4DX – Discipline 1

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.

Practicing Discipline 1 means narrowing your focus to a few highly important goals so you can manageably achieve them in the midst of the whirlwind of the day job.

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.

As many as 50 flights were taking off or landing in an hour at Mumbai.

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.

Focused energy is needed to accomplish that WIG!

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

REFERENCES

“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.”

Hit the Ground Running

It is exciting to take on a new role, whether that is an internal promotion or a new position with a different organization. It can be nerve-wracking at the same time, however, when you have big shoes to fill.

It’s up to you to ensure your success, and here are some key strategies to do just that.

Do your homework.

Get up to speed before you start, as much as is practicable. If there are areas of the new position that are not your area of expertise, you need to get smart about them. Take time to ramp up for the new role.

Be yourself.

Taking over for a big personality is hard, but don’t try to copy someone else’s style of leadership. Be authentic, it will earn you respect and pre-empt judgement and comparison to your predecessor.

Understand and manage stakeholder relationships.

A key element of your success will be your ability to establish and effectively manage stakeholder relationships, both internal and external. This requires knowing not only who these people are, but also what they care most about, what they each expect from you, and what concerns they have. Some may be skeptical of your ability to live up to your predecessor’s performance. You’ll want to meet with each stakeholder and ask relevant questions like:

  • In your view, what should my top three priorities be over the next six to 12 months, and what would success look like to you?
  • What other internal and external relationships are most important to support these priorities?
  • What concerns do you have, and how can I address them?

Another option is to engage an executive coach to ask these questions on your behalf as part of an “assimilation coaching” program, which may get you more candid answers. However, this is in no way a substitute for you meeting with these stakeholders to start to build these essential relationships.

Assess the team.

Given your top priorities, you’ll want to assess if you have the right team to accomplish them. This includes hiring to fill any gaps on your team, as well as directly addressing performance issues that can prevent you from getting the leverage you need or impede your progress.

Don’t get caught in the weeds. Failing to address performance issues with the team or shy away from difficult conversations will distract from strategic priorities.

Check your mindset.

Manage ‘imposter syndrome.’ Address limiting beliefs.

Seek ongoing feedback and support.

Create feedback loops with key stakeholders. Not everyone will like what you do. Give your team explicit permission to give upward feedback, then listen.

The Leader as Coach

Historically, managers came up through the ranks and knew what needed to be done, taught others how to do it, and managed their performance. It was command and control.

Today, change and disruption are constant, and what worked in the past does not predict success for the future. Modern managers don’t have all the answers, and this new reality changes how managers and leaders interact with their teams. Prescriptive instruction is replaced by guidance and support. Employees learn to adapt to a constantly changing environment in ways that release fresh energy, innovation, and commitment.

The role of manager is becoming that of a coach.

This is a fundamental shift as more organizations invest in training leaders as coaches. This coaching in ongoing and executed by managers inside the organization rather than consultants; it creates a true learning organization, and it helps define the culture and advance the mission. It’s work that all managers should engage in with all their people all the time, in ways that help define the organization’s culture and advance its mission. An effective manager-as-coach asks questions instead of providing answers, supports employees instead of judging them, and facilitates their development instead of dictating what has to be done.

Skilled coaching involves unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance. Coaching at its best imparts knowledge and helps others discover it themselves.

Aspiration and practice are most often not in alignment.

Effective Meetings

Rule #1 – Ideas can come from anywhere. Attendees are there for a reason, because they can add value–knowledge, expertise, or stakeholder value.

Rule #2 – Act on facts, research hunches. Force participants to back up their statements with reliable evidence before making a play on their input. Slate hunches for background research.

Rule #3 – Stay focused on the agenda item at hand. Establish talking points ahead, set the agenda and guide people back when the conversation strays.

Example Agenda Outline:
I. Introduction
II. Statement of problem
III. Ground rules
IV. Problem Discussion – 15 minutes
V. Solution Discussion – 30-45 minutes
VI. Action Items

Facilitate Solution Discussion:
1. Open – Write down all ideas and all reliable evidence to support each idea
2. Narrow – Debate. Vet ideas for solvency and doability.
3. Close – Rank and prioritize the next best play.

Rule #4 – No Distractions. Send a signal to side talkers by standing in between them. Invite participants to turn their phones back on after the meeting, no electronic note taking, checking emails etc. This means the meeting should be relevant and adding value to all invited. If that is not the case, invite them to engage in a more valuable activity. Really.

Rule #5 – Co-authored and unique to organizational culture. For example, no one bring a topic that seems to always come up and is not constructive in nature.

Creating an Engagement Environment

Let’s get this out there first; you can’t MAKE someone engaged. You can, however, create an environment where people can choose to bring their best and be highly engaged. One of the best ways to do that is regular 1-on-1 meetings with your direct reports.

I get it, time is the most valuable asset any of us possess. What we spend our time on, then, reveals what we view as worthy of value. Dedicating time to 1-on-1s create the conditions for engagement by communicating to employees on a consistent basis, “I care about you. I have a vested interest in you and your success.”

Why, then, don’t more managers use this valuable tool effectively, or at all? There are three main reasons:

  • They don’t know how to do them or are intimidated by 1-on-1 interaction, so they don’t schedule these meetings at all.
  • They’re holding 1-on-1s, but only as a status check to monitor progress.
  • They say they don’t have time, and this is by far the most common reason.

If you say you don’t have time to have regular 1-on-1s, you are saying you don’t have time to be an effective manager. Good, now you’ve decided to be an effective manager, here are four ways to use your 1-on-1s to do that.

1. It’s not about you

This is not a status update. Effective 1-on-1s are the team member’s meeting, not yours. Ask them to prepare the agenda (provide them with a worksheet or template, if needed). Say, “We’re going to be meeting next week. I’d like you to use this worksheet or one of your own to think ahead of time about the things you want to cover. There are a few things I want to cover, too, but we’re going to tackle yours first.” That kind of language and intent communicates that your team member and their work matters to you.

2. Energy matters

Don’t schedule these meetings at the end of the day when energy is typically low. These are important relationships and deserve our time, creativity and energy.

3. Personal concern

To the extent your team is comfortable, your communication should include the whole person and not simply their professional lives. Ask about their family, their vacations etc. You can’t fake this. You must be genuinely concerned and interested, creating a connection to the team member.

4. “Hold on, someone more important is texting me.”

For this meeting to be most successful, your phone should be out of site/mind. This goes for tablets, laptops, desk phones, smart watches and any other communication device that could interrupt the meeting.

This is a time to learn about problems you can fix to make work go smoother and more efficiently. This is a time to focus on what the employee wants to do next at the company and to give feedback on how to get there.

I don’t think there is any magic when it comes to the frequency of 1-on-1s. Weekly meetings are preferable, but bi-monthly and monthly meetings work as long as the schedule is kept. The duration can also vary. But at least a half-hour needs to be set aside for this to be effective. These meetings should not be rushed.

Besides creating the conditions for employee engagement, 1-on-1s are just as beneficial for leaders. Use that time to learn what you’re doing that’s working (and not working) to build your skillset as a manager. 

Even if the feedback is not direct, if you listen, you’ll learn. You’re part of this team, and you’ll benefit from the engagement, collaboration, and camaraderie of regular 1-on-1s. 

Citizen-Centered Design

Government needs to be more innovative and take an outside-in approach to the design and delivery of government services to fulfill the commitments being made by political leaders and government executives.

Developing an understanding and empathy is key to the CCD approach, but the people directly involved in the process are often too close to the problem to be able to think outside the box. This is often the case for frontline workers with a government-centric process-driven mindset. The ability to ideate is dependent on the individual’s abilities to look past how things are done today Establish a cross-functional team that includes a mix of backgrounds and capabilities — from inside and outside of the organization — to maximize the effectiveness of the CCD process.

Government organizations that directly service or support citizens have been early adopters of CCD, and the related techniques are already in use and led by business areas. For example, local governments can take an HCD approach to focus Smart City strategies around the problems that matter to their cities.

Engagement – 5 Questions

Mission and vision are important, but day-to-day leadership involves connecting each team member with an inner sense of purpose. Each action has many levels. I’m typing on a keyboard, writing an article, and encouraging better leadership at the same time. One action-different levels. True leaders walk employees up that ladder to help them find meaning in even small tasks. Asking these five questions is one way to make that connection.

What are you good at doing? Which work doesn’t seem like work? What gets you noticed because you are so good at it? Help identify their strengths and open up the possibilities.

What do you enjoy? During the week, what do you look forward to doing? What do you see on your calendar that energizes you? If you could decide, how would you spend your time? Help them rediscover what they love about work.

What feels most useful? Which work makes you most proud? What tasks are most critical to the team or organization? Helps to identify the inherent value of certain work.

What creates a sense of forward momentum? What are you learning that you’ll use in the future? Where do you see yourself next? Show how today’s work helps get to future goals.

How do you relate to others? Which working partnerships are best for you? What would your favorite team look like? Think about and foster relationships that make work more meaningful.