Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Do Fewer Things Better

Regardless of your view of our current economic dynamic, whether you see us in a slow but progressing recovery, or in a stagnant high unemployment malaise, I think it’s broadly true that many of us are terribly busy! When you combine the tempo of work activity with enabling technologies, we are all multi-tasking more than ever. I am a living example of that reality at this precise moment. I am on a flight cross-country, connected to Wi-Fi, reviewing upcoming customer deals, re-working my travel schedule for October, drafting succession planning guidelines for key roles in my organization AND drafting this essay. I think I better get another cup of coffee!
Well it is inside of this multi-tasking reality that I want to share a story that struck me deeply over the past few weeks. I constantly feel very fortunate to be in my current role. I have had the chance to be part of a very dynamic, high growth company, working closely with a group of very inspired, motivated, and talented individuals. One reality of a high growth environment is that the scale and challenges of the business are often out-stripping the capabilities and capacities of the organization. Unlike many big companies that go through their every 2-3 year “reorganization” cycles, looking to cut costs when they can’t find/create real top line growth, we are constantly feeling the need to have the organization “catch-up” to the changing needs/challenges/size of the business. Because of this growth dynamic, individuals and teams are often stretched as their markets/customers/brands accelerate. This reality spans functions and departments all across our company, and mine is no exception.

It was in this context that a conversation from a few weeks ago has continued to reverberate in my mind. I was talking with two of my talented leaders and we were working through the facts that there seemed to be just too many priorities for them and their teams, and at that moment certain things seemed to be falling through the cracks. It wasn’t a matter of skills or motivation; it was clearly an issue of prioritization. I asked them how MANY of the projects/initiatives they thought were getting accomplished, and they said maybe 80-85%. Additionally I asked them to grade their work on how WELL they thought they were accomplishing the projects, A to F. They both thought that maybe a B or B+ would be the right score. I suggested that is if we were getting a B+ of 85% of the work, then our “score” wasn’t an overall B+/85%, but rather a 72 ( 85 x 85 = 72.3) We needed to combine how MANY of the projects were being accomplished with how WELL they were being done. Were we really working so hard just to do average work? Does the business need/require just “average” work to accomplish “exceptional” results??? It was at the end of this conversation that the three of us came to the point of view that we needed to do more A+ work even if it meant us prioritizing the work even more dramatically.

It’s tempting to try to “pull it all off”, to multi-task our brains out, to accomplish as many initiatives/projects/meetings/etc as we physically can. We fool ourselves into thinking that the true measure of success is that amount (how MANY) or output of work we can produce. I am challenging myself and my team (and I guess the readers of this essay) to think more deeply on this subject and to consider doing fewer things better. Ask yourself the hard question, when was the last time that your work/ output was truly exceptional, not just adequate to get the assignment accomplished? It’s hard to prioritize, it takes time to organize the work at hand, but that step is vital. Once we have done a better/stronger job prioritizing the work at hand (for the week/quarter/year/etc), then we must commit ourselves to strive for excellent work on the initiatives that we’ve prioritized. I know it will never be perfect. I don’t believe in”perfect,” nor do I believe that “practice makes perfect.” I DO believe that “practice makes better” and that we all can work hard on making tomorrow better than yesterday. My focus is on working to do “fewer things better”, maybe even taking a few initiatives/priorities off the plate so that we as an organization can improve our focus, and improve our “grades” on the quality not just quantity, of our work.

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