When everything is important, nothing is important
Stuck. That’s what they are. They are stuck in a cycle of “busyness” and an absence of productive momentum. We’re talking with this executive leadership team about the reasons why they don’t seem to get out of their current cycle of frantic problem solving. The way they describe what’s going on, you would think they were running the business like an Emergency Room immediately following a mass casualty event. Simply trying to keep their heads above water while a huge tide of competing concerns threatens to overwhelm them.
They’re not ignorant of what is going on with their employees either. They hear the frustration and the short-tempered responses to being asked to do even more with the limited resources they have. They feel the tension across the organization as priorities shift and shift again and resources are pulled between competing operational demands. They see the commitment to the organization, its culture, its vision and mission, begin to fray as key personnel not seeing an end to the turmoil start to head for the exits. They know what’s going on and they’re alarmed.
If we asked them how they arrived at this place they might arrive at the response one of the characters in Ernest Hemingway’s novel, “The Sun Also Rises”, gave when asked how he went bankrupt, “Two ways, gradually and then suddenly”. They didn’t just decide to do too much overnight. This problem of being overwhelmed is something the organization grew into because of what has been termed, “the tyranny of the urgent.”
Everything is on fire, and we keep adding fuel
The response to the overwhelming and pressing needs of the business was to frequently only add to (and never edit) the workload across the enterprise. This placed a level of stress on the people in the organization that left many feeling that were at a breaking point. They couldn’t find a path to being successful by meeting the constantly increasing demands being placed on them. For many it felt like the regular business was a whole series of interconnected calamities with brief periods of exhaustion while people caught their breath.
We have seen this often. Organizations failing to prioritize effectively at all levels end up carrying a legacy workload that does little to help them achieve their strategic goals. They become mired in projects half started and programs dragging through deadlines. The value generating processes of the organization are not being improved and streamlined, instead they feel like they are collecting more and more debris which is hampering process effectiveness and leads to missed performance targets. Frustration is a hallmark of this environment and fire fighting is the term most often used to describe the culture.
Focus leads to effectiveness
The key shift in behavior is to get a firm control on the relative priority of the range of concerns that are being tackled by the organization. Previously we have shared the initial steps of the KT process, Situation Appraisal. At this point, we want to narrow our focus to the second step in the process which is setting priority. For most organizations the need is to own and control the system/prioritization or be overwhelmed by the environment.
There are two primary ways to address the establishment of a priority. The first is knowledge and experience. The application of our experience to our present concerns can be done rapidly so that we can get on to taking meaningful action. The only problem with that is we often erroneously apply our knowledge and experience when we have little to none in relation to the newly emerging concerns we face. We need to reach for other approaches, especially when tackling the new.
If the priority order is not clear or if there is disagreement about the priority, consider using the secondary prioritization approach to determine how concerns relate to one another in terms of current impact, future impact, and time frame. Compare combinations of current impact, future impact, and time frame to set priority order.
Current impact refers to existing evidence of the actual effect(s) of this concern up until this moment on human resources, safety, cost, productivity, customers, reputation, etc.
Future impact refers to the anticipated effect(s) of this concern from this moment forward on human resources, safety, cost, productivity, customers, reputation, etc., if no action is taken to resolve it.
Time frame refers to the deadline after which the impact of the concern is likely to change dramatically or become difficult, expensive, impossible, or meaningless to resolve. Time frame data should be recorded in clock or calendar time, or as an event or activity to which clock or calendar time can be attached.
Based on this approach, the relative priority among concerns may be obvious. If some concerns are clearly of lesser priority based on a comparison of the combined information for current and future impact and time frame, postpone work on low priority concerns (those with relatively low levels of combined current impact, future impact, and time frame) until higher priority concerns have been addressed.
With this approach, concerns become easier to sort, organize, sequence, and act on. The level of stress in the organization starts to decrease as people at all levels find calm in knowing what needs to be done, how those things fit together, and in what order to address them.
Overcoming the tyranny of the urgent is not about busyness. It is about being conscious of what is most important to the business and that understanding is shared across your entire operation.