When one more is too many, what do you do?

Focus need not be only about doing less.

Geoff Wilson

Focus is a frequent theme in our work.  Often, action-oriented teams do what they do, which is to take on more and more “things” until the collection of things is basically overwhelming. When organizations place one management layer of achievers on top of another management layer of achievers, the result can often be a cacophony of initiatives…each with a purpose and all generating tension against one another.

In the most mature organizations, the tendency of achievers to stretch toward more and more things is bounded first by a few good leaders who decide what not to do and second by processes that force choices early and often.

In less mature organizations…cacophony.

So what is that organization to do?  As with almost anything, the first step is to admit it.  If you can list a dozen initiatives that you are working on, you likely have a problem. I often tell executive teams that 3 – 5 active initiatives are plenty (a lot, even) for any management team.  That’s in the context of teams that can list a dozen or more active initiatives.  And, of course, all the initiatives are important.  All of them need to progress.  We must make progress on cost structure and product development and accounting systems and talent sourcing. So, admit it when you have a problem.

The second step is to actually define what focus is.  Is it truly doing fewer things, or is it about ensuring that the things that are done in the organization are done in the right place in the organization? All the example initiatives I listed in the paragraph above are likely important at the same time.  Of course they are…all of those elements are about running the business.  The problem is, many of them should belong to a person or team, not to the entire organization.  There may be a natural owner of the work that is not the executive team.

You don’t often really need to have the entire management team engaged in the accounting system rebuild, but often they are. And, thus, I see it frequently:  Senior managers scurry from one steering committee meeting to another, without having real context on any one initiative to be a clear contributor.  They have their hands in many pots, but have no idea what is for dinner.  Why not try to leave some things to the organization? Too many people get worried about focus because they think it leads to accomplishing less.  Once you factor in your ability to delegate, it’s just not true.

After you have the first and second steps completed, it’s time to actually focus.  This involves at least four decisions.  First is what to delegate.  Second is what to do now.  Third is what to do next. And fourth is what not to do at all (explicitly).   If anything is still standing alone after those four filters, then the answer is likely to get help. Why? Because it usually means you have other root issues–like not being able to delegate because you don’t trust your people or because they haven’t earned your trust.

If your management team or organization lacks focus, try to organize a bit to get through these few steps and decisions.  Your company will thank you for it.

What do you think?  

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