“Effective executives know that they have to get many things done — and done effectively. Therefore, they concentrate — their own time and energy as well as that of their organization — on doing one thing at a time, and on doing first things first.” — Peter Drucker, in a chapter entitled, “First Things First”, The Effective Executive (published in 1966)

It was a story with a plot line that’s becoming all too familiar. I was meeting with the vice president of a large service organization and his quality improvement support staff. They were frustrated. After a few years of educating thousands of people in their organization, forming and training teams, mapping, analyzing, and “reengineering” a multitude of processes, and “empowering” everyone to improve quality and customer service, little was happening.

For the first 18 months, they explained their lack of results by telling everyone this was a long-term culture change that will take years. So they assured their CEO and board, that if they would be patient, results would follow. Now, a year later, the only thing that followed was higher costs.

Cynicism was growing throughout the organization. After the initial excitement of the big changes everyone could expect had died down, people waited. And waited. And waited. A few teams did see some exciting results. Their process cycle times, costs, and effectiveness improved, sometimes dramatically. Some of them went off to conferences to talk about their success. But the organization’s total results weren’t improving. Costs continued to inch up, productivity lagged, sales dragged, and profits were flat.

There were many problems with how this organization was trying to transform itself and improve performance. One of the biggest, was confusing activity with results and motion with direction. Not all improvements are equally important. Many of the teams were making changes that didn’t really matter. They were focusing on trivial issues that had very little impact on organization performance. Since teams were working on issues that weren’t important, they made changes that consumed time, energy, and resources — but weren’t important.

Management had failed to guide the organization’s improvement activities and establish clear improvement priorities. So there were many and varied local improvement goals and an overwhelming list of top priorities. That led to a desperate “do something — anything” flurry of unfocused activity that sent the organization scurrying off in all directions at once.

Many organizations, in their frantic rush to install the latest improvement program, have essentially said to their teams, “don’t just sit there; improve something.” Often that means teams hurriedly make improvements that hurt another part of the organization. Not only are these cause-and-effect relationships often unrecognized, but the team may be rewarded because, at the local level, their improvement project produced “results.”

As is the case with so many “activity-frenzied” improvement efforts, this service company was lacking a disciplined, intense fix on its most important goals and priorities. Successful team and organization improvement efforts zero in on the key organizational issues and goals with laser sharp clarity.

It’s the management of attention. There is only so much we can all give our attention to. So we need to ensure that we’re aiming at high improvement targets that really matter. The faster the pace of change and improvement, the clearer our goals and priorities must be. Otherwise, we’ll overwhelm and confuse our organization with the volume of activities and changes to be made.

A key component of providing focus to an organization calls for leaders to identify “strategic imperatives” or “must-do’s.” These are the team or organization’s critical leverage points. Strategic imperatives are those vital few 12- to 18-month goals, priorities, and improvement targets that — when reached — hurl our team or organization toward its vision, values, and purpose.