Time Well Spent: Focus

user Andrew Blum
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I send my children to a wonderful little school in Mill Valley where the curriculum is rooted in the human dynamics movement and focuses on fostering creativity and developing the heart as much as the head. For my values, there’s not a better school, so I was shocked to learn from the Principal – let’s call her Ellie, an incredibly skilled and capable woman – that the school is struggling to remain financially viable. Enrollment, she told me, is down, and if the trend continues it could mean the end of a wonderful school. Given my experience in strategy execution and organization transformation, I felt I could help. When I dove in, I discovered it was not really a problem with enrollment levels. At its root, it was a problem about focusing.

When Ellie walked into my office she had an obvious weight on her shoulders. I asked her what was present for her in the moment and she told me she was glad to meet with me, but being away from the school meant she wasn’t getting her job done – a parent had been waiting three days for a return call, a teacher needed help planning a field trip, a new family, the Ackermans, were interested in the school but wanted references and, on top of all of this, she needed to get a proposed curriculum change down on paper. We agreed her plate was full.

I asked Ellie how things got done at the school and she told me it was chaos. There were eight different committees that sponsored a number of initiatives but accountability wasn’t clearly defined between them. Not much got done even though there was a lot of conversation. I asked her to list her top three priorities. She rattled them off without hesitation: 1) Increasing enrollment; 2) Building the brand; 3) Enriching the curriculum. Finally, I asked, “What’s the percentage of time you’re able to spend on your top priorities?” Ellie cracked a beleaguered smile and she told me, “Only 10%.” In essence, 90% of her time was spent on nonessential activities.

Sound familiar?

While your number might not be as high as Ellie’s, chances are you are dedicating a large percentage of your time to activities that don’t really matter when you could be driving results somewhere that does.

To help Ellie get back in touch with how she was spending her time, here are a few thoughts I shared with her:

SET PRIORITIES AND GET ESSENTIAL
Define a long list of “Nos” and a short list of actual “Yes-es”. Focus starts by creating a list of “real deal” priorities you can manage to on a daily basis. Take time to get in touch with the priorities that will drive your organization’s goals and emotionally connect to them so that you are invested in the outcomes. In determining your short list of priorities, be essential about which ones make the list.   A good CEO has only five priorities. Why? Because there are five fingers on one hand. If you have 10 priorities, you probably have too many. If you have 12, you are doomed and it’s time to get essential.

Once you have identified your priorities, determine what it will take to make them happen. Pick the three to five things that must get done that will “push the needle” forward and make a difference every day.

Getting essential also mean having the courage to say no. In many corporate cultures saying no has a negative stigma associated with it. If you work in one of these cultures, redefine what saying no means so that it becomes a sign of strength, not weakness. Realize that strategy is as much about what you aren’t going to do as it is about what you are going to do. Saying no to developing a new business concept with a peer so you can focus on an essential activity that will get the job done is never the wrong move to make . Get comfortable saying no and don’t be afraid to say it.

Key Takeaway: Say no more than yes
Create a set of real, meaningful priorities that are rooted to larger organizational goals is the first step in getting focused.

GET GRANULAR
Develop an action plan to support your essential priorities and define it in enough detail that it will weather the onslaught of distractions and competing (and sometimes sudden) new priorities that are bound to come your way. Break your actions down into smaller pieces so that they can get done. Assign accountabilities and timelines and delegate where needed.

When this feels tedious you’ll know you are doing it right. It’s worth the effort because your level of granularity will shield you from distraction, confusion and extra, unnecessary actions. Eventually others will notice your commitment to granularity and they may be inspired to take the same measures.

Key Takeaway: Take small bites 
Break your actions down into smaller, more easily approachable steps with specific owners attached so that when distraction threatens you and your team, you know the simple action that will keep you on track.

BE HONEST WITH YOURSELF ABOUT WHAT CAN ACTUALLY GET DONE
Getting honest takes shape from a few different angles. First, set sustainable goals that are tied to the benefit of the organization and your people. Lofty corporate goals are rarely achievable, never sustainable and are most often set by the CEO to appeal to the street. Maybe that is what is wrong with the economy, but that is a much larger discussion.

Be honest with yourself about what you can do. On the weekends, I sometimes make plans to meet a friend for breakfast, go on a bike ride and play with my kids in the course of a morning. Inevitably, my wife is late bringing back the car, my bike gets a flat tire and my kids need a nap. I have imagined infinite capacity in a world that doesn’t exist. Get accurate about what you have time for and what you can do. It’s far worse to agree to something that you know is not possible.

Key Takeaway: Be honest
Take a hard, critical look at things and be honest with yourself and others about what you can do.

Did these tips help Ellie? She called me from her office a few days later with an update. “Guess what? When I got back here I told the teacher who wanted help planning a field trip that I couldn’t. I delegated it instead which gave me time to work out the kinks in the new curriculum, which I think will attract more students. And then, I called the Ackermans. They’re coming for a visit tomorrow. And since they want a reference, I volunteered you!”

With newfound clarity and time, she also intervened with the committee structure and got granular with them. Now, they are each matched to a particular outcome, set of activities and have clear accountabilities.

Like all things, time will be the ultimate judge of the school’s success, but I know Ellie’s allocation of time to match her priorities is back in balance so she and her team can continue to make a difference in the lives of all the school’s children.

That’s what priorities are for. Getting the stuff that counts – done.

“That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

–  Steve Jobs

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