What will you NOT do this year?
Let’s imagine you and I work together. I walk into your office to wish you a happy new year. I am almost ready to step away, and then…I notice you’re working on your new year goals. I can’t resist and ask you to share what is on your list. Yes, I like the process of goal getting that much.
At this time of the year, I make a list of annual goals. Setting goals is exciting and fun. Executing on those goals? Not so much. A few years ago, I started doing a year end review. As I reviewed the year gone by, I found an interesting pattern: I started working on many goals but didn’t execute them to the finish line. Talk about rich planning and poor execution.
I am not alone. At workplaces around the world, the path to lofty goals are littered with unfinished projects. Our professional setting is not the only place with this problem. Every year, many new faces show up at the local athletic club I visit. They arrive in January, with enthusiasm and a list of fitness goals. They want to lose all the weight in a few months. Most of these new faces are gone by March. They are unable to execute on their goals.
So, what is the cause behind the problem? I think it’s having many misaligned goals. Many of us set tactical and divergent goals. Some of us even get our goal ideas from reading articles like “ten things you must do this year”. Are you surprised that we end up with a goal list with no common aligning theme?
May I recommend a surefire way to have goals that will be “done” this year?
Decide on a few strategic priorities, and then create goals to execute on the priorities.
Prioritizing is hard to do. It’s hard because it means “not doing” certain things. I remember working with a nurse to implement a medical system, and asking her to choose 3 of the 20 tasks she wanted in the next series of process automation. The pain of not being able to do a task in the system was palpable in her voice, “all of them are priorities. My team needs to take care of patients, you know.” Later in my career, I worked with an organization that planned to finish 50 projects every year. In the preceding three years, we had finished only 10 every year. And yet, we, the leadership team, did not have the courage to prioritize the list to 10 before sending it to the project delivery team.
Another story comes to mind. A friend and I were talking about the leaders we admired. He told me something about his CEO that I never forgot. The CEO would bring his company at a new year town hall, and tell everyone in the audience, “Here are the two strategic priorities for the company. If you are working on a project that doesn’t contribute to the two priorities, please talk to your manager to get a project that does. If your manager insists on you continuing on the old project, please email me. I will find you a new manager.” The CEO cared about prioritizing, and we should do too.
The idea of setting a few priorities can create angst in the short term, but is worth doing for the rewards in the long term. The fewer the priorities, more focused the execution. Let’s remember what Jim Collins, management guru, insightfully said, “ If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.” Steve Jobs who executed a few life transforming goals, had this to add, “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.” While we are creating a “to do” list, we should also create a “not to do” task container.
Let’s consider a goal setting situation. Tara, a retail sales and operations executive, is working on her annual goals. She has observed a problem in her business: the cost going up every year, higher than the industry average. After reviewing the reasons for the increase, she concludes that the biggest culprit is the unit labor cost. It’s even worse during the peak cycle seasonal work her team does during the fourth quarter holidays season. We have identified her number one strategic priority: to reduce the unit labor cost.
If Tara decides on the strategic priority above, she would need to select which work items go into her “not to do” container. The small team working on a sophisticated model to forecast sales? That can wait. The current fulfillment algorithm works as good as she needs for her business now; no need to refine that either. The idea of implementing the Enterprise Resource Planning system that Jose, the CIO of the company, came up with? That can wait or can be split into smaller programs. These items go into her “not to do” container.
The annual goals will logically flow from the strategic priority. Tara’s goals can be:
- Train the existing sales center staff effectively to increase their productivity. She did meet a Sandler training person last time she was at a retail conference.
- Manage turnover better. For example, hire team members throughout the year to match the attrition rate. May be, recruit in June instead of waiting for October. This seems like a project with multiple departments involved: Finance, HR, IT and Process improvements team. Looking at the regular operations workload, she might decide that she needs to first set up a tiger team to study the current attrition rate, and then plan her budget accordingly. Setting up a meeting with the HR director in January is the first important step.
- Locate business partners who can supply trained staff in time for peak season. This reminds me of a project we did to outsource the manufacturing of our high velocity products.
I decide on strategic priorities even for my self-development goals. After taking on a formal leadership role in my career, I started focusing more on developing my leadership skills and less on growing my technical skills. Developing leadership skills allowed me to add more value to my employers and clients.
I have a habit of creating a “not to do” container to keep the sharp focus needed for execution. I even keep a “not to do” folder on my computer; every distraction is filed away in that folder. For example, a project that would be useful after we acquire a new customer gets filed away in that folder for today; I don’t have the new customer yet. I am focused on “acquiring” the customer at this point. When I work at my desk on a certain project, I remove everything that doesn’t add to that project. Prioritizing creates focus and accelerates my progress to the “done” stage.
Do you create reports that nobody consumes? Stop creating and distributing that report. Do you subscribe to magazines and journals that you don’t read anymore? Cancel those subscriptions. Do you still attend meetings that you don’t contribute to, or the ones that don’t add value to your team? Stop attending those meetings and see what happens.
Getting back to my above example of people with the new-year fitness goals: what can the fitness enthusiasts toss into their “not to do” container? Anything that interferes with the allocated exercise time. Going to a bar with coworkers after work needs to stop. Eating french fries every other day needs to go too.
There is an additional benefit you will get down the line, with a “not to do” container. You will not have many distractions to deviate you from your desired goals. You will stick it out till the end and will achieve your goals by the end of the year.
Let’s do something now to increase your execution rate later. Start with a few strategic priorities. Decide what you are not going to do. Make a “not to do” container.
We are in a new year. I wish you success, I wish you health, and above all: I wish you a small list of strategic priorities.