Focusing on the ‘wildly important’ task is a critical enabler for successful delivery.
Most leaders experience working with people whose answer to, “When will that thing be done?” is always, “I’m working on it” and it never seems to be completed. Some people are extremely busy all the time yet never actually deliver any work. Some are most helpful taking on work yet are the least helpful in delivering it on time.
Continually asking for things, being promised them, and not getting the results is one of the most frustrating situations leaders experience. This requires leader behaviors to adapt to such changes. These problems have a single root cause: trying to do more than the natural capacity. We all know that when things get tough, the improvement that might make it better is the first to die.
To stand any chance of getting out of this pain and start being able to reliably make and fulfil commitments, there is one simple remedy. Do less. Sounds wrong, doesn’t it?
It’s counterintuitive as our gut tells us that the sooner we start something, the sooner it will be done. But the opposite is true: when we de-prioritize starting new things in favor of finishing existing ones, our queue of work clears and we output the value we crave.
The only way to do this is to focus on the one ‘wildly important’ thing. It has to be a single thing. Identify that one assignment to bring about a huge difference. Then, focus on completing that and nothing else. Once done, move on to the next and repeat this.
This will bring in a change in leader behaviors but may also seem difficult due to the following reasons:
- Parallel work takes longer than serial work
Imagine that you have three projects: A, B, and C. Each takes your team a month to complete and delivers £10k of value per month when delivered. When the team is working on all three projects simultaneously, it will take you three times as long to deliver each., and valuable outcomes have less time to make an impact.
This is more painful when those outcomes involve testing a hypothesis. Being able to respond three times faster to opportunities and threats gives a competitive advantage. Moreover, your team gets to learn three times faster, which in turn, makes your organization three times smarter.
It is more difficult when the value of delivery diminishes over time as with seasonal businesses. In the first scenario, it can be that a retailer risks missing the Christmas peak season with all three deliveries. In the second scenario, it could be possible that two of those projects are safe while only the third is at risk.
- Multitasking is a myth
Many jobs seek effective multi-tasking for all levels and roles. If we could do it, it would be wonderful. But that is not how humans work, especially when it comes to knowledge-intensive tasks. We invariably task-switch involving the effort of setting a mental save state, and the effort of resuming when we pick up the task again; the “now, where was I with that?” factor. The more cognitively intensive the work is, the harder this gets. Tasks that involve deep analysis or creativity takes up to 30 minutes to leave and resume.
Splitting multiple projects across a team is painful enough when each individual tends to focus on one thing. The Consultant’s Consultant, Gerry Weinberg, estimated the impact as follows:
“When you split three projects across the entire team, it won’t take three months to get any of them delivered. Instead, it will take five months.”
- Cognitive load is a productivity drag to leader action
“Teams were killing themselves to launch on time. We were doing too many things and it was taking too long to make decisions because management was juggling too many projects at once.”
Simply managing multiple projects escalates the draw on leader behaviors and management capacity. How many status reports are you collating? The industry of spreadsheets. The meetings to track them. The follow-up meetings to ask why everything takes so long. That’s just the formal load that leaders experience. Add running into a stakeholder in the coffee queue and being asked, “How’s my thing doing?” and then, being lobbied to add more. The more items you have committed to, the more of this work takes place, and we don’t get to what is wildly important.
Many software companies have an industry to manage defects. Refining backlogs, creating queues of work that stretch years into the future while everyone knows that most of them will never get done. We know this is the wrong approach. We know to under promise and over deliver, yet time and time again, we’re unable to make that a reality.
Why do we often find ourselves caught in such a situation? It is very simple–when someone who is impatient asks you to do something, the easiest thing in the world to answer is ‘yes’ and that’s the mistake. The only possible way out is to start saying “no” more frequently. Understand your capacity as a zero-sum game: For every new thing added to it, something must be removed. Be ruthless. To focus on the ‘wildly important’ to the exclusion of everything else.
Tip for leaders:
- Make a list of all the things you have currently committed your team to do and make it half to get to what is wildly important. Things will start getting better.
- Always know your ‘wildly important’ Thing. Discuss it with your sponsors, your peers, and your team. Make sure there is consensus on this.
- If anyone asks you to take on anything new, the default answer is “No” unless it comes with a proposal for something already committed that you should drop.
- Take on a mantra for yourself, your sponsors, and your team. For instance: Stop Starting, Start Finishing. Repeat this in every meeting and whenever a new thing is proposed. Keep repeating until you hear other people telling it to each other and see them acting on it.
"This blog was originally published on the ca website on 23rd August 2018"