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What will you be judged on?

Tony Blair recently told the Stanford Graduate School of Business that one of the most important things he learned during his time in office was the need to set a schedule that's aligned with one's real priorities. He related a memorable story about his first meeting with President Bill Clinton in 1996. Clinton said that he wanted to talk to him about a critical issue. Blair expected some extraordinary piece of geopolitical insight, but instead, as he relates it,

Clinton said to me, "I'm going to talk to you about something really important: scheduling. You will find that one of the hardest things when you get into government is finding the time to think strategically. . . . The system will take you over, and you'll be in meetings from 8 in the morning to 10 at night, and you'll think you're immentsely busy, but actually the tactics and strategy have all gotten mixed together."

I've opined on this issue before, but it's got more clout when you hear it from Tony Blair. In fact, he goes on to say that he did an analysis for one president on how he used his time, and found that less than 5% of his time was spent on his priorities.

Blair's not naive. He knows that crises erupt, and that it's the leader's job to deal with it. But he points out that those crises are seldom what's really important in securing the long-term success and reputation of the government:

If you're not careful, something happens -- there's some crisis, and you spend time dealing with it. You lose your strategic grip on what's going to determine whether you're a successful government or not. Now these crises are real; you've got to deal with them. But actually, when you then judge a government -- you know, when I think of the things that I lost sleep on, some of the crises that suddenly came -- foot and mouth disease, we had a fuel strike -- nowadays, nobody even remembers these things.

These lessons are as true for you and your executive team as they are for a prime minister and his government. Think about the crises that you've dealt with -- an angry customer (or customers), a problem with product profit margins, negotiations with a logistics company, whatever. Sure, they're all important to your organization. But we're not talking the BP oil spill, the Challenger explosion, or the TEPCO Fukushima nuclear meltdown. We're talking about crises that, if they consume your day, will inevitably lead to sub-optimal performance and long-term decline.

When "the system takes over" and your time is consumed by daily tactical issues, you don't have the space for the essential act of thinking. Blair says that

you've got to create the space to be thinking strategically all the time. One of the things I always ask is, 'Where's your thinking time?'"

John Donahoe, CEO of Ebay, adheres to the same precept. He says

I take days away. . . . I find that very hard to do in the office or in a familiar environment. I find that if I don’t schedule a little bit of structured time away, where there’s no interruption, that it’s very hard to get the kind of thinking time and reflection time that I think is so important.

Here's the challenge for you: build some of this thinking time into your week or month. Make it part of your standard work. It's easy to be lulled into the safety of immediate action, particularly when a crisis hits. But thinking time is critical to ensuring that the actions you take are actually of value, and are spent on the activities that posterity will actually judge you for.

Donahoe knows that. Blair knows that. You should know it too.



Saying No to 1,000 Things.

You can't open a business magazine or newspaper without reading another encomium to Steve Jobs' consummate genius or an analysis of why Apple is so successful. I'll add my two cents here: it's because he said no to a lot of products. Think how tight the Apple product line is: three desktop computers. Two laptops. One iPad. One iPhone. Three iPods. Two major bits of software (iTunes and OSX). That's not a whole lot for a $65 billion company. (Yes, I know there are other products out there, but I'm not counting the accessories, the machines that only differ by size of hard drive, or the niche software.) In fact, when Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, one of the first things he did was kill off a bunch of products, including the Newton. As he describes the situation,

There were people going off in 18 different directions doing arguably interesting things in each one of them. . . . You look at the farm that's been created with all these different animals going in different directions, and it doesn't add up. The total was less than the sum of its parts.

In an interview with Business Week back in 2004, he explained that innovation, in part, comes from

saying no to 1,000 things to make sure we don't get on the wrong track or try to do too much. We're always thinking about new markets we could enter, but it's only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.

By saying to to all those opportunities, he not only conserved corporate resources -- people and cash -- but he conserved people's ability to do great work and create great products. I thought of this recently when reading about the recent research on "decision fatigue." The new thinking about decision-making is that people have a finite storehouse of energy to make decisions -- whether that decision is major (should you parole an inmate), or minor (do you want tartar-control or baking soda toothpaste). As John Tierney explained it in the NYTimes,

Once you’re mentally depleted, you become reluctant to make trade-offs, which involve a particularly advanced and taxing form of decision making.... You become what researchers call a cognitive miser, hoarding your energy. If you’re shopping, you’re liable to look at only one dimension, like price: just give me the cheapest. Or you indulge yourself by looking at quality: I want the very best (an especially easy strategy if someone else is paying).

The cumulative effect of these temptations and decisions isn’t intuitively obvious. Virtually no one has a gut-level sense of just how tiring it is to decide. Big decisions, small decisions, they all add up. Choosing what to have for breakfast, where to go on vacation, whom to hire, how much to spend — these all deplete willpower, and there’s no telltale symptom of when that willpower is low. In making decisions, [willpower-depleted people] take illogical shortcuts and tend to favor short-term gains and delayed costs.

This pretty well sums up most people's lives at work. You're constantly making decisions during the day, both major and minor. And that takes a toll.

Steve Jobs did a good job of reducing that cognitive burden by saying no to so many product opportunities. Saying no allowed the company to focus its cash, and  workers to focus their attention, on what's most important. It's not the sole reason Apple became the smash success it has, but it's certainly part of the puzzle.

Take a look at your organization. Are you chasing every opportunity out there? Or are you husbanding your energies to do great work on the few truly important issues? If you're not executing well, this is one place to start looking.



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.



The problem with priorities.

Ron Ashkenas posted a thoughtful piece on the problem with priorities a few months ago. He tells a story of the head of a large hospital who asked his direct reports to make an index card for each of the projects they were working on.  One hundred fifty cards (!) later, it became apparent why so few of the projects were moving towards completion -- with so many projects drawing on the same resources of time and attention, nothing could get finished. Moreover, these senior managers were reluctant to formally drop any of the projects because they felt that all of them were important. But as the old saying goes, if everything is a priority, then nothing is. Something is either the priority or it's not.

This reminded me of something that Merlin Mann once wrote:

Making something a BIG RED TOP TOP BIG HIGHEST #1 PRIORITY changes nothing but text styling. If it were really important, it’d already be done. Period. Think about it.

Example. When my daughter falls down and screams, I don’t ask her to wait while I grab a list to determine which of seven notional levels of “priority” I should assign to her need for instantaneous care and affection. Everything stops, and she gets taken care of. Conversely – and this is really the important part – everything else in the universe can wait.

I've written before about the necessity of understanding your "production capacity." If you had infinite time and infinite resources (energy, money, focus), you wouldn't really need to worry about your production capacity. You'd just keep working and get everything done. You'd rescue your daughter and analyze last month's sales figures. No problem.

Unfortunately, you don't have infinite time and resources. (Or if you did, you wouldn't be working right now. You'd be on a yacht docked at your own private Caribbean island.) So you have to make choices. You have to choose your priority for the hour or day or week or year.

My wife has gradually been learning this lesson. Recently, she's been a bit better at saying no, and has been spending a bit more time on her "great work." Patient care comes first as always -- there's no letup in the number of procedures she's doing each day -- but she's shelved almost all of her academic work and a significant amount of her administrative work. Equally important, she's less stressed about the stuff that she's not doing.

Remember: either your project is the priority or it's not. Period.