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Weekly 3: Better manage priorities

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Summary: Pick the right battle. See projects for what they really are. Get your life in order. (~8 mi
 

Idea Journal Weekly 3

November 11 · Issue #60 · View online
We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Pick the right battle. See projects for what they really are. Get your life in order. (~8 min read)

#1. "Prioritize and execute"
Author and former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink writes in his book Extreme Ownership that “Even the most competent of leaders can be overwhelmed if they try to tackle multiple problems or a number of tasks simultaneously.”
The team will likely fail at each of those tasks.
Instead, if you’re feeling overwhelmed as a leader, Willink recommends that you rely on this principle: Prioritize and Execute.
Here are the 3 steps for putting this principle into practice:
  1. Evaluate the highest-priority problem.
  2. Develop and decide on a solution, seeking input from team members where possible.
  3. Direct the execution of that solution by focusing all efforts and resources on this one high-priority task. Move onto the next highest-priority problem. Repeat.
Willink writes that this principle works just as well in business as on the battlefield.
He tells the story of his experience coaching the CEO of a pharmaceutical company. The company had previously been a profitable player in its industry, but was experiencing a long stretch of declining revenues.
As part of a leadership training and consultation, the CEO described to Willink all the initiatives the company was working on:
  • Developing several new product lines, each with its own marketing plan.
  • Establishing distribution centers in a dozen new markets within the next 24 months.
  • Entering the laboratory-equipment market.
  • Implementing a leadership training program for the company’s managers.
  • Updating the company’s website to reflect its new branding and customer experience.
  • Finally, to improve sales, the CEO planned to restructure the company’s sales force and compensation plan.
But when Willink asked which of these was the highest priority, it was easy for the CEO to choose improving the sales force’s efforts: “If they aren’t getting in front of customers and selling our products, we will no longer be in business.”
The CEO took Willink’s advice, and over the next several months focused all of the company’s activities on supporting the frontline sales force: from setting up tours for customers and redesigning marketing materials, to setting weekly goals for meetings with hospitals and creating video interviews with top salespeople that others could watch and learn from.
That focus on a single initiative unified the company, increased momentum, and eventually improved revenues.
From a position of renewed financial success, the CEO could then focus on the remaining priorities.
#2. The art of project management is focusing on the few things that really matter
Author and management consultant Richard Koch writes in his book The 80/20 Principle that many of the most energetic businesspeople do not really have a job – instead, they pursue a number of projects.
Project management is an essential role, but one that many people struggle with because most projects require ad hoc arrangements and innovation.
For Koch, the art of project management is to get everyone focused on the few things that matter most.
He recommends the following 3 tips for doing this:
1. Simplify the objective
It’s important to think of a given project not as a singular entity, but as a collection of smaller projects. Sometimes a project might have one theme with several satellite concerns; other times there may be a few separate themes combined in the same project.
But because 80% of the value of any project will come from 20% of its activities, your task is to strip the project down to a single objective before you start any work on it.
2. Impose an impossible timeline
This will force the team to focus on the most valuable 20% of activities. Including “nice-to-have” features is what turns potentially sound projects into looming quagmires.
For example, ask for a prototype in 2 weeks, impose stretch targets, or demand a live pilot within 3 months.
3. Plan before you act
Perhaps counterintuitively, the less time you have to complete a project, the greater proportion of that time should be dedicated to detailed planning.
Here are the 5 steps that lead to a thorough planning process:
  1. Write down all the critical issues that you’re trying to resolve.
  2. Make some hypotheses about what the answers might be – it’s OK if these are informal best guesses.
  3. Work out what information needs to be gathered and what processes need to be put in place to find out whether your guesses are right or wrong.
  4. Decide who’s going to do what and when.
  5. Adjust your plan after short intervals if necessary, based on new knowledge and any divergence from your guesses.
#3. If you ruin yourself, your other priorities won’t matter.
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
Author and cartoonist Scott Adams writes in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big that priorities “are the things you need to get right so that the things you love can thrive.”
For Adams, it’s useful to think of your priorities as concentric circles, like a dartboard:
Your highest priority, in the center, is you: “If you ruin yourself, you won’t be able to work on any other priorities. So taking care of your health is job one.”
Your second-highest priority, in the second ring, is economics (e.g., your job, any investments, and your home): Adams admits that it may seem odd to put economics ahead of your family and friends, “but if you don’t get your financial engine right, you place a burden on everyone from your family to the country.”
The third ring includes your family, friends, and romantic partners: you need them to truly enjoy life.
The next rings are your local community, your country, and the world – in that order: don’t worry about trying to save the world until your inner rings are under control.
Adams acknowledges that the problem with his model is that life is never this simple: you can’t tell your boss that your assignment will be late because you want to go for a long, healthy walk.
To deal with conflicting priorities, he suggests a simple rule: judge how each one affects your personal energy.
It isn’t a foolproof gauge, but if you know a particular path will leave you drained, stressed, and unhealthy it’s probably the wrong choice. The right choices can be challenging, but they typically energize you.
For example, if your boss asks you to work over the weekend on something that you consider engaging and worthwhile, you may be willing to give up some of your personal life and health. But if your boss routinely asks you to work weekends “for no good reason other than to claw through piles of brain-deadening administrative work, you probably need to look for a new job.”
One criticism of using energy as your guide is that there are plenty of bad choices that energize you in the short run.
But as Adams points out, the dumb choices are usually obvious: “we all know, for example, that shoving cocaine up our noses isn’t a good long-term strategy.”
Quote of the Week
“Lack of time is actually lack of priorities.”
- Author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss in his book The 4-Hour Work Week
Idea Journal
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