Popularized by Amazon, a Single-Threaded Owner (STO) is a leader who is 100% dedicated and accountable to a new initiative such as inventing a new product, launching a new line of business, or executing a digital transformation. The Single-Threaded Owner is responsible for turning strategy into real results.
The best way to doom a strategic initiative is to make it someone's part-time job. Yet this is exactly what happens most of the time. The CEO declares the initiative to be critical, but no one is empowered to make it happen end-to-end.
Functional leaders contribute from their functional perspective (marketing can do the marketing, sales will try to sell it when it's ready to be sold) but they all have day jobs and no one takes full ownership. A PM can be assigned, but they don't have the authority to "own" it. And even when a star player is assigned and empowered to turn strategy into reality, they are distracted with internal meetings, supporting customers, and bailing out legacy technology.
For any really business-critical initiative, wouldn't you want someone to be completely focused, empowered, and accountable to its success?
Much of my own career has been as a single threaded owner starting new lines of business, new markets, and new strategic partnerships for established companies to grow and diversify their revenue. We didn't use the term single-threaded owner, in fact we didn't know what to call it. A sort of general manager who is responsible for turning the strategy into business results.
When I saw the "Single Threaded Owner" title emerge, I knew there was something to it.
THE SINGLE-THREADED OWNER HAS 100% FOCUS
Jeff Wilke, CEO of Amazon’s consumer business explains:
When Amazon has a new idea, the company writes a fake press release and FAQ page to help envision how the idea will look on launch day. Then they recruit one single-threaded leader to the idea, and that leader builds his or her team.
Star players tend to be assigned the strategic initiatives. But because they are stars, they also tend to have many other responsibilities too, either by choice or out of necessity. The STO model is first and foremost about ensuring 100% focus. Like an entrepreneur who thinks about their startup 24/7, the person you select to own the strategic initiative must truly want a job that is focused.
Some leaders love variety, getting involved in many areas - that's great, but it's not what you want for an STO. Once you've found the right person, empower them by minimizing distractions. Put the STO and their team in a different building for a set period of time. Cut any meetings that aren't related to the mandate. Reward their focus.
SINGLE-THREADED OWNERS HAVE 100% OWNERSHIP (IT'S IN THE NAME!)
Maybe you're thinking this concept is not new? We have product managers and project managers who lead strategic initiatives, no? Then consider the second, perhaps more important, aspect of the STO model: end-to-end ownership of the strategic initiative.
Companies define a product manager's role as being in charge of just the product - its roadmap, new features, etc. - while other things like the product's market strategy, operational model, and pricing are handled by other departments, or higher up. And project managers are too often simply expected to be the coordinators of programs, while subject-matter experts and executives own the strategic pieces.
STO Roberto Carisi from Amazon explains in an interview:
The single-threaded owner is sort of like a product manager, but has end-to-end ownership over the whole process leading up to the results."
By design, a single-threaded owner is a generalist, not an expert at everything. Amazon compensates for this by subjecting the single-threaded leader and their team to a variety of audits with expert groups that specialize in different areas. These expert panels provide ideas and support and serve as a challenge function to optimize the program.
NOT EVERY PROGRAM REQUIRES A SINGLE-THREADED OWNER
To be clear, I'm not arguing that all PMs should be single-threaded owners.
STOs should be reserved for truly strategic initiatives that require the company to behave differently to succeed, and are expected to have a considerable impact on the organization.
A new product that simply uses new technology (such as AI) might be in this list, but if it's going to your usual customers and will be priced and supported in the same usual ways, it might not require a single-threaded owner, just a solid PM and team. An upgrade to your existing product, even if it's expected to generate most of next year's revenue, may not warrant single-threaded ownership either, as it is just a continuation of your existing operations.
If PMs at your organization are too junior, then hire a more senior manager or senior consultant to fulfill the single-threaded owner role. If PMs don't have the needed level of authority, assign a dedicated executive. It's less about who and more about making sure the person is 100% dedicated and owns the program success end-to-end.
You'll know it's right when you are measuring this person on business outcomes rather than activities and timelines. If most of your conversations are about product UI and functionality, or about whether the project is running on schedule, this may not be a single-threaded leadership conversation. If you're reviewing KPIs related to revenue, market penetration, media attention, operational efficiency - now we're talking!
TURNING STRATEGY INTO REALITY
Now that we've defined the characteristics of the single-threaded leader, let's talk about what they actually do. Job number 1 is turning strategy into real business results.
The STO can't deliver a poor strategy, so they must have a hand in engaging leadership to develop the strategy, and then owning the strategy until it becomes a reality.
Here's how that should work, whether you're the one hiring the STO or the one playing the role.
1. ILLUSTRATE A VISION WITH INSANELY GREAT CX
Traditional strategy starts with corporate vision and mission statements that are groan inducing in today's day-and-age, but Amazon advocates that the single-threaded leader make the vision come to life by literally illustrating what it will look like when the initiative has succeeded.
This gives the team, stakeholders and the market a common, detailed and exciting vision of where you're heading. The single-threaded owner can then start to work backwards on how to make that a reality.
The importance of illustrating the customer experience can't be overstated. While traditional strategy usually starts internally facing with a SWOT analysis, looking at your strengths and weaknesses and how to best use them to tackle opportunities in the market, Amazon argues this should not be the starting point as it can narrow the vision to just doing more of the same. 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 customer experience possibilities, and only after that do you look at how your SWOT plays into them.
2. DON'T JUST SET A VISION, CREATE A PLAN
The HBR paper Most Strategies Fail Because They're Not Actually Strategies calls out a common planning pitfall: companies often think of strategy as simply setting a goal. For example: “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.
Organizational politics being what they are, an STO may never get a well-crafted strategy handed to them on a silver platter by senior management. Instead, the single-threaded leader takes the goal and develops the "how" with their team, engaging senior management along the way.
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..."
In particular, the 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. Michael Porter famously says:
The essence of strategy is choosing what NOT to do."
Part of the STO's role when shaping the plan is defining the boundaries of where the focus will be, and where it won't. If your initiative is to launch a new product, you need to get very clear on the target markets and value you will deliver.
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.
3. MAKE IT AMBITIOUS
A single-threaded owner owns both the strategy and the execution. This situation can be tempting for them to hedge their bets and set expectations with a very limited vision and plan. Under-promise and over-deliver, right? This is a mistake, and suggests you might not have the right person for the job. You want an achievable plan with clear priorities, but you won't engage senior leadership for long with a lack of ambition.
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).
In addition to being ambitious, the single-threaded owner's plan should have some controversy, otherwise it is probably not a real plan. From 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 grey 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."
If the STO presents their plan to senior leadership and everyone nods in agreement, that can actually be a bad sign. What you want is a strong plan that provokes debate on the hard choices to truly be successful.
4. CHOOSE CAREFULLY: ONE-WAY DOORS VS. TWO-WAY DOORS
Another Amazon 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.
If it's a two-way, easily reversible decision, make -- and then execute -- that decision quickly. Some you'll get wrong, and that's OK. Trust that you'll figure out how to react and how to respond, and that you will be a little wiser for the experience. You'll grow more skilled, more experienced, and more connected.
And that will mean that an even greater percentage of your two-way door decisions will work out. Make and execute enough decisions -- and learn from each experience -- and in time you will have all the skills, knowledge, and experience to succeed.
5. INFUSE YOUR STRATEGY WITH CUSTOMER INSIGHT
In The Complete Guide to Customer Research Interviews, we stress how critical it is for the single-threaded owner to gather intelligence from customer interviews, market analysis, online research, and win/loss analysis to develop a strategy that connects with the market. It might be politically astute to shape strategy around what your internal stakeholders are saying, but strategy can't be done in a vacuum. The best single-threaded owners talk directly to customers and prospects and infuse their strategy and plan with the voice of the customer.