5 ways leaders can focus when everything is important

5 Ways Leaders Can Focus When Everything Is Important

How do leaders stay focused when everything feels so important?

“Mark, What’s your M.I.T.?”

Mark pushed back from his desk. “That’s a great question. I’ve so much flying at me…” He sighed. “I don’t have a clue.”

Mark’s calendar might look familiar: wall-to-wall meetings, often with two or three appointments competing for the same window of time.

Management means an unending stream of information, problems to solve, decisions to make, fires to put out, constant interruptions from email, texts, phone calls, messaging apps, and that’s not to mention the projects you want to work on to build a better future.

It can seem like you’ll never get ahead.

The first step to address this overwhelm is to accept the reality that you cannot do everything. I often refer to this as “Infinite need, finite me.” You can’t succeed by doing everything – only by doing what matters most.

Once you’ve made peace with the reality of infinite need, finite me, it’s time to get crystal clear about your M.I.T. or Most Important Thing. In your work, what are the one to three most important strategic objectives you and your team can achieve?

Your ability to Mind the M.I.T. is critical to your success, but what if you don’t know what’s most important?

It’s not always as straightforward as we might hope. In fact, we’ve seen many frontline leaders and middle-level managers in organizations we work with struggle to identify their M.I.T.s.

Five Ways Leaders Can Focus When Everything Is Important

Here are five ways to figure out what’s most important and where you and your team can have the most impact:

1. Ask Your Boss.

When you feel swamped with competing priorities and initiatives, start by asking your supervisor: “What is the most important thing my team can accomplish this year?”

We’ve often sat with befuddled leaders and invited their manager to the conversation. We’ll ask the manager to identify the MITs and they rattle off the top one, two, or three priorities for the next year. They may not have communicated them well, but they knew what they were.

2. Think Two-Levels Above.

If your boss isn’t clear about the MITs, trying thinking up a level. What keeps your boss’s boss awake at night? What are the goals they’ve got to achieve? How does what your team does contribute to these outcomes? You might even try initiating a skip-level meeting in order to align your team with strategic goals. If your boss is amenable, invite them to join you.

3. Ask What Matters Most to Your Customers.

If you can’t get clarity from your managers, the next place to look is at the value you add for your customers. Whether you provide a product or service and whether you do that for external or internal customers, they don’t care about your scorecard. What do they care about? What are the one or two things your customers most need from you? Focus on doing that exceptionally well.

4. Ask What Matters Most to You and Your Team.

If you’re still struggling for clarity, imagine a day six months or a year into the future where you and your team are congratulating one another for having done your very best. What did you achieve? What made you most proud? How do you know you did your very best?

5. Look for the Leverage.

Often, there is one action you can take or one result you can produce that will have a profound effect on everything else. What is that one point of leverage that, if you did it successfully, would change the game for you, your team, and your organization?

Your Turn

When everything’s important, you blunt your impact. When you take time to figure out your one, two, or three strategic M.I.T.s, then relentlessly focus on them every day you’ll energize your team and results can soar.

Today, Mark has his three M.I.T.s written on a whiteboard in his office. He reviews them every day and discusses them with everyone he talks to. The team focuses on the specific behaviors that will help them achieve their M.I.T.s.

Leave us a comment and let us know: When everything feels important, how do you choose what is actually the Most Important Thing?

Helping Your Team To Prioritize When Everything Is Important

Helping your team to prioritize their focus and work is one of the toughest roles of a manager. It’s hard because you face similar pressures. You’re still required to meet all your targets and objectives, so teaching your team to place an item on the bottom of the list is scary. What if they really don’t get to it? There are no easy trade-offs in this “AND culture” (we need this AND that) most of live in. Prioritizing and balancing competing priorities are essential elements of the leadership dance. Knowing what to move to the top of the list when, and how to keep the other plates spinning at the same time takes practice. Help your team recognize the common traps that are sabotaging their ability to prioritize well. (Thanks to subscriber Joy Guthrie for today’s art).

Common Prioritization Traps

Perhaps you have some of these characters on your team. Here’s how you can help.

Windshield Watchers

Windshield Watchers look deceptively productive. They’re moving fast and getting a lot done. They’re often the first one to respond to any task because they’re taking the Nike approach to whatever hits their windshield. The adrenaline brings a familiar rush to their day. Windshield Watchers actually attract more urgent work because people know they’ll drop everything and get on it. The biggest problem with the Windshield Watcher is that they have no real basis for prioritization. Urgent always trumps important in such team members, so although they’re getting a lot done, but not necessarily making progress toward bigger goals. Windshield Watchers often struggle with feedback, because they know they’re busier than everyone else. They resent having to talk about it right now, with all the emails coming in that require attention. Help Windshield Watchers by developing a strong calendar-based system and working backwards from deadlines. Teach the art of the urgent/importance matrix.

Wheel Greasers

Wheel greasers hate conflict and are particularly sensitive to pressure from above. They prioritize based on whomever’s screaming the loudest (or with the most “important” voice). Which means, the problem may be hard for you to detect (after all, you appreciate how seriously they take your requests). Wheel Greasers often feel overwhelmed from the stress of trying to please all the people all the time. They feel like they can never do enough, because there’s no objective measure of success. Help Wheel Greasers by helping them define objective criteria on which to prioritize their work. Recognize if they have a tendency to drop other work to do what you need because you’re the boss. Explain and role model how you differentiate noisy requests from urgent issues.

Whack-A-Molers

These well-intentioned folks care deeply about the outcomes. They pour their heart and soul into the most important work. It’s hard to argue with their priorities. The challenge is that in their laser focus they often miss the unintended consequences caused in the aftermath. Sure customer service metrics improve, but financials suffer. Or, the financials look great, but employees are miserable. Help Whack-A-Molers by encouraging them to see the big picture and brainstorm downstream impacts. Encourage them to pilot their ideas before spending significant energy on large scale implementation.

Work Harders

Bless their hearts, work harders will do everything they can to get it all done, no matter how many hours it takes, or how little they’ve slept. The problem with these hard workers is that they often are so busy doing the work, they don’t take time to consider the best way to get it done. They overlook possible support from others or more efficient ways because they’re so lost in the doing. Help Work Harders to step back and consider the best approach to getting work done. Help them build some white space into their day.

Customize Your Coaching

Rather than teaching a generic system of time management or prioritization, consider starting with the tendencies that are getting in the way, and helping each person find more effective approaches. Ask which of these characters they most relate to, and how that works and gets them into trouble. Help Prioritizing copyThanks, LGL community member, Larry Coppenrath for creating a mindmap of today’s post.  Click on the image to enlarge.