If you’re living in a world of, “If I just had more time,” you’re not alone. Most leaders who are in charge of executing large plans – operational plans, strategic plans, cost reduction, or process improvement plans – have trouble prioritizing initiatives. While you start out the year with a good idea of which projects should be crowned the most important, focus tends to be distracted by “shiny objects.” By mid-February, you’ve accepted 15 more initiatives, and your plan has shifted from looking at the future to just trying to stay on your feet and make your numbers.
If you read one of our latest posts, you learned that typical American corporations spend 40% of their time working on operations-related activities. This is made up of all the time you spend answering emails, updating your budget, hiring and training people, and doing exactly what your job description calls for to keep the lights on. The other 60% of US employees’ time is spent reacting to urgent and important matters. This time is typically unplanned, unexpected, and is referred to as “firefighting.”
This is a stressful way to spend a day. I think we all prefer to work in a way that allows us to be prepared to face what could happen, so we can handle situations swiftly and adeptly – and then spend the rest of our time being creative and problem-solving for the next big breakthrough.
A fellow Achiever here recently found a quote about the definition of “status quo,” since we refer to it so much. Ronald Reagan claims that, “Status quo, you know, is Latin for ‘the mess we’re in.’” While it’s not a literal translation, it does strike a chord with today’s business community.
If this statistic is the norm, how do we break free and start making room in our busy schedules for innovation?
Forcing time for innovation allows our organizations to get ahead.
Think about it. If all we can concentrate on is walking and chewing gum at the same time (operations), and dealing with the occasional black cat that crosses our path and tries to trip us up (firefighting), how are we ever going to take the time to learn to spit out the gum, suck on a mint instead, tie our shoelaces, carry cat treats, and take a different route home?
We can only refine our current processes up to a certain point. An anecdote my colleague, Joe Krause, shared recently painted this picture perfectly for me. No matter how fast you can make your horse with maintenance, training, and care, it will never be a car.
If you concentrate all your energy on operating within the status quo, someone who has learned to set aside time for innovation is going to come along and invent a car while you’re busy maintaining your current process.
Strategic plans give us hope. Once a year, we get to brainstorm together to put new ambitious ideas up on a whiteboard and say – “We’re going to commit to making this happen this year.” Unfortunately, we either a) get bogged down with the little things we forgot to include in our plan in the first place (white space risk), or b) we’re so focused on executing on our big ideas that we let our operations sit on the sidelines – and then pay for it when we’re forced to put out fires.
What we’ve seen work best with our AchieveIt customers is that they use our tool to help prioritize.
According to the Stephen-Covey matrix, they may not be urgent, but they should remain important. Progress on these initiatives should be highly visible to everyone in the organization. We should know, at a glance, whether these initiatives are On Track, Off Track, or At Risk – and how we can help.
On a personal level, blocking off 1-2 hours a week to make steady progress on an innovative project will help keep it in your schedule. Also, just having a reminder once a week will help keep the project in your mind, and let it sit on the backburner while you’re thinking about other tasks.
AchieveIt’s customers use our “Tree View” that shows how each small task relates to each larger initiative. In terms of trying to be prepared for anything that might come your way – and having a crisis management plan to help deal with it – this kind of view will help you spot any holes you have in your plan.
This way, you’re helping your Future Self not lose so much time to firefighting when things inevitably do pop up – a PR disaster, or even a printer jam – and you can go back to pondering the world and your organization’s place in it.
The thing that helps AchieveIt customers most is having a set cadence when reviewing their plans. Most people lose track of all those awesome, innovative plans because they just never look at them again in the eleven months following the initial launch.
Looking at your plan regularly and assessing what’s working, what isn’t, what’s relevant, and what needs to be adapted, will help you tailor your initial ideas into what you need to focus on today.
The number one thing you can do to propel your organization forward is to give it some TLC. Pounding your way down the same dirt path until you’re stuck in a muddy rut is far less helpful and less effective than tilling your soil, planting seeds, and growing something new.