Getting Stuff Done: The Right Priorities

There are many things that constantly fight for your attention. In the corporate world you have to juggle changing priorities to get the right things done. But how do you know you are working on the right stuff? How do you know that you are doing the right thing? And what is the right thing anyway? If you are in any management position it is always a fight between what is the best for the company, for the team and for you personally. In ideal world all these things align nicely, but reality is usually different.

The company comes first

Let us assume that you are in relatively well functioning company. It may not be perfect, no one and nothing is, but there are decent people working there and the environment is not toxic more than necessary. Why this assumption? The guidelines I will outline below are based on this assumption as they essentially put the company first and individuals last. If the environment is toxic and free for all than the philosophy breaks down and won’t work if only one individual tries to follow it. At the same time it may be used as great guidelines for a turnaround and solid basis for a great company culture.

There is a reason for the company to exist. And sadly enough, it is not to employ people. Usually the reasons are bigger than that, starting with making profit, creating something new and cool, helping others or making a World a better place. From this perspective company needs its employees to reach the set goals.

Not all is lost for you. For the company to function effectively and reach its goals it needs to have the right employees and they have to be motivated and aligned with the company mission. What does this all mean for you as a leader? You need to understand what the company’s mission is, where it is heading and this needs to drive your decisions. Whatever you do it needs to support the overall goal. If it doesn’t than it is a distraction, a side step, a waste of time and other resources.

Further, you need to ask what is the opportunity cost working on a particular task. If you decide to work on a particular task or make a particular decision that is in line with company mission and execution strategy you may still question whether it is the fastest or the most effective way to get there. If your goal is to make money and the project has ten cents of return on any dollar invested it sounds like the right call. Until you consider that there is another project in works that will have fifty cents return and will fight for the same resources.

The team is next

Then comes the team. Unless you are a company of one you have a team of people. Like in every collective sport the most successful teams beat the others by good team work, enthusiasm and alignment with one common strategy and vision. This also means that you need to ensure the team feels like one. You shouldn’t single out individuals to take the blame or to get accolades. If the project slips then it is a problem of the whole team and not the one poor guy who made a mistake. Only by nurturing the team mindset you ensure that people will go out of their way to help each other, to ensure there are overlaps in abilities to get things done, there are no single point of failures and everyone has ownership of whatever you are building.

The individuals follow

The individuals on the team of course matter. They matter a lot. Each and every person on your team deserves to be treated like a human being with dignity, respect and consideration. When you move pieces in your spreadsheet during resource planning make sure you understand that. These are not numbers you are playing with but lives of other people. Each of them is special, needs special treatment and has different strengths. Make sure you understand every single person on your team and help them to integrate well with the rest.

What happens when a single team member doesn’t fit in? What if he or she doesn’t perform? What if he or she demands a special treatment? For example your company values open and honest communication and respectful treatment of others and this individual tends to yell at others and badmouth everyone behind their backs? Well, you made a mistake when hiring this person. Keeping in mind the company goal and values (open and respectful communication) and the good of the team (we stand together in good and bad times) this person is simply not aligned and regardless how good technically he might be there is no place for him on your team.

You are the last one

You come last. You as a leader have your success and failures pretty much defined by the success and failures of your company and your teams. There is very little point of climbing the corporate ladder trying to look like a superhero in front of your superiors and leave the team behind. It is a strategy that may work for some time but sooner or later the truth will catch up. Sooner or later someone comes and discovers you have a defunct team that is on the verge or leaving, and your projects are always late and you will run out of people to blame.

The right strategy is to focus on doing your job, on leading your team, on making sure you serve your company’s and your team’s needs, not the other way around. The reward may not come as fast as it could when you served your own agenda first but when it comes it will be a rock solid, based on a strong foundation and difficult to topple. And more than that, you will work for a successful company in a great working environment and have a team of people who would follow you to hell and back.

So to sum it up you should always judge your decisions by these criteria:

  • Is it aligned with your company mission?
  • What is the opportunity cost? Is it the best use of the resources?
  • Does it help and support your team and is it aligned with team goals?
  • Does it help and support this individual?
  • Is it aligned with your values and believes?

 

How do you decide what needs to be done and what course of action to take? Do you prioritize short-term personal gains over long-term collective good? Or the other way around? Or is this view completely nonsensical and you have other way how to make decisions?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.

Lack of time is just an illusion!

Time management. One of the basic skills you are required to master when moving up the ladder to management positions and in fact in any professional role at all. There are hundreds of books written on the topic (only on Amazon when searching time management you get more than 100.000 references), and there are countless leadership programs and seminars focused on time management you can attend. And yet, you cannot manage time. Time flows and there is nothing you can do about it.

What you can manage are your priorities and your attention. Each of us gets allocated 24 hours of time a day and it is just up to you to figure out how to use it in a way that helps you achieve your goals. And by that I don’t mean just spending 20 hours a day in the office getting 100 tasks done. What I’m talking about is to spend time doing things that help you reach your life goals based on the value system you have. It might be getting the project done on time, getting a promotion, building a house, raising your children or traveling the world.

So if you are a person who is constantly overloaded and never have time to do all the things you want to, there are couple of things to consider.

Don’t manage time, manage priorities

Stop blaming lack of time for not being able to deal with everything on your plate. Learn to prioritize and learn to live with the fact that there are some things you will simply not do. There are tons of tips and tricks on how to set priorities. My favorite one is the concept of 4D as shown on the picture below. You can use this as a guideline for prioritizing your own work. The idea is to focus on things that are important to you and your goals. It may sound a bit selfish but that is the way to ensure that you are the one managing your priorities and you don’t let others to do it for you.

Concept of 4D

Concept of 4D

See the things in quadrant four? Ignore them! Learn to live with the fact that something will not be done and that it is completely fine not to do it. One trick that I used on numerous occasions with my team was to ask team members who felt overloaded to write down all the things they do ordered by priority and draw a line to indicate what they are able to manage. Everything below the line won’t be done. I would go through the list with them, agree on priorities and acknowledge that there are things that get postponed or canceled at all. That way I helped the team member to understand priorities and removed the stress that they will not manage all the things on the list.

Manage your attention

Priorities are nice, but most of us understand the priorities and still not get things done. Why? You need to learn to manage your attention. In today’s world with abundance of information, interactions, and tons of distractions it is increasingly difficult to stay focused. Find a system that will help you focus on what is important. Each of us is different so there is no such thing as best practice, but consider these questions

  • Do you really need to be on email/skype/phone 24 hours a day? What is the worst thing that would happen if you switched it off for a while?
  • Do you really need to know about every single thing that is happening in the world? What would happen if you switched of the internet for couple of hours and didn’t constantly look for news or tweets?
  • Do you really need to say “yes” to any request you get? What is the worst thing that could happen if you said “no”?
  • Do you really need to multitask and do ten things at the same time? What would happen if you started doing them in series rather than in parallel?

My favorite question to ask myself, and often get depressed by the answer is: “What did I achieve today / this week / this month?” Not what did I do, but what did I achieve. If you find yourself being constantly busy but not achieving anything that matters you need to stop right now and reevaluate your tasks, priorities and indeed your life.

Lack of time is just a mindset

Edward T. Hall came up with concept of monochronic versus polychronic societies. The monochronic time concept is derived from “one thing at a time” paradigm and the polychronic from idea of “multiple tasks at the same time”. The implications he raises lead to different views of time. In the polychronic culture interpersonal relationships are much more important than time. Things will still get done, but in their own time. In the Western world time is a rare commodity that is continuously running out. “Time is money” and “Time is wasted.” However, there are cultures where time is abundant and people don’t concern themselves with “not having the time” to do stuff.

Think about it! There are people and in fact whole cultures who live similar lives to your, do similar work, still have just 24 hours a day available and yet, they feel like having plenty of time. The implication is that in a culture where time is limited being late for a meeting is a big no-no. In other cultures it is a way of life, people are fine waiting or coming another day. There is nothing right or wrong with each of the ways, they are just different. Though I had to admit for someone who grew up in central Europe where time is limited it drives me sometimes crazy to adapt to living in the Philippines where apparently time is abundant.

What does it all mean? It is only up to you if you want to create a mindset that will allow you to have all the time in the world, spend your attention on things that have priority for you, and feel good about not doing bunch of stuff that doesn’t need to be done anyway.

Twitter type summary: “It is your choice to get a mindset that allows you to have all the time in the world and spend your attention on things important to you.”

What about you? Do you manage time or time manages you? How do you ensure you focus your attention on the right things?