Defining Plan Focus by Urgency, Importance, and Impact

We all know the trouble with plans is not creating them – the challenge is sticking to them and getting your initiatives executed. It can be simple to get your ideas down in writing, but without adding the elements to your plan that set it up for success, organizations have a tendency to lose rigor around keeping big ideas top-of-mind.

The main challenge in bridging the gap between planning and execution is defining day-to-day focus. In our recent podcast-like webinar, Michael Wilkinson described how common it is for a strategic plan to move further away from your focus over time: from the center of your desk, to the corner of your desk, to under a stack of papers, to being shoved off your desk and into the recycling bin (not the trash – because we may be busy, but we’re not monsters).

Little distractions add up over time to throw you off-course. Each day starts with, “Oh, I’ll just handle this one quick, urgent task, and then I’ll get cracking on my strategic initiatives.” Once you’ve said that every day for a week, a month, a quarter, you’re never going to meet the goals you set forth at the beginning of the year because you’re now behind 3 months (see “shiny object syndrome”).

We, as a human race, are continually surprised at how time seems to slip away so quickly – but the planet always turns at the same pace. We need to continue to use the data of experiences that came before us to help us not be so caught off guard.

Prioritizing Your Effort

Speaking of time flying, I just got back from spending a weekend with my cousin and her young family that seems to be growing up so quickly. Being a person without children, it’s always a bit of a culture shock for me to dive into a thriving household with a 7-year-old, 4-year-old, cat, dog, fish, and Holli the Hermit Crab. As much as it’s an adjustment for me to be woken up by two tiny humans carrying a cat upside down and asking me to fold paper airplanes at 6:45 am on a Saturday, it’s an adjustment to switch into constant prioritization assessment.

I found myself rapidly shifting my focus and thinking, Is this urgent? Is this important? Is the outcome worth the effort? Do I fold the paper airplane right now, or do I stop the cat from scratching my baby cousin’s face when it inevitably rights itself in her arms?

An easy way to categorize decisions like this is to use the Eisenhower Box. Many will know this activity decision matrix from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. It pits urgency against importance, which can help us decide what deserves our focus, and when.

Eisenhower box urgent important matrix

These decisions happen every day at work. When you open your email, you may have to think through, What should I do first? Respond to the upset customer support ticket? Send my manager the revenue numbers she asked for? Fill out the application to exhibit at this trade show? Or finish the NYTimes crossword puzzle online?

And of course, this also happens at the organizational level. Should you focus more resources on responding to manufacturing floor accidents, shortening supply chain cash-to-cash cycles, buying new break room furniture, or swapping out the Doritos in the vending machine for Cheez-Its?

Let’s break these organizational-level activities down.

The hope is that by optimizing processes, you won’t have to spend too much time putting out fires and dealing with things like manufacturing floor accidents because you’ve made efforts to prevent dangerous situations and have prepared to act swiftly in the case of a crisis.

The goal is to be able to spend more time working on initiatives that can save you budget or increase your revenue. [Did you know that supply chain teams that shorten their cash-to-cash cycle time by only one day can translate into 0.5 – 2% increase in working capital? Watch the on-demand webinar about it now.]

And eventually, you will need to buy new break room furniture, too. It’s not as important as increasing revenue, but the Dorito dust on the arm chairs is really impacting employee morale. Furthermore, where do you prioritize the demands of the strong Cheez-Its-over-Doritos advocates? You feel like it all has to be done, but how, when, and by whom?

It all comes down to labeling your activities into one of these four boxes in the Eisenhower Box, and then aligning them to the measurements you’re trying to drive. Below are what we suggest doing with initiatives and activities that fit into each of the four boxes, and how to decide whether or not it’s worth your resources to keep them in your plan.

How to Define Initiatives and Activities

Spending time with my little cousins gave me some perspective on being in a state of constantly assessing and reprioritizing. I was living in a microcosm of rapid strategizing for 36 hours. I finally understood what an executive leader’s brain must be sifting through at every moment – What needs to be handled right now? What can I focus on long-term? How can I make time to do other important things?

Not Urgent/Not Important: Delete

Description: These items have no impact on your organization’s goals. They take up time, but aren’t aligned to any initiative and don’t drive any outcomes. In fact, they’re usually a waste of resources (usually time).

Examples: Checking what your old colleague is up to on LinkedIn, renaming all of your folders to use only lowercase letters, finishing coloring in the body of the mermaid unicorn pink with purple polka dots

The solution: Delete. These activities cannot be tied to your revenue goals, and your little cousin has already lost interest in the coloring book, so that mermaid unicorn is lost in a flurry of trying to find the toad that lives under the deck. There’s no pay-off, so ditch those time wasters.

Urgent/Not Important: Delegate

Description: These activities are things that come up that need to be dealt with right away, but cannot be tied to improving the measurements you’re tracking in your plan.

Examples: The printer salesman shows up unannounced in your lobby to show you the newest model, needing to set up a SnapChat account right away because your CEO read an article about how it’s the next big thing, negotiating over being allowed to have a Fudge Stripe cookie

The solution: Delegate. Since the printer salesman is right here, in your office, looking at you, right this second, you don’t need to be rude to them. You can, however, ask the college intern to gather the information from the salesperson and vet whether adding a fourth paper tray is something that will impact your KPIs.

A lot of leaders can be set off-course by “shiny objects,” or non-impactful things in the guise of importance. Typically, they will need to be handled right away to sustain a relationship or appease a stakeholder, even if it’s not a strategically sound action. The best way to deal with these activities is to outsource them to someone who has more time to attribute to lower-converting items. And honestly, your college intern probably knows more about SnapChat than you do, so it’s a win-win.

That plea for a Fudge Stripe cookie has to be dealt with now, or else you’ll suffer from a Major Meltdown™. However, if you’re tied up feeding the dog at that exact moment, enlist the taller of the two kids to grab the cookies from the top shelf. #momtricks

Urgent/Important: Do It Now

Description: These activities typically stem from emergencies and are distinctly aligned to overarching initiatives. Their failing health is dangerous because not dealing with something in this box with full resources and immediacy will directly affect your plan measurements. Solving these activities is generally referred to as “firefighting.”

Examples: Sending out an apology email addressing a very naughty typo that went out, fixing the lead routing process that broke when you updated your connector, catching the dog that slipped out of the gate on the deck and is running towards the busy road

The solution: Do it now. Put out the fire. Send the apology. Fix the lead process. Catch the dog. Do it now.

Of course, most people live in the world of “do it now” all the time. It’s easy to get worn out when you’re constantly trying to catch up.

So, the goal is to, in those moments of catching your breath, better your process just a little bit each time. Take preventative measures. Focus on preparedness. Set up a work flow that includes a spell check by a colleague. Update your connector in a sandbox environment before you launch it live. Make sure the gate is closed before you let the dog out.

Little by little, you can start to create space for innovation by bettering your processes. Yes, these items are important AND urgent, but the other set of important items that often get left untouched need to be executed too.

Not Urgent/Important: Determine a Time

Description: These are your strategic maneuvers. They’re things that “you’ll get to eventually” because they’re big projects that are tied to big outcomes that require big resources. They’re usually new initiatives, so you don’t feel like you’re losing anything by not executing them because they never existed before, or you’re used to the status quo.

Examples: Redesigning a training course to improve your education offerings to increase revenue, tightening up work flow efficiencies to increase cost savings in shipping, cleaning up the playroom once and for all so you can stop stepping on Legos

The solution: Determine a Time. The most effective way to ensure you get these items done is to block out your calendar. Be protective of your most valuable resource – your time. Don’t accept meeting invitations in which you’re not a key decision-maker. Block out “do not disturb” times to make sure you have 2 uninterrupted hours every Thursday to dedicate to moving your cost savings initiative across the finish line.

Drag these projects to the forefront of your execution.

The benefit? Add up all the value on the line if you were to accomplish 100% of each of your major plan initiatives. That’s the cost of not executing your plan.

These activities may seem unapproachable, difficult to start, or even futile (especially the clean playroom). But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give those initiatives a fighting chance. If you allow yourself to be distracted by every other urgent or non-important item that comes along in procrastination, you’ll never be able to give yourself and your organization what you deserve. Eventually, you must innovate and improve, or you’ll be out-done by your competitors – and stepping on Legos for the rest of your life.

Focus Your Activities, Reap the Rewards

Thinking through these four boxes each time you’re faced with a new activity is a good exercise to keep your resources focused and driving towards meaningful outcomes.

There is help. The AchieveIt software also gives you the visibility to more easily spot measurements that aren’t moving the needle. Our customers are able to manage and report on multiple plans in one place. This helps better align their resources, initiatives, and people to make sure they’re all focused in the same direction. The custom dashboards make it simpler to spot what’s actually impacting your organization, so you can quickly identify what to delete or delegate.

If you think this could be a good fit for your organization, take a tour.

About AchieveIt

AchieveIt is the platform that large organizations use to get their biggest, most important initiatives out of the boardroom and into reality. Too many great ideas never quite make it across the finish line, because there’s no real way to keep everyone on course and keep everything on track. What does it take to actually guide these initiatives all the way through to completion? You’ve got to:

  1. Get everything in view – so you can see what’s happening with every initiative, at every level, from the enterprise to the individual, in real time.
  2. Get everyone engaged – with an easy-to-use platform that connects your organization from the executive leadership to the project teams, keeping everyone accountable and on the same page.
  3. Get every possible advantage – not only because you have the premier platform in this space, but because you can draw on the experience and best practices of our execution experts.

That’s why everyone from global corporations, to regional healthcare systems, to federal agencies have turned to AchieveIt for their Integrated Plan Management. Let’s actually do this.


Meet the Author  Paige Pulaski Jones

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