Strategy and its execution are critical for a company to survive and remain competitive in the long run. Nevertheless, the importance of short term viability, that is the need to ensure that the business keeps running and paying its people, requires that one does not lose sight of the operational execution. Thus, the question remains: when everything is urgent and important and time is limited, how do we choose between short-term comfort and long-term benefits?
Before exploring solutions, let’s review why some people are more affected by this challenge than others.
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High performers are eager to learn and are constantly evolving. As such, high performers are trying different things and stretching themselves in a million different directions in order to stay relevant and remain ahead of the curve. It is difficult for them to pinpoint where they can make the most significant impact, because they are good in many areas and have a need to challenge themselves constantly.
Successful people become less productive due to the paradox of success. When employees are skilled and deliver consistently strong results, they are solicited more frequently. Their insight is valuable in many areas of the business and are presented with more opportunities and projects, all of which leads to their efforts being diffused. The paradox is that the more strategic and impactful a person is, the more they are dragged into operational and tactical capacities.
Team player pressure
In our society we are celebrated for saying “yes”, being helpful, always available and positive. Saying “no” to a task makes us feel uncomfortable, as if we are rejecting the person asking for help. Furthermore, it is a common perception that the busier people are the more important they must be. With the increased amount of communication channels, responding quickly to slack, emails, messages and calls is a new expectation from your team. However, constant task switching has proven to be detrimental to productivity. Taking on more tasks and jumping in every conversation is sometimes confused with a higher contribution, which is, in most cases, untrue.
The aforementioned factors lead to an increased number of tasks attributed to the highest performers. The impact of being stretched thin across many priorities results in an impediment on focused direction, on time to be creative and on leeway for the unexpected. Consequently, the short-term to-do list can grow forever and becomes the only focus, as a measure to keep our heads above the water. People start marginally progressing in all directions without a singular strong advancement. Slowly, they start to neglect long-term strategy, purpose, impact and their ability to make choices that maximize the impact .
How do we make sure to keep the business running and also have time for strategy?
The key is to focus on the essential. The shorter the list, the more we can accomplish and focus on the high-value items. One tip would be to think of ourselves as consultants instead of employees. This shift in mindset will allow efforts to be directed where they will have the most impact for the limited number of hours allocated to our client in a specific time frame for our main deliverable.
Clarifying the priorities
In order to make discerning choices, it’s important to start by defining what the main objective of the mandate would be if we were consultants. Then, proceed by listing the type of tasks, responsibilities and deliverables that are directly associated with attaining that objective. When conflict arises between strategic and operational tasks, that list is used to bring the focus back to the main mission. To avoid misunderstandings and friction with the stakeholders in the organisation, these priorities must have been shared, communicated and agreed upon.
Thinking about trade-offs
Before agreeing to an assignment, it’s critical to measure the trade-offs. A good reflex is to quickly evaluate the resources and time required to complete this task, and most importantly, if this would be the most valuable use of time and resources? What else could be done with that time? If the item is added to your workload, what current projects will be at risk? Refusing tasks that are non-essential in the short-term or long-term, is key to maintaining the focus on the highest impact work.
Remove busy time
Reviewing and eliminating meetings, calls or updates where there is little significant contribution will free up time for strategic undertakings. There’s no need to respond to email threads if it’s not necessary or to review a project in the company that doesn’t directly impact the deliverable. Freeing time is the most valuable action to take to allow people to focus on the essential. The time can be spent reading and catch up on new ideas and events, where it would be more beneficial than, say, attending a meeting where there is redundancy. Thinking time is critical to making sound decisions and to develop long-term objectives that are significant for the business.
Blocking strategic time
In order to protect time for strategic work, reserving sessions in a schedule helps to prioritize the tasks that are significant. Booking an hour a day for strategy when meetings and calls are usually low is a good start. Keeping that hour blocked in the calendar and asking not to be disturbed during that period, will rapidly become a part of your daily routine. Time box the operational tasks to complete, as well as the time allocation and effort required. This allows higher control of the investment you believe the outcome deserves and decide, based on the effort required, whether it’s worth the potential impact. If it takes longer than anticipated, pick it up later, but do not stretch an operational task for an indefinite amount of time at the expense of a strategic task.
Create a decision process and plan
Journaling time will permit the review of where the hours have been spent and how time management can be improved in the following week. Implementing a process to regularly explore and evaluate activities on the schedule, creates a checkpoint to prevent to prevent cluttering a task box with non-strategic items. Figure out how to unload activities that should not be on your plate by either eliminating them, delegating them, automating them, etc…
Be patient but resilient
Having time for strategy means planning how to multiply output for each of one of your activities and the ones of your team. As required in any transformation, the hardest change starts by changing ourselves. Being conscious of the bad habits we’ve accumulated over time and having the desire to eliminate them is a great first step. Maintaining the discipline required to change will be a continuous effort. As change occurs, your environment will adapt to your new way of working and your focus, your peers will respect your time and your overseer will recognize the benefits of a robust prioritization process.
Balance is key and achieving it requires practice, however the outcome is worth the work.