Focusing means saying no

Illustration Artiicle Focus

Leaders need to do three things in order to set clear priorities for their organisations

By Dirk Verburg

Most executives I know are extremely busy. It seems they always have more things to do than they have actually time for. This is probably the reason why articles, books, websites and software packages claiming to offer personal productivity solutions are more popular than ever.

Time Management Tools have a limited effect…

No matter how different these solutions are, they all have one thing in common: they force choices. Whether it is the Eisenhower Matrix, Frank Covey’s Time Matrix or Dave Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ philosophy, they all force choices between things that need to be done and things that could be done.

Many people try to implement some or all of these tools and techniques in order to try to balance their time with the items on their to-do list. However, most of them remain structurally overloaded. They continue to have more ‘need to do’ actions on their to-do list than they have time for.

…because most often it is an organizational issue

Like Michael Mankins and Eric Garten, I do not believe that the most important reason for this is the lack of time management skills of the individuals who are suffering from this problem. Instead I think the most important factor is that many senior leaders find it difficult to set clear priorities. They either create too many ‘must do’ initiatives for their organizations, or allow others in their organization to do so. As a result of this, too many unrelated (and sometimes even competing) initiatives are unleashed in organizations.

This (often uncontrolled) amount of initiatives creates two problems on an organizational level.

  • Failures become inevitable – First of all, there will not be enough capacity in the organization to ensure that every initiative is properly executed. Therefore resources are likely to be allocated somewhat arbitrarily across different initiatives in the organization. This makes it inevitable that certain initiatives will fail. Not because of insurmountable hurdles to realize them (e.g. technical limitations), or because of conscious choices (e.g. cancelling an initiative as a result of new market research), but simply because they do not receive the resources, focus and attention required to make them a success. They are like plants that do not get enough water. Everyone knows the examples of how established companies like Rank Xerox (Graphical User Interface) and Kodak (Digital Photography) were not able to monetize their technology. However the same thing is happening today with the established players in the auto industry like GM and Toyota.
  • Failure becomes part of the corporate culture – As a result of the phenomenon mentioned above, members of the organization will start to see it as normal that initiatives initiated and/or endorsed by the leadership of the organization will regularly fail. Therefore, their mindset is likely to change from ’We need to make this a success’ to ‘I wonder if this one will fly’.

Innovation will suffer

All in all, this leaves innovation (the lifeblood of organizations) to chance and wastes valuable resources. In order to avoid this pitfall, leaders need to do three things:

  • Focus – First of all, business leaders need to focus. The most powerful statement on focus I know is voiced by Steve Jobs: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.” If you want to hear firsthand what this meant to his employees, I recommend watching this video on YouTube.
  • Determination – After leaders have chosen their priorities, they need to pursue them wholeheartedly. As Jeffrey Immelt (the former CEO of GE) stated: ‘Half measures are death for big companies, because people can smell lack of commitment. When you undertake a transformation, you should be prepared to go all the way to the end. You’ve got to be all in. You’ve got to be willing to plop down money and people. You won’t get there if you’re a wuss.’
  • Sequence – For the same reason why it is difficult for individuals to multi-task, companies should also avoid launching initiatives simultaneously. Instead they should aim to launch them sequentially. This will ensure focus (employees do not need to divide their attention across a number of different initiatives) and force the organization to continue to work on an initiative, even if this is going through a difficult phase.

Putting it into practice

Recently I worked with a business leader who inherited an organization with a backlog of initiatives that were long overdue (and could result in legal and compliance issues), the need to launch a series of new initiatives in order to ensure the continuity of the organization, and very limited resources to implement these.

We tackled this issue by first establishing an overview of all the ongoing initiatives, the once that were already planned but had not started yet, as well as the new ones required to ensure the continuity of the organization. In the second step we indicated the urgency (e.g. in case of compliance or tax issues), the resources required to address the issue (budget, manpower and systems) and the business case (ROI) for every initiative. Finally, we indicated the dependencies between these different initiatives – initiatives that needed to be executed before others could be initiated.

After eliminating those initiatives for which the business case we not compelling enough, we split the remaining initiatives in a pile of must do’s and could do’s. Subsequently we plotted the must do’s on a 9 grid matrix with two axis, one indicating the resources required, the other indicating the return of investment (ROI). So far pretty standard. What proved to be very effective though is that we introduced a third dimension: timing. This meant that, although different alternatives could show up in the same (equally attractive) position in the matrix, it was also indicated at which point in time which initiative would be implemented in the light of the limited number of resources the organization had at its disposal.

The fact that the required resources for the different initiatives had been reviewed and served as a parameter for the planning, proved to be very powerful. The board was extremely glad with the fact that they received an integrated action plan with clear priorities and a timing dimension, instead of a list with initiatives; the fact that a thorough resource review had been applied significantly enhanced the credibility of this plan with middle managers.
I am curious about your experiences regarding this topic. Let me know what you think!

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