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Overloading For Strategic Gain June 8, 2009

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, strategy.
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I often find myself bouncing back and forth between activities with short-term gain and activities with a longer time horizon. It’s important to strike a balance between the two. I get a lot of satisfaction from quickly crossing things off my to-do list, but I need to spend time on the longer-term goals as well, otherwise I’ll never reach those goals.

As a manager I try to strike the same balance with the work that’s assigned to others. Businesses should always have strategic initiatives, typically intended to achieve significant improvements in some area of performance. The management challenge is finding the time and resources to make progress on these initiatives while ensuring that all the standard processes are running smoothly. There are a number of metaphors that describe this environment: “building the plane while flying the plane,” or “changing the tires while driving the car.” In addition, most organizations have to confront the occasional unexpected crisis which jumps to the front of the queue and pushes the strategic initiatives further back.

I’ve seen some groups address this problem by creating a small, isolated team, maybe as small as one person, whose time is protected from short-term projects. This may seem like playing favorites, giving some people plum assignments while others toil away. I think it really depends on the make-up of the team. You can’t assume that everyone looks at work the same way. There are a lot of people who love firefighting, and others who just want to turn the crank and keep the machine running smoothly. They may see an assignment to a strategic initiative as an unwelcome distraction from the work they truly love. Again, I think it depends on the strengths and skills of the individuals.

What I’ve tried to do is engage the entire team in strategic initiatives, if only on a very small scale. I think it’s important to get everyone involved and feel a sense of ownership and commitment to the common goals, assuming the goals are truly worthwhile. For some people that may mean a very small percentage of their time. Progress may be slow due to business fundamentals or crises, but baby steps in the right direction still counts as progress.

When discussing work assignments and strategic initiatives, my tendency is to overload. That sounds bad, but I don’t want to assume that people don’t have additional capacity. I’d rather trust that people can gauge their capacity better than I can, and that they’ll push back when the work becomes excessive. I still monitor their work to look for signs of stress, and then re-prioritize as necessary. Left to their own, most people keep their head down and focus a few steps ahead. Managers and leaders use long-term goals to inspire and tap creative insights and abilities throughout the organization.

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