Too many "priorities."


Maggie Jackson, the author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, is eloquent on the topic of multitasking. In an HBR blog interview, she explains that

It fosters a culture of lost threads, stunted thinking, and stress. When we're constantly losing the thread of what we're trying to do, it becomes difficult to define and pursue goals. New ideas get abandoned and forgotten before they have a chance to develop. . . . Hierarchies of knowledge become flattened. When what we pay attention to is driven by the last e-mail we received, the trivial and the crucial occupy the same plane.

Of course, if you've been following my blog, these ideas aren't exactly a Copernican insight. (Eloquent, yes; cosmos paradigm-shattering, no.) The reason that I bring up this topic again is that I've been thinking more about the root causes of this problem. Certainly, there are environmental issues -- visual distractions on the desk, the prevalence of cubes with low walls, and the ubiquity of technological connection. There are cultural norms at play as well: companies in which there's an expectation that emails will be responded to within five minutes, or tolerance of meetings in which people spend more time focused on their Blackberrys than on the speaker.

But recently I've been thinking that at root, one of the major culprits is management unwillingness to limit their corporate priorities. Many organizations I work with have so many "strategic priorities" that it's inevitable that there won't be time for reflection, problem-solving, and innovation. Indeed, all those priorities make it nearly impossible for any individual or team to have a prayer of executing on them.

In part this overburden is due to the layoffs of the past few years. Fewer staff, combined with aggressive goals, is a recipe for what Maggie Jackson calls a "culture of distraction." But it's also a result of a lack of management discipline. Two or three priorities, sure. But 16? No. You're dooming yourself (and your organization) to impotence and frustration if you fracture people's time, effort, energy, and focus among so many "priorities."

Fact is, you can't do two things at once, and you can't implement a dozen priorities at once, either. At the end of the year, the only thing that matters is execution. Your company's performance is measured not by how many priorities you have on the list in January, but on how many you've actually executed by December.

Take it from Herb Kelleher, CEO of Southwest Airlines, who once said, "Of course we have a 'strategic' plan. It's called doing things."

Sounds like he has his priorities straight.

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