Focusing on What Matters (and Ignoring What Does Not)
As I look back at this week’s postings on Slow Leadership, I notice that most of them were concerned with helping people stop wasting their time and energy on fruitless endeavors.
Take the first post, entitled: To Succeed, First Forget About Leadership Technique. In it, I argued that belief that success—in just about any business or leadership —comes from one simple source (applying the correct “leadership technique), is both self-serving and erroneous. It is self-serving because it is mostly spread by those who sell training in such techniques, or write about them; and erroneous because it is usually based on a false understanding of causality. Besides, because it does not work. Technique is a very minor part of leadership, as this posting seeks to show.
Of course, most of what people believe, whether about work or anything else, is simply what they were encouraged to believe at an early age—augmented by what people around them believe (or say they do). The fear of being seen as “different,” of not “fitting in,” encourages a great many mistakes and considerable heartache. Now I am retired, it is far easier for me to maintain an independent position. When I was employed in various large organizations, I was almost as willing as everyone else to suppress my own thinking in favor of appearing suitably orthodox. I say “almost as willing,” because I always had a reputation for being awkward and not quite fitting in, which doubtless held my career back at some points. That is why I warmed to the idea that The Wonder of Letting Go might help people lessen much of the stress and turmoil in their lives. As I wrote:
The first step in making life and work fun again is the —and the —for may people. It is to let go of whatever you have today and move into the future. And what you will most likely find is that many of the things you were clinging to so desperately turn out to be no loss; and some of the best of them bob along with you anyway. You don’t need to cling to them. They are part of who you are.
Encouraging employees to use their intelligence is still an unusual idea, but it too can help people focus on what matters and ignore what does not. In Why Not Let People Use Their Intelligence?, I suggested that companies who recruit smart people, then deny them the chance to use their intelligence, for whatever reason, are purposely throwing away large amounts of shareholders’ money and should be treated appropriately. Not a very radical idea, it seems to me, but certainly an unfamiliar one.
One or two people had difficulties in grasping the difference I suggested between business problems and business predicaments in my article: Problems, Predicaments and Sleight of Hand. I can best sum it up like this.
- Problems have solutions, even if you don’t presently know what they are. For example, asking how to get a certain level of shipments to a customer in a given time period at the lowest possible price is a problem.
- Predicaments have no solutions, and never will have. An example of a predicament (with no solution that is either possible or that will remain useful for very long) would be how to maintain a consistent level of market share at or above 12%. It’s a predicament because whatever action you take to make it happen will prompt counter action from others to thwart you; and the market circumstances are constantly changing anyway.
I suggested, therefore, that all the most important issues in business are actually predicaments. To treat them as problems and apply supposed solutions is to be doomed to consistent failure and frustration.
Many of our difficulties in the workplace are self-inflicted, and arise primarily because we do not devote either the time or the energy required to think about them clearly enough. Hamburger Management, with its emphasis on quick action, simple answers, and continual cost-cutting merely magnifies that human tendency. Only by slowing down and using our minds can we finally sort out what matters from everything else. And once we do that, we will, I believe, be surprised at how much time we previously devoted to nonsensical activities.
Focusing only on what matters is the first, most essential step in creating enough space in your working day to allow you to create a civilized way of working. And it goes far beyond removing minor distractions. To focus on what matters, you must first decide what that is. That is why maintaining an open, independent mind is so important. Don’t be taken in by what most people do, unless you have first verified for yourself that it is sensible and necessary. After all, most people follow the crowd— and that is often a poor choice for having a life that is better than most.
- Work Less, Gain More
- Obsession with Leadership Undermining Organizations
- Save Time for What Matters by Delegating Better
- A Regulatory Tipping Point?
- The Perils of Avoiding Risk
Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life.
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