An executive recently lamented that she and her company had far too many projects going on. All of them were important, she said, but insufficient progress was being made on most. In fact, she described her company as being "very good at getting things 80% done!" "Why can’t we ever complete anything?" she asked me.
This isn’t the first time that I have heard a business owner or leader talk about this struggle. Often the situation gets oversimplified as "too much to do and not enough time or people to do it", which seems like an impossible problem to address…so, many times, it is merely ignored. Frequently, however, this problem is the result of a less obvious issue: a lack of focus by the company’s leaders.
The Power of Focus
A wise person once said that if you chase two rabbits, both will escape. The same holds true in business, as many companies have too many items on their To Do list. This lack of prioritization and focus leads to poor results. According to a Pricewaterhouse Coopers survey of 200 companies in 30 countries, only 2.5% of these companies had 100% of their projects come in on time, within budget, to scope, and delivering the right business benefits. This study demonstrates that 97.5% of the time we get it wrong in some way… but prioritizing can help. Just as focus and concentration allow your mind to function more effectively, prioritization enables businesses to achieve greater results.
Prioritizing can seem especially difficult when all projects are viewed as important. Yet, this is precisely when it can yield the best results. An oft-missing element in prioritizing is a process in which employees have confidence; one by which initiatives can be compared to determine their relative importance to the business. A fairly simple process is to plot each initiative on the following 4-quadrant chart:
- Initiatives landing in the upper left (high benefit, low cost) are "winners"…do them now.
- Initiatives landing in the lower right (low benefit, high cost) are "losers"…dump them.
- Initiatives landing in the upper right (high benefit, high cost) require a return on investment (ROI) analysis to determine if and when to move forward.
- Initiatives landing in the lower left (low benefit, low cost) are prioritized based on "gut feel" plus time and resource availability.
To get the best results from prioritizing, strong leadership is required to ensure that:
- All projects are included in the evaluation and that there are no "sacred cows."
- Personalities, politics and quests for power are not allowed to influence the process.
- The negative effects of existing paradigms and "business as usual" are minimized.
- Employees are inspired to participate, buy in to the importance of this work, and trust the process to provide valid outcomes.
- The outcomes are followed through on and resources are properly allocated to the "critical few" most important projects.
- Prioritization is not viewed as a "one and done" activity. It needs to be part of the business’ standard operating process and performed on a regular basis.
Difficult challenges and decisions will be faced during this process, especially if focus and prioritizing are not core competencies. Elbert Hubbard said that "It does not take much strength to do things, but it requires a great deal of strength to decide what to do." One way that leaders can help achieve greater results is by having and instilling the discipline to focus on a few, critical projects instead of trying to do everything all at once.