Monday, August 29, 2011

Learn to do two things at once

A number of years ago, I was working for a seasoned leader at Coca-Cola, and a group of us young, relatively inexperienced, managers were all trying to perform well and impress the “big boss.” It was in the context of a staff meeting, one day, that the pressure of the business started to get the best of all of us. We were driving results, expanding the business into new customers and markets, while at the same time working to re-engineer our entire “go to market” approach. It felt to all of us that we were trying to do too much at once, that old adage of” fixing the engines while flying the plane“just didn’t feel very good. In a moment of exasperation, one of my peers (though we all were feeling the same pressure), blurted out “Enough is enough - if we can do only ONE thing, what is that ONE thing that you want us to do???” Without pausing for a breath, our boss calmly commented, “Well, if you can only do ONE thing, then learn to do TWO things at once.”

It almost seemed to not make sense –the ONE thing to do was to learn to do TWO things at once? We all sat there silent and a bit dumbfounded, and instead of blowing up at all of us, our boss shared a few well-chosen kernels of wisdom. First and foremost, he felt that business wasn’t going to get easier and less complex, if anything it was trending to do the opposite. The demands, challenges AND opportunities would certainly multiply, not decline over the years to come. (Indeed, truer words had never been said!) Secondly, now this was before Blackberries/Smartphones/PDAs, he felt that technology was not only accelerating the business around us, but it was also accelerating HOW we did business at that moment. So, the tempo of the work and the amount of communications (voice mails and emails at that time and well before texts, blogs, tweets, facebook, linkedin, etc.) were increasing rapidly. Finally, he shared that the expectations of performance were not only rising every year, driven by the ever increasing demands of a large publically traded company, but the annual “increase of expectations” (think slope of a curve) was steepening. What was a great performance last year would probably be viewed as only acceptable in the next year. To say the least, we were all a bit freaked out at the time, but I remember to this day that moment of epiphany, realizing that accelerating performance and increasing capabilities were both required activities at all times!

I share this story today, because once again, I am faced with this same type of situation. In a very busy work environment, where we are accelerating the business, I am pushing myself and others to not only be focused on driving results of the week, month or quarter, but to be passionate about stepping back to work on the necessary capabilities to improve those results in the future. Capabilities don’t get built on their own! You have to work on it just the same way that you had to work at learning Micro Economics, Calculus, Cost Accounting, or any tough subject from your past.

This year, I have found it helpful to formalize the effort by scheduling a capabilities work session, forcing myself to take my mind off the short term business challenges and to work on the capability needs of our future. My encouragement to you is to use whatever approach works, but insure that you are not tempted to think that focusing on only ONE thing at a time is a good idea. Since that staff meeting more than fifteen years ago, the business world is not simpler, slower, less complicated, less challenging, nor less filled with opportunities. We need to be great at doing two things at once, so we can start working on doing THREE at once!

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