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Is This The Right Problem To Work On? July 11, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Process engineering, Project management, strategy.
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The ability to prioritize and focus is widely praised as a characteristic of successful business leaders. There are too many things to do, and not enough time or resources to do them all, much less do them all well. Leaders have to make choices, not just to determine how they spend their own time, but how their teams should be spending theirs. This is the definition of opportunity cost: when we consciously choose to do this instead of that, we forgo or at least postpone any benefits or gains that might have been achieved otherwise.

One of the most common choices that we consider in business is between short-term operational goals vs. longer-term strategic change management. Some people talk about the challenges of “building the plane while flying the plane,” or “changing the tires while driving the bus.” Both of these metaphors emphasize the difficulties of keeping the business running and generating revenue under the current model while developing and implementing a new business model or strategic direction.

There’s also a very-human tendency to focus on the crisis that’s going on right now instead of implementing plans to avoid or prevent the next crisis. This typically comes down to a choice between real money that can be earned or lost right now vs. the possibility of savings or gains in the future. There’s also some satisfaction that comes from crossing items off our to-do list right away. The problem, of course, is that there always seems to be another crisis that distracts us from our long-term strategies. How can we manage today’s problems without leaving our strategic plans starved for resources?

I used to face this problem all the time when I was managing quality organizations. How do you implement quality improvement programs that eliminate the source of defects while constantly dealing with low production yields, field failures, and customer returns?

It seems to me that there are some fundamental “laws of physics” that limit our options here. If resources really are limited or constrained — meaning you can’t bring in additional people to handle an increased workload — then we’re left with managing the workload. That means either reducing the total number of things that need to be done, and/or spending less time on each item in the workload.

I’ve got a few suggestions here:

  1. Assuming the strategic plan really is something worth doing, break it up into smaller elements that can be implemented in phases. What’s important is that you’re making progress. Small steps in the right direction will get you there eventually. This reminds me of agile software development, and that’s a topic for a future post.
  2. Take a hard look at those current activities, problems, and crises. Is this really something that needs your attention right now? Can you reduce the amount of work required to close the issue? There may be an opportunity to implement some small element of your long-term solution, which gets you closer to where you want to be.
  3. At some point, your long-term solution may require abandoning old ways of doing things. You’re not driving a bus anymore, you’re flying a plane, and we don’t do that “bus stuff” anymore. Your daily operational activities are slowly transitioning to align with the new strategy, and activities that aren’t consistent with that strategy should be scaled back.

 

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