Why Companies Need Ruthless Prioritization to Stay Alive: Q&A with Morten Hansen

Organizational behavior expert Morten Hansen tells In the Future that the world’s best executives are an elite band who “do less and then obsess.”


Conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

For many established companies, the principle of working smart—not hard—is a seriously elusive one. The hours that employees put in are still often the measure mark for hard work. Our age of information has brought unprecedented efficiency, but it has also spread companies thin on making their quickly multiplying deliverables. Morten Hansen, whose prolific expertise is in working smart, has found that the executives ultimately succeeding, and thriving, amid today’s frantic digital boom are those who slow down to ask questions and focus on a key priority.

Morten HansenHansen is a management professor at University of California, Berkeley who teaches courses on management and leadership, focusing on organizational behavior. He holds a PhD from Stanford University in organizational behavior and has had three books on the subject published. Hansen’s 2018 book, Great At Work, examines the results of studying 5,000 C-level executives, managers and employees over five years—shedding light on what allows some leaders to significantly outperform others.

In the Future (ITF): What kind of behavior is stifling today’s companies and holding productivity back?

Morten: We’re pursuing a very outdated and old-fashioned way of working. There are an incredible number of obsolete things that have become conventions and we need to find ways to get rid of those. In both the US and Europe, personal productivity is flat and it’s not increasing. It’s further evidence that the way we’re working is not working. For example, annual performance reviews—which came about 60 years ago—are ludicrous when you think about it. Reviews should be more informal and active, but we keep on doing it once a year. We need to find new and inventive ways of working. And that’s about creativity—people coming together and saying that there is a better way, questioning the status quo. If we can combine this with new technology, then we can find some nifty ways of working that would totally change things.

ITF: What did your five-year study of management style reveal about the most productive leaders?

Morten: We studied 5,000 individuals including C-level executives, managers and employees for Great at Work. We put the participants on a performance percentile ranking from best to worst. The participants in our study whom excelled at prioritizing a few key goals placed 25 points higher in the percentile ranking. The study showed that working extra hours in a week didn’t produce extra benefits. There’s a myth that working harder means better performance. But we need to work differently, not more. Working more isn’t the future.

ITF: If companies can’t simply work more to achieve more, then what should executives focus on?

Morten: Attack conventionality by asking dumb questions. One of the problems in most large companies across the world is that people are spread too thin. Employees are doing too many things—it’s an initiative overload, a collaborative overload, a meeting overload, a PowerPoint overload—it’s just an overload of stuff. Employees don’t have time to do one thing really well and it’s a sign of being too scattered. What a manager or a leader must do today is focus on a few key priorities.

ITF: That may be easier said than done—what does that kind of leadership style look like?

Morten: Think about why we have reception desks at hotel check-ins. There’s no reason to stand in line and wait. If someone instead used simple technology that sent a code to our phones to open our room door, we could bypass check-in completely. It takes someone to question whether a reception desk is necessary. Now, a manager could choose to tackle that priority alone and have it done in six months. The manager with 20 priorities, meanwhile, won’t make much progress. I call this principle “do less and then obsess”—in other words, focus on a few goals and then go all in on them. It is a key management principle in today’s busy world.

ITF: Beyond prioritization, how can management allow for a more productive workplace?

Morten: Management can either be an instigator of change or an impediment to change. Often times we see middle managers impede change because they’re invested in keeping the status quo. Someone is running that annual performance review system and they may not want to change it because their tendency is to defend the status quo. Management needs to encourage people to come up with creative questions. They can do that by asking what needs to change and how can it be done better. Managers also need to break down impediments to change and should be what I call “forceful champions.” A forceful champion is a manager who doesn’t tolerate the status quo, and is forceful about it by helping to break down organizational barriers.

ITF: And how can a good manager better utilize today’s technology—without being spread thin?

Morten: Digital tools coupled with creativity will go a long way. It’s key for today’s managers to combine their judgment with data. An experienced 45-year-old manager could clash with a 25-year-old employee who wants to make changes based on data, and they both sit in their own arrogant camps. But the magic happens when expertise and data are combined. The manager needs to be open and humble enough to consider input, while also having the skills to understand a data analysis. A lot of people don’t have that, and they become defensive and dismissive instead.

ITF: What’s the most important piece of advice you’d leave with an executive on successful leadership?

Morten: Going back to our study, the absolute best C-level executives had extreme focus. They had ruthless prioritization, which is the single best way to increase productivity. Outside of two or three goals, the rest is marginal. In our study, about 15% had the ability to do that and the rest did not. That 15% performed significantly better. And this ability is sorely needed because people are just scattered. This ability to focus doesn’t come from introspection, but from dialogue with others.