just set a vision, create a plan
The HBR paper Most Strategies Fail Because They're Not Actually Strategies calls out what is probably the most common pitfall developing strategy: companies often think of strategy as simply setting a goal. For exampe: “We want to be #1 in a new market”. It does not tell you what you are going to do, all it does is tell you what you hope the outcome will be. You’ll still need a strategy to achieve it. This is often the greatest value the single-threaded owner can bring to the strategic table. For political reasons you may never get more than a goal assigned to you by senior management and then be told to "get it done", however you must develop "how" with their team, engaging senior management along the way. Bonus: if the plan is really good, it will often challenge and refine the strategy to make it more targeted and real. Instead of "#1 in a new market", the goal might become "Capture 50% share in market segment X and Y within 1 year, and here's how..."
4. Lack of coherence
Other so-called strategies are just a smattering of priorities and choices, but together they do not form a COHERENT strategy, e.g. “We want to increase operational efficiency; we will target Europe, the Middle East, and Africa; and we will divest business X.” These may be excellent decisions and priorities, but together they do not form a strategy.
A single-threaded owner needs to ensure there is coherence between their initiative and the rest of the company. This is vital both for communicating and engaging the organization, and making sure there are no conflicts between competing priorities on the list.
From my own experience, I will add a few more "what not to do's":
5. Prioritize and Choose What NOT To Do
Michael Porter famously says "The essence of strategy is choosing what NOT to do." Often strategies are just a wish list of things we need to do more of. If your initiative is to launch a new product, you need to get very clear on the target markets and value you will deliver, and what you won't, so that your plan has focus. If you are launching a partnership, define the boundaries of that partnership (at what levels will your marketing, technology, sales and customer success intersect? Who does your joint value proposition target?). Senior management won't determine this for you, and in fact they will typically resist any prioritization. You need to engage them into your prioritized strategy.
I worked for a VP who loved music and had a great analogy for what Porter is saying. Think of all the possible things you could do within your strategy. New customers, new markets, new technologies, new features, new geographics, new services, etc. You can't do it all, of course. Now visualize each one like knobs on a massive equalizer machine. Which ones are you dialing way up and which ones are you dialing down? Note music does not sound very good when all your equalizer levels are mid-range!
6 If it's not controversial, you don't have it yet
In Controversy: The Essence of Strategy, "Often the controversy in strategy resides not in a general statement of the firm’s direction, but rather in its deliberate application: it is a matter of degree. Choosing between black and white is not controversial, but choosing among the various shades of gray is – strategy lies in choosing the right shade. The exhortation that a company should be customer-oriented and listen to its customers is not controversial – of course, it should. The strategic choice is to what extent it should listen to customers. How much money should be spent on marketing research? How much of the CEO’s time should be committed to customer contact? Allocating scarce firm resources, both money and time, undeniably involves a choice and a trade-off."
7. Choose carefully: one-way doors vs. two-way doors
Another Bezos classic: two-way doors are decisions you can experiment with, fail, and go back. One-way doors are decisions you are stuck with. It is very easy to mix them up. As you plan your strategy and execution, always be clear which decisions are which.
8. Make it ambitious
Prioritizing doesn't mean a lack of ambition however. In strategy there is a certain amount of boldness that you need to motivate stakeholders, team members and the market. Prioritizing means targeting. Show the boldness of the plan supported by numbers like total addressable market (quantitative) and stories that show how real world end-users value what you are doing (qualitative).