I was speaking with a group of leaders a few months ago and we were talking about another executive, we’ll call her “Susan”. Susan managed a large and complex team that was in need of transformation. It performed well enough on most things but it wasn’t performing well on the things that were most important to the company’s goals. So, Susan started focusing on the company’s top priorities to the exclusion of almost everything else in her organization.
Some leaders were critical of this approach; 80% of her mission was getting ignored, they complained. I think it surprised some of them when I told them I had been using Susan’s approach for years. In order to accomplish anything meaningful we need to focus ourselves and our organizations on the most important work. We cannot get distracted.
A Lesson from Warren
There’s a story about prioritization from Warren Buffett. I’m not sure if Buffet said this or it’s just urban legend. The oldest reference I can find to this story is from Scott Dinsmore’s site in 2011 and it smacks of “I know a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy…” Regardless, it’s an interesting parable about the relationship of focus to success.
According to the legend, Buffet wondered why his pilot was still working for him after many years. He suspected that the pilot lacked the focus to be successful in his profession. He instructed the pilot to do the following.
- Make a list of twenty-five things he wanted to accomplish during the next few years.
- Circle the five most important things.
- Make specific plans to achieve those things. Say “Yes” to these things every day. Focus. Focus. Focus.
- Take a look at the remaining twenty things. These, along with everything else, are to be “avoided at all costs”. Don’t do them. Just don’t. Say “No!” Get busy on the five.
This is what Susan was doing. Yes, there were lots of things going on in her organization. But she had a mission to fix specific things. Everything else was on her “Avoid this stuff at all costs” list.
Try to engage her in a discussion about a legacy vendor relationship — Avoid. Try to get her to a user group conference — Avoid. Prepare for a budget review — Avoid. But get in the sweet spot of where she was focused and you had her full attention. Sometimes too much attention (but that’s a different story…)
I’d been more like Susan than most people realized for many years. In my role as a turnaround specialist I know that much of what ails an organization can be distilled down to a very short list of really important things. By focusing on those things you get disproportionate results from your effort. Get distracted by the “Avoid” things and you’re doomed to mediocrity.
So how do you do this?
Breaking it down
Yes, you can make your top five list. And you can avoid all manner of things. But how do you avoid/neglect/ignore a large part of your organization’s mission without tanking the business? Without getting fired? Here’s an approach.
You need agreement from your leader (and her boss too) that the “Top 5” things are really the “Top 5” things. You can’t accomplish anything without this alignment. You’ll need air cover to accomplish the five. You’ll also need air cover when others try to distract you with the “Avoid” list.
Start with a Carve Out
Identify the resources and people you’re going to need to be successful in driving your Top 5 priorities. This doesn’t have to be a perfect end state vision. In fact, to get started you want to keep this as small as possible. Carve these people and budget out organizationally and get them going.
By creating an organizational carve-out you protect this mission from the normal BS, you send a signal to the organization about the work’s importance, and the people doing this work don’t get distracted by a “day job”. The Top 5 are their day job.
Before long, you’ll begin to fold more and more of the organization into this carve-out. It eventually yields a new organizational construct. But don’t overthink this initially because you’ll get it wrong. Start and iterate.
Now you’re going to put the rest of the organization on “Fire-and-Forget” mode. This doesn’t mean that you don’t care about what goes on. It means that you’ve set-up the rest of the organization to accomplish it’s goals while you’re focused elsewhere. Most of this comes down to the quality of your leadership team.
- Understand what parts of your organization are mission critical — what parts keep the company’s trains running on time? Manage this risk carefully. Don’t let it distract you. Manage it.
- Assess your leaders — Who are the standouts? These are the ones who: have fact-based knowledge of their business; have passion for the people; have demonstrated the ability to make tough personnel calls; talk more about the future rather than the past; are constantly scanning the horizon for new capabilities.
- Replace leaders who are assessed poorly.
- Replace leaders who are time sinks — This is a special category. Even some leaders who assess well will be very needy. You need leaders who are able to work autonomously.
- Establish a lightweight, exception-based management system. You’ll need to keep tabs on what’s going on without having to inspect everything. Agile practices (e.g. stand-ups, showcase/demo, retrospectives) can help guide you to a lightweight model.
- Your primary interaction with leadership and your teams is now as a coach. Coach a lot. Communicate a lot (especially utilizing social media).
I find in any new role I’m spending most of my initial time on the Fire and Forget elements. Until this work is done, I can’t focus on the Top 5.
Be ruthless with resources
While you’re establishing your fire-and-forget organization you will find parts of the organization that yield low value. Eliminate that work and redeploy the budget and people to your priorities. This is one of your most important roles. It’s one of the most important activities for your leaders as well. If you give resources to low value distractions, you’ll be distracted by low value activities.
What are your five?
Brutal prioritization is fundamental to success. We’ve all experienced the pull of other things that seem so appealing but that upon inspection add little value. Often saying “Yes” to something is easier than saying “No” but it’s a siren’s song. It leads to ruin. It dismisses our priorities.
Focus. Say “Yes” to your five. Get alignment with your leaders. Carve-out a team to get started quickly. Get a strong leadership team together to support Fire-and-Forget execution. Put your resources on your most important work and starve low value stuff.
We’ve a lot of important work to do. Let’s ignore the stuff that’s relatively unimportant. Prioritize.