For decades, Harvard professor Michael Porter has studied, written about, and consulted top companies and countries on competitive strategy. He’s found that “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
A recent issue of Harvard Business Review features an article on “Too Many Projects.” Authors Rose Hollister and Michael Watkins write, “Leaders keep layering on initiatives, which can lead to severe overload at levels below the executive team.” This is a critical problem that’s burning out managers and team members. Declining engagement and retention are just two symptoms of the problem.
Hollister and Watkins identify seven roots of this big leadership failure:
- Impact blindness
- Multiplier effects
- Political logrolling
- Unfunded mandates
- Band-Aid initiatives
- Cost myopia
- Initiative inertia
Reflecting on a series of offsite planning retreats I’ve facilitated over the past few months with executive teams and a board of directors, this article is especially timely and relevant. It’s about discipline, focus, and making hard choices.
Here’s what we find helps leadership teams get out of the stupid, busy death spiral they create through weak strategic leadership:
- All Eyes on the Prize — agree what success looks like, what you value most, and why you exist
- Behave Yourself — define the leadership behaviors that reduce eye rolling and snickering and show it’s not just more yadda yadda
- Pull Yourself Together — get your team working together and stop undermining each other once you leave meeting rooms
- Kill Lists — identify meetings, projects, initiatives, sloppy e-mail habits, committees, and strategies to chop or sharply reduce
- Choose ‘Em and Lose ‘Em — pick the two or three (four tops) strategic (high leverage) imperatives (must-do) with the highest potential, and park or kill the others
- Get Serious — put your top leaders and best cross-functional teams together and give them the mandate and resources to deliver on your Strategic Imperatives
- Reduce the Moose — use an anonymous and confidential process to raise the key issues/barriers (moose, elephants, or 800 pound gorillas); secretly vote on the top 3 or 4, and address them
- Culture Rift, Drift, or Shift — the best strategies and plans die if the leadership team doesn’t define and actively shape the culture that boosts or blocks implementation
Getting your leadership team away from daily operations for a few days of reflection and planning is incredibly effective. I am clearly biased since I’ve facilitated so many retreats; when offsite retreats are well designed and facilitated (a bit more bias), the return on investment is exponential.
Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, has an impressive track record of getting things done. She said, “I strongly believe in ruthless prioritization…only focusing on the very best ideas. It means figuring out the 10 things on your list and, if you can’t do all 10, doing the top two really well. Ruthlessly prioritizing can get hard because you’re always trying to do more, but it’s one of the best and most important ways to stay focused.”