Surgeons need to wash their hands. You need to keep your desk clean.

I just got back from Germany, where I spoke to the European subsidiary of a large U.S. manufacturing company. The audience was composed of both individual contributors and managing directors, and although the speech was well received, it was clear that the managing directors were a bit disappointed: they wanted me to talk more about big-picture strategic issues, rather than on the mundane details of keeping their desks clean, or dealing with emails, or managing meetings.

I could understand their feelings -- they figured that the banality of keeping their desks clean and their inboxes empty had little or nothing to do with the challenges they face on a daily basis. (How do we winnow down the 153 product initiatives we're considering? How do we raise revenue per employee? Should we exit a market we've been in for 15 years but that has diminishing profit potential?)

Nevertheless, I think they missed the point: the little stuff like managing the flood of email is the critical foundation needed for dealing with the big issues. The reason they could never find time to deal with the big stuff is that they continually lost time and focus to interruptions from coworkers, or stupid emails, or simply searching for information in the debris piled on their desks.

Ask yourself this: what are the obstacles to doing whatever it is that you deem really important? Odds are that you "don't have enough time." You spend far too much energy dealing with email; you can't find 30 uninterrupted minutes to think; you're trapped in endless meetings that run overtime. And if that's true, then you can see that mastering the basics allow you to handle the larger challenges your company faces. To use the popular airplane metaphor (that I find so irritating): how can you get your 50,000 foot view of life and work if you can't even get your damn plane off the runway?

I think an analogy is useful here: surgeons learn to wash their hands before doing a procedure. In fact, they learn a specific routine for washing to ensure that it's done right each and every time. Nothing could be more basic -- or seemingly far removed from the "big picture" issues affecting the case they're about to do. But if they don't wash, the likelihood of a good outcome is minimal -- the patient may very well die from infection.

Hand washing is simple. But it's essential to reaching the key strategic objective like transplanting a heart or excising a lung tumor successfully. Keeping your desk clean and your inbox empty is simple, too. But like hand washing, it's an essential building block to your success. Especially with the major strategic issues you face.