Friday, January 18, 2013

"Take Care of What's in Front of You"

There are a lot of times for leaders when it is difficult to focus.  There are more things on the "to do" list than there is time to do them.  Problems seem too big and complex.  Organizational structures make decision making murky and slow...there is always one more sign-off or one more committee or another review panel.  Unexpected requests or tasks from co-workers derail the priorities you thought you had.  There are project deadlines on the planning horizon and diminishing time to do the necessary work to meet the deadline.  In the middle of all this, it's sometimes easy to lose sight of important tasks that need to get done today.  It's easy to get "paralyzed into inaction" under these circumstances.

Many athletic coaches deal with the tendency to look ahead by challenging their team not to think of their season record but to go 1-0 each week.  They look to win this week, and when next week comes, win that week.  When  the season is over you can reflect.  Likewise during a game they encourage players to focus on the next play. Players are instructed to not dwell on mistakes that have been made or what the score is....just to do their best on the next play.  After the game is the time to reflect on performance and correct mistakes before the next game.

Sports analogies don't always work in business.  In many sports their are long periods of practice punctuated by a game, then another period of practice.  In business, you are pretty much playing a game...."executing" every day...there are no real practice interludes.  In this case, however, I think the analogy works.  In both business and in athletics you  have to "take care of what's in front of you"...take care of today's most important tasks.

The easiest way to describe how to deal with this is the following 2X2 Importance vs Urgent matrix.
I take this matrix from Steven Covey's First Thing First and Seven Habits of Highly Effective people.  It's also sometimes referred to as the Eisenhower management system first used by US President Dwight Eisenhower.  No matter the source I want to be clear it's not original thinking by me.  Here's how I use it.

Quadrant 1-  These are activities that are both urgent and important.  They are sometimes the result of unforeseen developments; just as often they are things we've left to the last minute.  They must be attended to.  There will always be unforeseen developments.  If too often important/urgent things pop up that have just been left to the last minute but it's worth reflecting how better planning might diminish those things and how often they occur.

Quadrant 2-These important but not urgent activities are often personal and professional development.  Coaching and mentoring can also end up here.

Quadrant 3- Urgent but not important things should be rescheduled or delegated.  Leaders must be especially aware of things in this quadrant and disciplined in not allowing themselves to be drawn into them.  Those new to leadership must master delegation of these tasks.  Some are hesitant to do so knowing full well subordinate staff are busy too.  The leader cannot let herself fall into the trap of doing things that should be done by others.  "Drive-by" requests from colleagues are another source of important/not urgent work. Reschedule these. Things in this quadrant are the fuel for the "tyranny of the urgent".

Quadrant 4-Not urgent/Not important.  Say no.  Many new leaders have a hard time developing this skill also.  A young, very talented woman I once mentored had a problem of over-promising and under-delivering.  She discovered this was because she had such a strong desire to please that she said yes to every request.  She had to develop the ability to say no, even though her fundamental  impulse was say yes.

Another key to effective management of the quadrants is to leave time on the schedule for unanticipated events....they always happen.  Don't fall into the trap of scheduling back-to-back meetings and activities every minute of every day.  The other is to carve out time well in advance for personal and professional development and guard it with rigor.  Delegate anything that comes up in this dedicated time.

Although this is a pretty basic leadership competence, I found it necessary, even as a relatively senior executive to occasionally come back and refresh myself on the Important/Urgent matrix and remind myself  what I had to do to "Take Care of What Was in Front of Me"


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