Focus is the price of excellence

A former colleague of mine was fond of repeating this at every available opportunity. It may be a little trite but it is also true. Whether you are talking about individual high achievers, teams or whole organisations – one thing that is true of them all is a relentless (even obsessive) focus on a few, critical things. Repetition, dedication, energy, persistence and determination are all brought to bear on a narrow set of priorities – so it is not surprising that capability then grows and performance improves.

When I was setting up in business someone said to me that if my offer didn’t hit at least one of the clients top three priorities they would never buy. The reason for this is simple; every leader has a long list of things they know need to be done or changed. Unfortunately, they also have to live with the daily reality that they (and their organisations) simply do not have time to act on them all. They have to prioritise.

A fundamental misconception

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people in organisations say ‘we need to stop doing some things’. I’ve even heard CEO’s exhort this to their teams and organisations – telling people to ‘stop doing pet projects’ for example.  Do they really think that anyone in the audience is going to have a moment of realisation and rush off to cancel a piece of work that they now suddenly realise is worthless? I understand the sentiment but thinking about prioritisation in this way is not just unhelpful, it’s wrong.

We all can, and do, prioritise all the time. Often consciously, and sometimes without realising it, we make choices about where to expend our energy and time – and in what order. However, the way that we actually prioritise is to positively identify things that we dowant to give attention to. These new things displace other priorities and consequently some things fall off the end of the list. Paradoxically, therefore, the way to stop ndoing things is to focus on the things that you really want to do.

Hard for one person, even harder for many

During prioritisation we are often deciding between two things which are both important to us. Choosing one thing implies leaving the other and we sometimes reconcile that tension by not making a choice and telling ourselves we’ll manage to do both. Whilst that isn’t always a bad decision, it frequently means both objectives are compromised.

This becomes even harder when it’s a group of people who need to make difficult choices of priorities.Each person will have different views about what matters most, and a different set of criteria for having arrived at that list. This, of course, then multiplies enormously when you extend it across a whole organisation. If you can’t get the top team to a genuinely shared set of common priorities then your chances of doing so across the wider organisation are virtually nil.

Leadership teams arrive at a shared understanding on where to focus by consistently having high quality Priority Conversations.

What you need for successful Priority Conversations

Two things must be present for Leadership Teams (or any other group) to have successful and productive Priority Conversations:

  1. They have to have a clear and shared understanding of exactly what they are trying to achieve together. This is the objective ‘anchor’; the common point of reference against which to test the priorities. It allows the simple question ’will this set of priorities deliver our ambition’. Without this, any group is destined to endless circular debate where the only conclusion is the result of fudged compromises and woolly words which give the illusion of agreement by allowing everyone to take from the ‘decision’ whatever they wish.
  2. The relationships between them must be robust enough to allow sacred cows to be challenged and undiscussables to be discussed. Making real choices will be hard for at least some (probably all) of the team members as they see things which they want and value deprioritised or challenged.
    Without strong relationships such difficult discussions will either descend into positional acrimony or sullen silence neither of which will result in a genuine agreement.

These two prerequisites are, of course, driven by Ambition Conversations and Relationship Conversations respectively.

The old man and the bucket

There’s an ancient Chinese story that is told about prioritisation:

A student approaches the wise and wizened guru and asks him,

“Teach me of prioritisation master.”

“Bring me a bucket,” comes back the enigmatic reply…

The student, a little confused, returns with a bucket. His confusion isn’t helped when the guru indicates a pile of large rocks and invites the pupil to load them into the bucket. Dutifully, he complies and the guru asks,

“Is the bucket full?”

“Why yes, master, it’s full of rocks.”

The guru hands him a number of pebbles and gestures for him to add them to the bucket. The student does so and they easily rattle down to the bottom alongside the larger rocks.

“Is the bucket full?” the guru asks again.

The student answers in the affirmative but is then handed a container of sand. Plenty of sand can be added before the guru asks again if the bucket is full. Sure that nothing else can be added, the student is surprised again when the guru gives him a container of water…#

“So what have you learned?” is the gurus final question.

After a while, the student’s furrowed brow gives way to a beam of realisation –
“I must always put the large rocks in my bucket first.”

 The hitherto inscrutable guru’s features soften to a smile,
“You’ll always be surprised how much more you can fit in… And if you try to put the big rocks in last then you will always fail.”

Setting fire to 12 million pounds

A few years ago I worked with a high performing leadership team where there was a big problem with IT. The systems had evolved over many years, parts of it were obsolete, much of it was undocumented and almost the entire annual budget for maintenance (over £20m) was being spent on patching it up. Worse still, a project which had been going for some years (and on which over £10m had so far been spent) was showing no signs of getting closer to completion but remained perpetually  ‘just six months’ (and another large cheque) from completion’…

In the Priority Conversation that followed, it became clear that things had to change to meet the ambition the team had agreed – to reinvent the position of the Company in the marketplace to be a high service rather than low cost player. A series of very challenging discussions took place in which everyone shared the problem and the IT director was at the forefront of challenging what had happened and what would be needed to make the shift.

On more than one occasion, solutions were proposed which attempted to add a change programme to the existing project and maintenance budget. Each time it was rejected and a much tougher option was finally chosen. The delayed project was cancelled (resulting in a very difficult conversation with the PLC CEO for the MD) and the maintenance budget was cut in half to essential maintenance only.

All of the time and resources now freed up was reallocated to the ‘big rock’ change programme to deliver the new ‘destination architecture’. This was the agreed future template for IT that would deliver the functionality required to support the ambition and strategy.

The project took some years to complete but was a fundamental plank of the strategy. This resulted in successfully achieving the objective of repositioning the Company as the highest service (and highest profit) player in their marketplace – and which led to double digit profitability increases for several years  while all the major competitors suffered falling margins.

Your team

If you recognise an issue like the one above or need to identify and action the ‘big rocks’ needed to drive performance in your team, please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership which shows what it looks like in practice – based around a real case study.

Better still give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session.