Are we all going mad?  

There are a few things that leaders I meet always tell me. One of them goes something like this: 

“We’re just trying to do too much at once. Each initiative makes perfect sense in isolation, but, when you take them all together, there’s just far too much. As a result, the things we are trying to do are going too slowly, quality is compromised and we rarely complete things properly or embed them fully. That means our results aren’t nearly as good as they could and should be.”

What they also say (although often only privately) is:

“The human cost of our failure to prioritise is already large and could be disastrous. The pressure on me, my colleagues and my team is extreme. I’m sure many of us are thinking actively about whether it’s all worth it. I know I am. I fear that a number of good people will leave. Worse still, there are already signs that it’s costing some of us our health…”

It’s an epidemic. It’s the same in every sector, industry and size of organisation. It’s strangling results. My real fear, though, is that it’s damaging leaders’ health – in ways that a week or two on holiday every few months is no longer able to fix.

So why haven’t we solved it?

What are we missing here? So many of us have laid awake at night thinking about it. No-one gains from the current situation. We all want to find a better way. So why haven’t we?

Today I see four basic approaches to the problem. There are many variants but I think they all fall into one of these categories: None of them really works.

1.  The strategy approach

Essentially, this involves standing aside from the organisation and taking a systematic approach to deciding the most important things you have to do. It has many similarities with the ‘big rocks into the bucket first’ concept of prioritisation which I have written about before.

The problem is that, in almost every organisation I’ve seen it, the priorities that emerge get added to what’s already going on. It tends to make things worse!

2.  The sorting approach

This gets a group (usually the top team) to list all of the things that are currently happening , or which need to happen. Usually, the items are all written on post-its so that they can then be sorted into themes. The themes are then examined by the team to decide which should be priorities and which should be dropped or deferred.

Although it has the merit of considering everything (existing and new), the danger is that all the elements are simply aggregated together into ‘mega priorities’. Everything tends to find a place as part of a larger area of work. Very few, if any, items end up being removed from the list.

3.  The time management approach

Neither of the first two methods deals with the workload of individuals. Most organisations have a few key people (usually less than a dozen) on whom a huge majority of the key projects and activities rely. These people become the bottleneck on what can be delivered – and thus are effectively the limiting factor on the pace that the organisation can progress.

Although it doesn’t deal explicitly with the ‘bottleneck’ issue, the concept of time management is widely used to try to address the problems of pressures on an individual. There are many books on this – with Covey’s 7 Habits being amongst the best.

Countless people have used these techniques and found them personally helpful. They don’t, however, address the problems of organisational prioritisation. Most of the levers for this are beyond the control of any individual – even the MD/CEO. No matter how well the organise their time, there is still too much for them to do.

4.  The ‘stop doing things’ approach

This is less a technique than a cry for help. When I’m talking to leaders it’s an oft-used refrain. It usually comes in two flavours; angry or desperate.

The appeal is obvious. Cutting some things out – or just moving their timeline back – could only help. The problem is that I’ve never, ever, seen this work as a solution to the problem of organisational overload.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that it implies looking at elements individually – and we already know that each element looks necessary in its own right. The second is that it fails to recognise the interdependence and multiple needs in a Leadership Team. Every piece of work that one person, wants to cut is another person’s sacred cow.

Discussions about what to drop quickly get defensive, then adversarial and almost always end up in stalemate.

Describing the problem is easy

I hope you recognise your own situation in my descriptions above. I apologise if they have had the effect of rubbing salt in any wounds! The good news is that there is an answer. An answer which:

  1. Includes both new and existing initiatives, projects and activities
  2. Makes sure that hard choices are properly confronted and decisions made
  3. Recognises and addresses the bottlenecks from the capacity of key individuals – especially the members of the Leadership Team
  4. Does all this in a mutually supportive way – which increases the strength of relationships and alignment in the Leadership Team
  5. Does not create even more work in new project/priority management paperwork and bureaucracy

More to follow…

There isn’t room to describe it properly in this issue. In a couple of weeks I’ll do so in the second part on this subject in which I will:

  • Describe a new and different approach to addressing the conundrum of organisational prioritisation. I’ll do this in step-by-step terms so that you can use it in your own organisation.
  • Relate a story of a client who used it to move from despair to a dramatically better place – achieving all the five outcomes above.

If you need this help now, please don’t hesitate to give me a call – and I’ll happily talk you through it.

Read more

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.

Chris Henderson