The Simplest Way to Avoid Wasting Time
I recently met with a capable executive who is passionate about his work and good at it. The problem is he pursues so many initiatives that by the end of the year people don’t really know what he has accomplished. They know he has done “a bunch of stuff” but in the blur of busyness they can’t be quite sure what it adds up to. It’s the career equivalent of Apple’s undisciplined approach of “add more product lines” before Steve Jobs’ return. Their answer to everything was “another product” until at they’re peak they reached 330 different products. It almost sank the company.
The reason for my meeting with the executive in question was a good one: he wanted me to run essentialism workshops to every person in his company. Still, with no sense of irony, he also wanted to roll out five other workshops. In the last few months he has added two different leadership competency models, a values list and much more. He is enthusiastic about it all. However, it has left him making only a tiny amount of progress in too many directions.
My advice to him was to become far more selective. Instead of trying to do everything, popular, now we can pursue the right things, for the right reasons at the right time. By doing fewer things, better we can make a higher contribution.
Returning to the Apple story, Steve saved Apple by reducing the number of product lines from 330 to 10 products. The mantra was to say no to almost everything in order to say yes to a few “insanely great products.” It is a principle that can work for companies and also the people who work for those companies. Here’s how:
1. Explore more; commit less. One paradox of essentialism is that essentialists exploremore than their nonessentialist counterparts. Essentialists are incredibly selective about what they commit to but in the interim period, they can be curious about lots of things. They just don’t go all in until they find something that’s a total 10-out-of-10 ‘Yes! This is the thing I should be doing.’ Think of Steve Jobs and Jony Ive saying day after day, “This might sound crazy but…” Almost all of the ideas were crazy until, as Jony put it, eventually an idea was so great it took the air out of the room.
2. Negotiate the nonessentials. For a lot of people it is laughable to imagine saying “No!” to a senior leader. They worry, for good reason, that such a blunt response will immediately be a career limiting move. However, it is a false dichotomy to believe that “either I have to say yes to everything and capitulate or I have to say no and be seen as insubordinate.” When we believe nonessentials are nonnegotiable we lose a lot of power.
3. Conduct a career offsite. Sometimes we spend more time planning our vacation than planning our careers. One cure to this is to schedule a quarterly offsite. We can take a few hours every few months to think about the bigger picture questions: “If I can only achieve three things over the next three months what should they be?” and “Where do I want to be five years from now?” When we don’t take time to ask these more strategic questions we become a function of other people’s agendas. We are left to react to the latest email and can become rudderless; blown about by every wind of corporate change.
4. Come back to your purpose. My friend and “ocean advocate”, Lewis Pugh, has designed an extraordinary career around his professional purpose: to create National Parks in the Oceans. His clarity of purpose enables him to achieve the (almost) impossible. Among other things, he swims in the most extreme water conditions imaginable. In one recent TED talk he describes swimming in the North Pole in temperatures of minus 1.7 degrees (see it here). He says, “The most powerful form of self-belief comes from believing in something greater than you. Because when you’ve got purpose, everything becomes possible.” So when you are exhausted or getting pulled in a million directions come back to your purpose.
5. Give up the idea that success means pleasing everyone. Thinking we can keep everyone happy simply by saying yes to everyone is false. It leads to everyone feeling frustrated. Alternatively, when we wisely push back we sacrifice an ounce of popularity in the moment, but we trade it for respect in the long run.
6. Celebrate the reality of tradeoffs. Instead of asking, “How can I make it all work?” Ask, “What are the tradeoffs I want to make?” Make them deliberately and strategically. Don’t try to straddle every request. As Michael Porter has written, “Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs. It’s about deliberately choosing to be different.”
In the end, it is this idea of choosing to be different that can be so powerful. Designing a career of contribution doesn’t mean adding layers. Instead, it is about becoming more of who we are already are by chiseling away those things that don’t feel right.
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