Focus on the Wildly Important
Execution starts with focus.
Why is focus such a struggle? It’s not for lack of trying. The majority of leaders acknowledge they need greater focus. Still, they continue to find themselves with too many competing priorities, pulling their teams in too many different directions.
Focusing in our context means narrowing the number of goals you are attempting to accomplish beyond the day-to-day demands of your whirlwind.
Simply put, Discipline 1 is about applying more energy against fewer goals because the law of diminishing returns is as real as the law of gravity.
We are hardwired to do one thing at a time with excellence. The myth of multi-tasking is destroying excellence; it is diluting our energy and resources to goals that are never realized.
MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller says, “Trying to concentrate on two tasks causes an overload of the brain’s processing capacity. … Particularly when people try to perform similar tasks at the same time, such as writing and e-mail and talking on the phone, they compete to use the same part of the brain. Trying to carry too much, the brain simply slows down.”
In 2017 Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport hosted 969 take-offs and landings over 24 hours. All of them were important, but for the air traffic controller, only one airplane is wildly important at any moment—the one that’s landing or taking off right now.
The controller is aware of the other planes on the radar. but at that moment all her talent and expertise is focused on one flight. Total excellence is required to get that flight on the ground or in the air safely, or nothing else really matters. She lands those planes one at a time.
WIGs are like that. They are goals you must achieve with total excellence beyond the circling priorities of your day to day. It means hard choices that separate what is wildly important from all the merely important goals on your radar. Then, you must approach that WIG with focus and diligence until it is delivered as promised, with excellence.
Those other important goals are still on your radar, but they don’t require your finest diligence right now. Some of those goals might never be WIGs—and some never should have taken off in the first place!
THE LEADER’S CHALLENGE
Why so much pressure to expand goals? In the words of the old cartoon, Pogo, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
One reason we take on too much is that, as a leader, we are ambitious and creative. Ambitious and creative people always want to do more, not less. We are hardwired to violate the first discipline of execution.
Another reason you might have too many goals is to cover your bets. If you try and do everything, something might work.
The greatest challenge to narrowing your goals is saying no to good ideas. Its counterintuitive to say no to a good idea, but nothing destroys focus more than always saying yes.
It’s even harder because these good ideas aren’t presented all at once, they filter in over time. Alone, each idea seems to make sense and you would be dumb to say no. Remember this, however:
You must focus on one or two WIGs at once. It’s counterintuitive, but it must happen. As Stephen R. Covey says, “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, unapologetically—to say no to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.”
The second trap is trying to turn everything in the whirlwind into a WIG. Within the whirlwind are all the existing measurements for running the organization today. It’s perfectly appropriate for your team to spend 80% of their time and energy sustaining or incrementally improving the whirlwind. Keeping the ship afloat should be job one, but if they are spending 100 percent of their energy trying to significantly improve all of those measurements at once, you’ve lost focus.
Applying the same effort toward all these measurements is like trying to make holes in a piece of paper by applying even pressure with all your fingers. Focusing on one WIG is like punching one finger through the paper—all your strength goes into making that one hole.
Unless you can accomplish your goal with a stroke of the pen, success is going to require your team to change their behavior; and they simply cannot change that many behaviors at once, no matter how badly you need them to. Trying to significantly improve every measure in the whirlwind will consume all your time and leave you with very little to show for it.
Bottom line: If you want high-focus, high-performance team members, they must have something wildly important to focus on.
IDENTIFYING YOUR WILDLY IMPORTANT GOALS
Start by asking the question:
“If every other area of our operation remained at its current level of performance, what is the one area where change would have the greatest impact?”
This question changes how you think and clearly identifies the focus that would make all the difference.
Remember, 80 percent of your team’s energy will still be directed at sustaining the whirlwind, so ignore the temptation to worry that by making one or two goals most important, your team will ignore everything else. Once you stop worrying about everything else going backward, you can move forward on your WIG.
A wildly important goal (WIG) is one that can make all the difference. it’s your strategic tipping point, and you will commit to apply a disproportionate amount of energy to it—the 20 percent not used by the whirlwind. How do you choose that WIG?
Sometimes the choice is obvious, other times not so much. Urgent priorities in your whirlwind are competing to be most important and usually have good arguments along with them. Remember the question we began the post with: “If every other area of operation stays the same, what one area can we change to have the greatest impact?” This question changes how you think and lets you clearly identify the focus that would make all the difference.
Your WIG will come from inside or outside the whirlwind. Within the whirlwind, it could be a key operational element that isn’t being delivered. Poor project completion time, poor customer service are examples. Or it could be an area your team is doing well but could be leveraged for significant impact. Increasing customer satisfaction from 85 to 95 percent.
Outside the whirlwind, the choice could be about changing or disrupting an established process. Remember, this type of WIG will need an even greater change in behavior, since it will be new to your team.
Whether your WIG comes from inside or outside the whirlwind, your aim is not only to achieve it, but then make the new level of performance a natural part of your team’s operation. Once a WIG is achieved, it goes back to the whirlwind. Every time this happens, the whirlwind changes. It’s less chaotic, chronic problems are solved, and new performance levels are sustained; in essence it’s a much higher performing whirlwind, leaving more time for the next WIG!
FOCUSING THE ORGANIZATION
“John Naish, “Is Multitasking Bad for Your Brain?” Mail Online, Aug. 11, 2009. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1205669/Is-multi-tasking-bad-brain-Experts-reveal-hidden-perils-juggling-jobs.html.”