With Martin G. Moore

Episode #67

Simplicity and Focus: Execution excellence

The reality of life in modern organisations is that resource constraints are ever present. For this reason we have to make choices, but we typically aren’t good at this. We simply try to do way too much.

And if we DO manage to get good at it, there is often a Nike boss above us who says “Just do it”. The type of boss who doesn’t want to listen to why something can’t be done.

Excellence in performance is generally underpinned by a philosophy of simplicity and focus.

Don’t try to do too much – keep it simple, do the things the REALLY count, and do them REALLY well.

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Episode #67 Simplicity and Focus: Execution excellence

Hey there and welcome to Episode 67 of the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast. This week’s episode, Simplicity and Focus: Execution excellence. The reality of life in modern organisations, is that resource constraints are ever present. For this reason we have to make choices, but we typically aren’t really good at this. We simply try to do way too much, and if we do manage to get good at it, there’s often a Nike boss above us who says, “Just do it.” You know, the type of boss who doesn’t want to listen to why something can’t be done.

This week we’re going to take a look at some ways of overcoming this problem, so that you can focus on the few things that are actually the most important and deliver them successfully. Excellence in performance is generally underpinned by philosophy of ‘simplicity and focus’. Don’t try to do too much. Keep it simple. Do the things that really count, and do them really well.

Today we’ll start with why we all try to do too much. We’ll then ask, so what? I’ll talk about how to create the right culture in your team, and we’ll finish with some tips for articulating the value to the leaders above you. Let’s get into it.

There are a few reasons why we all generally try to do way too much. The first of these is that we like to do what we enjoy the most. If you think about this in the context of your people, they will always prioritise what they like above what they don’t like doing, regardless of the value to be derived from it. In the absence of any clear direction from you as the leader, they’re going to gravitate towards the things that they really enjoy. Those are the things that you don’t necessarily want them doing, but guess what? All of a sudden, they’re in charge of the work program, they’re in charge of the resource constraints, they’re in charge of what’s getting delivered, or in our case not delivered. That’s the first thing that you’ve got to really be on top of.

The second thing is that activity tends to get a life of its own. Now I always say that one of the hardest things to do in any organisation that’s been around for a period of time, is to stop all the non-value-adding activity that goes on. Our people typically want to do what they have habitually done. Why? Well, it gives them a level of comfort. There’s a level of consistency and regularity in the repetition that makes people feel safe, and if they’re busy, they must be necessary. There’s a level of security in this for them. They feel as though as long as they’re doing a lot of work, their jobs can’t be taken away. And a lot of people, funnily enough, are driven by this one thing.

It does bring to mind, a friend of mine in Rhode Island who had worked for the same institution for about 25 years, from the day she left college to the day they terminated her and made her role redundant. She could simply not understand why the work that she was doing might not still be required going forward. As a CEO, she asked me what my opinion was on this. And it was funny, very, very difficult to get through to her, that activity doesn’t mean anything. And if a new CEO comes in and wants to shake things up and try to search for greater value sources, then that’s what’s going to happen, and sometimes there are some unfortunate casualties from that. That was a very difficult conversation for me to have.

Another really common cause of us trying to do too much, is that we simply don’t plan properly. A lot of people in organisations when they go through in your planning cycle, will plan only the primary resources required to get something done. They won’t factor in all of the secondary and support resources that are required, so things like people from legal to provide opinion, people from HR to help you manage the people changes, people from compliance to make sure that you’re not breaking anything there. These things aren’t factored in.

People in teams get blindsided by work they hadn’t prepared themselves to do, and whether or not they’re the highest value thing that they could be doing is never questioned, because it happened to turn up on someone else’s work task list. Another one of those common planning problems is that everything takes longer than we originally think. When you see a business case for an investment, for example, at a various stage of the project it might be a degree of uncertainty like plus or minus 30%, but in all my years, and don’t forget I used to work as a professional project manager, I have never seen a project come in minus 30%, it simply doesn’t happen.

We always underestimate the amount of resource used. Instead of taking 80% of someone’s time, it takes 120% of their time. This sucks up your resource really, really quickly, and any slack that you might’ve built in for contingency is gone very, very fast.

Another reason why we always end up doing too much is that we always have a host of good ideas that are coming up and being pushed at us. Now these come from the board downwards, and are sometimes added to it every single layer in between. But we think we’re doing the right thing by responding to all of these wild and wonderful requests and implementing them, putting them as part of the work program. We get a lot of kudos for this because we’re responsive, but sometimes this happens at the expense of the real value delivery, and if you’ve got any confidence at all in the fact that you’ve already planned in the highest value things to be completed, then this just simply robs you.

Final thing that we tend to do, and this is a really big one for leaders. Doing busy work is an avoidance tactic. As long as we’re running around doing stuff, we couldn’t possibly find the time to deal with under-performers, spend time setting standards and expectations, communicating the benefits of behavioural change, working to develop our people and so forth. We dig in, we talk about how busy we are, and we never do the things that would create the most value for the business. As leaders this is the one you have to watch out for the most. Now all of these things give us ample excuse to not focus on the couple of key things that need to be done to really create value. This is not to say there’s no value in the other stuff, just that the relative importance of it is much less. If it’s not, then we’ve got to go back to square one and think about how we’re planning in the first place.

What’s wrong with all of this? Well, it comes down to one really simple thing, if we’re doing busy work, if we’re not focused on the most important things, and keeping it really simple, and making sure that we get those done properly, it means that our greatest effort is not directed towards the greatest value. The only reason we are there is to create value for all the stakeholders of the organisation depending on how you define them. What it does for your people, though is really interesting. When you keep piling work onto them, it creates the mentality of, “I need more resources. I can’t do all the work I’ve been given to do by myself or with the team I have. I am underpaid and I am overworked.”

Now this starts to mess with the psychological contract that I’ve spoken about in previous episodes, and people start to feel under appreciated. What’s more, is that management starts to look irrational. You’re asking us to do things we can’t possibly do. It’s physically impossible, yet still, you’re asking us to deliver it. And this can start a blame culture between that most hideous of divisions, management and workers, although I always fail to see where the division lies.

The other big thing is that if we are constantly distracted from the main game, trying to do these rats and mice continuous improvement initiatives, or just falling back on the activity that we’ve done year after year habitually, we ultimately need to deliver on the big ticket items and they never seem to get delivered. Although it’s funny how many leaders will accept the excuse of, “I was busy doing something else.” Well no. Don’t be busy doing something else, be busy doing the things that we’ve said add the greatest value. Now if the leadership hasn’t defined value properly, and hasn’t made it really clear to people why the big ticket items are the ones that you’re getting after, then you’ve got a bigger problem in that: planning, communication and basic connection with the workforce.

Now I think the only downside that comes from taking this laser like focus is that it a can push you to be a little bit one dimensional around value. We know that value comes from a whole range of different sources, but sometimes this can push you down the path of only looking at the financial value, or only looking at market share, or only looking at compliance, or only looking at one other factor. Once you strip it down to being really, really simple, sometimes you start to become a little myopic. That’s just to watch it.

How do we create the right culture in our team to deal with this? Well, the mantra of simplicity and focus is crucial. Keep the work plan lean and simple, and we know that plans need to be living and breathing, there are constant ins and outs that are coming into the plan, within reason of course, when you’re reevaluating the value that certain things bring to the organisation and their relative priority. You need to remove the distractions for your team, and sometimes it’s a leader this is the very, very best thing you can be doing. Hunt for the complexity and the volume that your people will try to build into their work programs themselves and rip it out. Capital efficiency is a classic example, so quite often you’ll see a major capital work where people start saying, “Well, while we’re doing this, we may as well do that” and there’s no real value assessment of whether doing the additional work actually creates enough value. Still, it’s the concept of, ‘we may as well while we’re here’. That’s something that you’ve got to stamp out.

Another key to creating the right culture is to set a very small number of very high value goals, and to be able to communicate that really, really clearly. You emphasise the need to deliver these things fully and as planned, you don’t want to get halfway through and find that you’re not going to meet your target, and so you start cutting the scope out. There should be no schedule, cost or function slippage on a critical work program. And with only a few really high value objectives this is a lot easier to track, which often, let’s face it, your people aren’t going to like, but as the leader, that’s your job and you need to do that anyway.

Another really big cultural marker is that you have to only talk in terms of value, nothing else, and make sure your people are really clear on what this is. If you start to praise people for their long hours, you’re taking them off track. What you’re telling them is, “I will reward you for working longer hours rather than delivering the value that we think you should be delivering, which may or may not be happening at the same time.” Distractions of any sort of take you away from the efficiency and the clarity you have around delivering the big things. You really have to work out how to free people up to do the most valuable things. Your language is absolutely critical. As a leader you should be saying things all the time like, “What can I help you clear off your plate?” Or “How does what you’re doing now contribute to our big four initiatives?”

Constantly challenge and test the fact that your people are directed towards the right things. You want people to work hard and smart. You don’t want them burned out. You don’t want them to be fatigued to the point where their function is impaired. Now, there’s heaps and heaps of studies on this in the safety space, the effects of fatigue on people when they’re working. After a certain number of hours, you lose your effectiveness. For me personally, I generally don’t do any content production after three o’clock in the afternoon. Why? Well, I’m just not quite as sharp, so I work to ensure that I’m at my best when I need to be.

Finally, you need to make sure that you have real transparency in reporting. If your team is not doing this, what are they actually doing? We’re back to our old friend accountability. Single-point accountability, high empowerment, strong monitoring.

Let’s finish with how you articulate the value to those above you. There are a few classic statements from bosses which are designed to absolve themselves from their accountability for making decisions that you might genuinely need them to make, as they’re above your pay grade. They don’t focus on the reality of resource constraints and they aren’t particularly helpful. Let’s try a few of these. Have you ever heard a boss use that awful cliche, “Don’t bring me problems, just bring me solutions.” Now this isn’t terrible, but it really does give the impression that, I don’t want to hear that something can’t be done. Sometimes they’ll actually say, because this morphs into, “Don’t tell me why something can’t be done. Tell me how you’re going to do it.” Or the not quite so cliched, but something can still be quite destructive, “Don’t give me an or, look for the genius of the and.”

Now, all of this is designed to make you feel stupid, and it’s easy to throw around cute one liners, but often they give your people the impression that you don’t want to hear how or why something can’t be done. The lack of acceptance of resource constraints is a cancer. Management starts to look irrational, people throw their hands up in the air metaphorically, and it breeds a sense of defeatism. It’s really common to run into leaders above you whose philosophy seems to be just to keep piling more work onto the program, hoping that as much as possible will get delivered. And particularly if they’re weak leaders, they won’t push back on work that’s initiated from above them, so it’s worth listening to the podcast from a few weeks ago I did called ‘Learning to say no‘.

Sometimes planning can be a very top down exercise. Leaders, and indeed organisations like this, don’t understand risk. However, people will say take the approach at the bottom of continuing what sometimes low value work, carrying it through from year to year. The problem initiates in both ends and sometimes isn’t resolved in the middle. If you want to have a rational conversation with your boss about workloads, deliverables and resources, you have to be coming from a place of fact and clarity. It’s important to have gone through the planning exercise and have a value ranked list of initiatives. Now you know the old expression, ‘plans are worth nothing but planning is invaluable.’ It enables you to have a compelling dialogue about what’s ranked in the top priority order, in terms of value and why. What’s the relative value between the ranked items and why have you chosen them?

And that gives you and your bosses the opportunity to make choices. For example, when a new initiative comes into your frame, first look at a resource loading and where that initiative is going to land. Then look at what constraints can be moved. For example, you might be able to bring external resources to achieve a result by relaxing a monetary constraint. But remember nothing is ever free of impact. Even a consultant needs internal support to understand context and find their way around the organisation. But always retain the option of shuffling and reorganising the priorities that you already have if you’ve set them up properly and you understand the relative value between them.

Simplicity in objectives will enable you to communicate these more easily to your people and to your bosses. It’ll also allow your people to focus on the right things, and if you can adopt the discipline of doing a couple of important things really, really well, you will get amazing results. If not, you’ll be doomed to do lots of things half-assed, and you can wave goodbye to the value as you watch it sail by.

Alright, so that brings us to the end of episode 67. Thanks so much for joining us and remember at Your CEO Mentor, our purpose is to improve the quality of leaders globally. Please share this podcast with another leader whom you know will benefit. I look forward to next week’s episode, The Price of Leadership Weakness.

Until then I know you’ll take every opportunity you can to be a No Bullsh!t Leader.

And guys, don’t forget to preregister for Leadership Beyond the Theory at courses.yourceomentor.com. If you love this podcast, you are absolutely going to love the program and get so much value out of it, so I really encourage you to go and check it out. Alright, we’ll see you next week.


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