For the last 15 years I have been obsessed by this non-trivial question: Why is it that successful people and organizations don't break through to the next level?
It's an important question for CEOs of companies (and for the rest of us as CEOs of our own lives) to answer. The answer I have found hidden in plain sight is: success.
I first noticed the phenomenon while working with executive teams in Silicon Valley. When they were focused on the correct few things, they had success.
But with that success came the "right problem" of more options and opportunities. These opportunities distracted the leaders from the focus that had led to success in the first place.
So--exaggerating the point in order to make it--success can actually become a catalyst for failure. It can lead to what Good to Great author Jim Collins has called "the undisciplined pursuit of more."
The antidote to this is what I call the disciplined pursuit of less but better.
This is a simple enough idea to understand. But reflect on your own life and ask yourself, "How easy is it to fall into the undisciplined pursuit of more?" and "How hard is it to lead my organization toward the disciplined pursuit of less?" Everything in modern life leads us to the first. Almost nothing leads us to the second. It is only a very particular kind of leader--what I call an Essentialist--who can do it.
Consider the opposite kind of leader--a Nonessentialist. This is the highly-driven, highly-dispersed, and distracted leader we see everywhere today. It is the CEO of a 3,000-person company who recently announced he has 107 goals for the organization this year. That absurd number is only surpassed by the company's 700 products. The company has so many products, in fact, that when I asked the marketing team about them I found that not one of them even knew what all the products were. I see similar examples everywhere.
Behind that example is a management myth that has been shared so deeply for so long that people don't even question it. Stated succinctly, the idea is this: If you can fit it all in, you can have it. The problem is it happens to not be true. It is a lie.
We have even changed our language to make the idea seem as if it is true. For example, the word "priority" came into the English language in the 1400s and it was singular. It meant the very first thing. It stayed singular, very sensibly, for the next 500 years! Only in the 1900s did we began to speak of "priorities." So while we can find ourselves feeling that everything is a priority, literally by definition, it can't be.
Essentialists operate out of a very different mindset. They assume that almost everything is meaningless noise. They see their priority role as discerning between the trivial many and the vital few. For example, Jack Dorsey, CEO of Square, has said he sees himself as the Chief Editor of the company rather than the Chief Executive.
Essentialists don't see focus as one more thing to do; they see it as the essence of their leadership. It isn't what they occasionally do; it is who they are. It is their disciplined pursuit.
The situation for CEOs is that life is fast and full of opportunity. The complication is they think they have to do it all. The impact of this is that they will end up making a millimeter of progress in a million directions. My position is that CEOs can make a different choice: they create space to discern the vital few from the trivial many. As a result they can lead their organizations to break through to the next level.
THE POWER OF THE DAILY POST-IT
Every night, write down the top six tasks that are essential to get done tomorrow, in priority order. Cross off the bottom five. Take the top item, write it on a Post-It note and put it on your computer. Schedule the first two hours of the next day to work on that one thing. Repeat often enough that this becomes easy and part of your routine. One entrepreneur I work with started this daily routine and has built his $300,000 business to a $400 million business. He completely subscribes to the idea that the discipline of this routine is what got him there. -Greg McKeown
Greg McKeown is the CEO of THIS, Inc., a company whose mission is to assist people and companies to spend 80 percent of their time on the vital few rather than the trivial many. He is the author of the bestselling Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. This article is condensed from an interview with him from SOLVE magazine. To learn more about Greg and his company, visit: http://gregmckeown.com/.
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