The Low-Hanging Fruit Dilemma
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
-John F. Kennedy
“Pick the low-hanging fruit.” It’s so common a phrase that very few of us ever interrogate it. The low-hanging fruit –the projects we can knock off our list fast. Almost every organization does some version of this when it selects projects to pursue. But is it smart? Will it yield the greatest and most accelerated progress?
But let’s be clear. I’m not talking about how to prioritize any old to-do list. I’m talking about the projects that emerge within strategic planning. The ones that should be connected to long-term, significant impact. If your strategy is intended to produce a discontinuous change –a breakthrough that goes way beyond improvement or predictability –then the question does not have an obvious answer.
There are a lot of reasons to be suspicious of attacking the “low hanging fruit”. But there are also times when it is just the ticket.
Sometimes it may be more important to make progress than to solve the biggest problem. For example, if you are desperate to generate new leads, it may make better sense to knock out something fast than to build a complicated marketing engine.
You are betting that with a good lead or two, you may capture some revenue. That assumes that you plan to use those leads (nay sales) to fund the creation of the harder project of crafting a marketing engine.
Startups often face existential crises between funding rounds and need to bring in revenue immediately. That’s the time to sign the demanding small client or knock out a feature that isn’t on the roadmap but will guarantee a renewal.
If your belly is empty, then the bitter apple that didn’t get the sun, but within reach, is the one you grab.
A struggling salesperson may need a win to feel confident. A demoralized team may need a home run to restore itself. That win may build greater cohesion prepare the team to tackle harder problems.
And finally, if a strategic direction is new, it may make sense to execute something easy as a test. If you’re considering attempting to penetrate a new vertical, do a quick marketing test, or develop an unpolished MVP of your product for that vertical.
Low-hanging fruit can be extremely useful for learning about the bigger challenge.
Survival, Morale, Intel. Good occasions for the easy pickings.
So, when is it the wrong move? Most of the time.
Stealing From Peter for Paul
The problem is that resources in an organization are usually zero sum. If you expend energy on low hanging fruit you do so at the expense of important longer term strategic gain.
For example, a while back I worked with a technology company whose product had been built by one of the founders. Because of his age and therefore, the product’s age, it was not cloud based. Even worse, it was built in Fortran language.
It had once been state-of-the-art. But by 2015 all the competitors were offering cloud-based, SaaS systems with API integrations. They remained competitive only through constant jury-rigging.
The company needed to rebuild its product. But attacking that would have meant ceasing all the trivial projects that made everyone feel so productive. The founders refused. They were addicted to the incremental growth and unable to discipline themselves or the organization to solve the biggest, most strategically important problem.
Ultimately, they were acquired for a mediocre price by a hedge fund. The client base now enjoys the service of one of the major competitors. They grew incrementally until they died.
Coincidentally, although early Henry Ford was a major disruptor, he eventually fell prey to the same error. Eventually, his competitors produced “not black” cars, different priced models, and enclosed designs. But Ford stayed his same course instead of tackling the hard problem of innovating. Between 1921 and 1927 (when he finally offered a closed sedan), Ford’s market share went from 68% to 15%.
Strategic Planning Output
Imagine your normal strategic planning retreat. Regardless of the structure, you end up with a list of initiatives.
That list is the universe within which you choose where to allocate resources. If we put the typical list on an effort-impact matrix, it might look like this:
The bottom left quadrant is where the easy, low-impact projects are. They’re enticing because you can make progress fast. Most of that quadrant’s projects are near the left margin- low impact even within the low-impact quadrant. The ones that are further up the impact spectrum are harder.
Those easy items are usually activities like adding more analytics to the management team’s dashboard, sprucing up the marketing or changing the CRM. They’re not useless but they are not strategic.
Strategic initiatives contribute to directly causing the breakthrough you are out to produce.
The top left quadrant is stuff that should have been discarded. Each one is hard and likely to have minimal payoff. There’s one outlier that might be impactful. But even if it is, it’s level of difficulty is so high that it’s risky to expend resources on it without greater confidence in its impact.
Quick wins are in the bottom right. Mostly, they will be marginally impactful. But if there is one golden egg in that vast, empty quadrant –one like the golden one here –you should run with it.
Here’s the thing: Quick wins that are genuine wins are rare, and often illusory. Usually, they turn out either to be MUCH harder than you expect, OR, they have far less impact than believed.
The top right quadrant is where your attention should go. Why? Because, if your strategy is correct, those initiatives are the ones that will deliver breakthroughs.
The Missing Dimensions
Ultimately, the matrix doesn’t give us the information we need to distinguish between strategic and non-strategic low-hanging fruit. But two additions will solve that problem: probability, and causality. With those dimensions things change.
In the next chart, confidence is indicated on a scale from light blue to bright green. Bright green is the highest level of confidence. Purple is not rated for confidence.
With that added information –which is only rarely addressed in most strategic planning –the grid is much more directive. But what about those easy. Low-impact projects? Have they changed?
On their own, they are low-value sure things. Of course, changing the marketing will produce better messaging. Does it matter? That depends on what it will affect.
If, for example, the outcome of the strategy session is a change in value proposition –it will be extremely important! When Weight Watchers decided to change its value proposition from weight loss to healthful lifestyles, they changed their branding. It was strategically critical. How much difference does a logo make? A LOT when you take the word “weight” out of “Weight Watchers”.
The Question is One of Causality
Low impact initiatives become strategic if a strategic initiative depends on them. The arrows from one initiative to another indicate an enabling relationship.
In fact, we could go further. Any low-impact initiative that doesn’t enable a high-impact initiative probably doesn’t belong on the list of strategic initiatives. It may be an infrastructure upgrade or a cost-saving measure. Those are maintenance and not strategic initiatives. They may go on a task list, but they should NEVER supplant effort on strategic projects.
Maintenance matters and you have to do it. But never mistake it for strategic work.
The Illusion of Progress
That’s the problem with low-hanging fruit. It displaces significant change-making. You have the sense that you’re progressing because you’re completing things. But you are actually impeding real progress.
Real, discontinuous, strategic progress doesn’t come from incremental improvement. It comes from investing the time, money, and discipline in confronting the hardest problems.
- DO attack low-hanging fruit if your organization is desperate for a quick win, has low morale or needs to test something.
- DON’T mistake low-hanging fruit for high-impact, strategic work.
- DO ensure that every initiative emerging out of your strategic plan deserves a high level of confidence in its success.
- DON’T forget to map the causal relationships between all strategic initiatives. If something doesn’t enable a high-impact strategic initiative, remove it from the list.