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.”

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.

IT Governance: Who/Decides/How

  • Budget overruns.
  • An underperforming vendor.
  • Changing organizational priorities.
  • Resistance to change despite significant risk.

These are real challenges that could have derailed a critical, multi-year, enterprise project. We were able to navigate these and other obstacles successfully, and the key was governance.

First, what is a project? A project is a collection of tasks, involving multiple individuals, organized to delver well-defined products or outcomes (called “deliverables,” go figure) within a defined period of time.

Before managing a project, make sure it has a chance of succeeding. That means answering four questions:

  1. What, when it is all said and done, is the point of the project?
  2. Who in authority wants it to succeed?
  3. Who has the authority to define success?
  4. Who has the authority to make different kinds of decisions and resolve different kinds of issues, and to delegate that authority when the situation calls for it?

WHAT’S THE POINT?

The point of any government project is to deliver improvement of some kind – a different, better way of doing things. Expending time, effort and budget so everything stays exactly the same as it was before wastes time, effort and taxpayer money.

Government can improve in four ways – mitigate risk, add or improve existing services, reduce the cost of government without reducing service. There are other outcomes, or deliverables, but most of them contribute to the aforementioned big four.

WHO CARES?

Just because government improves doesn’t mean it does so for anyone working there; almost certainly it won’t improve for everyone working there. Even for executive management there are some winners and losers.

That’s OK. Not everyone needs to want the results. But SOMEONE should! Usually it happens one of these ways:

  1. Someone has a bright idea…
  2. Refines it until the description sounds worthwhile…
  3. And pushes the resulting “business case” into the organization’s project approval process.
  4. The approval process assesses whether the business case properly and credibly describes cost, benefits, relationship to organization strategy and so on…
  5. And delivers a decision as to whether it’s approved or not.

Deciding a project is worthwhile isn’t the same as chartering a project that can succeed. To succeed, someone with the authority to make decisions – to provide more time, resources and budget – has to be committed to it.

Distinguishing between the individual who had the bright idea (champion) and an executive who wants it badly enough (sponsor) to commit to it is critical.

Every project should have a sponsor before it is assigned a project manager. Usually the CIO, champion, and project manager try to recruit one. Too often if they fail, the list the CIO as the sponsor the move forward toward near-certain disaster.

STEP BY STEP

To succeed, projects need:

  1. It has to have a point (a business outcome that warrants the investment of time, staff, and resources.)
  2. At least one executive has to personally want it enough to take risks on its behalf…
  3. …and has the authority to commit time, budget and staff if they are needed.
  4. …And the authority and willingness to decide when it’s finished.
  5. All stakeholders have to agree about project governance – about WHO has the authority to make different DECISIONS about the project, and HOW they will make and communicate those decisions.

There are numerous approaches to governance, and they can all succeed. They can all fail, too, if they are not executed by the decision-makers.

This problem is magnified if business leaders fail to engage, viewing projects as “IT projects” because they have an IT component, and assume CIOs or project managers will handle of the details and decision making.

  • Examine your approach to governance to ensure that it is built around the right decision makers, organizational capabilities and organizational strategy by determining precisely who the decision rights are regarding the issues that must be addressed.
  • Persuade those with the decision rights of the importance of their role, the required time commitment, and the need to focus on the business process aspects of a project. Perform these actions, rather than letting leaders incorrectly assume they are “IT projects” by making certain these leaders truly understand that without their engagement, failure will result.

REFERENCES

https://www.gartner.com/document/code/388578?ref=authbody&refval=3939996

https://www.gartner.com/document/code/390879?ref=authbody&refval=3939995

https://www.gartner.com/document/code/388577?ref=authbody&refval=3939993

https://www.gartner.com/document/3939993?ref=solrAll&refval=237384693

https://www.gartner.com/document/3892395?ref=solrAll&refval=237435955

Less is more: Minimalist approach to governance. https://www.gartner.com/document/2136215?ref=solrAll&refval=237436215

Practical Governance
https://www.gartner.com/document/1479717?ref=solrAll&refval=237436386

Enterprise IT Governance
https://www.gartner.com/document/3892395?ref=authrightrec&refval=3892299