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Why focussing on the important is a leadership superpower

Martin Burns, senior principal transformation consultant, EMEA at CA Technologies explains why a critical enabler for delivering results is extreme focus on the important.
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We’ve all had people working for us whose answer to “When will that thing be done” is “I’m working on it”, and it never seems to appear. Continually asking for things, being promised them and not getting the results is one of the most frustrating situations a leader experiences.

These problems have a single root cause: trying to do more than the natural capacity. This is true for both delivering the day job, and for improvements that make the day job easier. Why is this so painful? Here are three reasons why.

1. Doing more takes up time

Parallel work takes longer than serial work. The below image highlights projects A, B and C. Each takes your team about a month to complete and delivers £10,000 of value per month once done. When the team are working on all three in perfect parallel, it will take three times as long to deliver. The valuable outcomes you’d hoped for have less time to make an impact.

This is doubly painful when the valuable outcomes are testing a hypothesis in a disruptive world of environmental change. Being able to respond much faster to opportunities and threats is a serious competitive advantage. You’re learning faster and your organisation is smarter.

2. Multitasking is a myth

We have all seen adverts for all levels of roles require effective multitasking. It’s a great idea, but that’s not how humans work. We task-switch. It involves the effort of setting a mental save state to be able to pick up when we return to the task. The more cognitively intensive the work, the harder this is.

So, while splitting multiple projects across a team is painful enough when each can focus on one thing, having people work on multiple projects at the same time is horrible. In his work Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking, the Consultant’s Consultant, Gerry Weinberg, estimated the impact of this as follows:

If you were splitting your three projects above across the entire team, it wouldn’t take three months to get them delivered, it would take five months.

3. Cognitive load is a productivity drag

On top of all this task switching, simply managing multiple projects escalates the draw on your management capacity. Think of the number of status reports and meetings to track them. The follow-up meetings to ask why everything takes so long. The stakeholders you’re annoying. That’s just the formal load.

Add the risk of being lobbied to add yet another thing in the coffee queue. The more items you have committed to, the more of this work takes place. We know this is the wrong approach. We know to under-promise and over-deliver, yet time and time again, we’re unable to make that a reality, in our own commitments and where we’re demonstrating Agile Leadership of others.

There is only one way out of this pain, one simple remedy to reliably make and fulfil commitments: Do less.

What focus means to agile leaders

The most effective way to show agile leadership in your organisation is to identify and prioritise the one thing that would make the most difference, most strongly advancing the goal of your organisation. Do that, and only that. Finish it and move on to the next. Repeat. Sounds wrong, doesn’t it?

Our gut tells us that the sooner we start something, the sooner it will be done. But the opposite is true: when we deprioritise starting new things in favour of finishing existing ones, our queue of work clears and starts outputting the value we crave. If you recognised your organisation in this, lead it into one immediate action, one default answer and one ongoing behaviour:

  • Agile leader action: Take all the things you’ve currently committed your team to do. Kill half of them. Things will get better.
  • Agile leader answer: From today, if anyone asks you to take on anything new, the default answer is “No”.
  • Leading agile behaviour: Take on a mantra for yourself, your sponsors and your team: “Stop Starting, Start Finishing”. Repeat this whenever a new thing is proposed. Keep repeating it until you hear other people telling it to each other. And you see them acting on it.

Agile leaders play a vital role in the success of agile adoption in their organisation, and they are key to avoid the most common pitfalls of agile transformations.

Martin Burns is senior principal transformation consultant, EMEA at CA Technologies

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