Allen Harris: Don't be in the mole-whacking business

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Do you ever go home and your spouse asks, "How was your day?" and you reply, "I was busy all day but I feel like I didn't get anything done"? Justina has those conversations all the time. Justina is the chief operating officer of a mid-sized, Berkshire-based manufacturer of contamination control devices. She is whacking moles all day long.

Now that I look back, it's a rather barbaric notion, but as a kid playing Whac-A-Mole at the arcade was a lot of fun. The point of the game was to wait for one of several plastic moles to raise its head to the surface, and then you immediately try to whack it with a mallet before the mole gets away from you. For Justina, Whac-A-Mole isn't just a game, it became a form of management. In business, "moles" are those one-off problems that pop up seemingly every day which we immediately try to fix. You jump from one problem to the next, smacking them down urgently. You don't plan, you don't think, and it keeps you and your business from reaching full potential.

Justina's weekly to-do list had nearly daily additions tagged on: answering emails, responding to a client inquiry, dealing with the file dropped on her desk, creating a report for another department, attending to this request or that one. Justina knew she had many goals she had to achieve, but what tasks did she focus on first? Justina defaulted to getting the things done that she could quickly check off her to-do list, the ones that were the easiest to complete or are were due first, regardless of importance. She prioritized tasks that felt urgent and didn't focus on what would make the company stronger in the year ahead.

Maybe you, or your management team, have felt something similar. There is this tension between things that seem urgent, and the things that are very important but don't have inherent urgency in them. Most of those things that seem urgent could be taken care of this afternoon instead of this morning; tomorrow instead of today. But the problem is that we have this human tendency to move toward what seems urgent, or what can be quickly ticked off the to-do checklist. Even if you're on the most important project of the year, you'll find yourself drawn toward these smaller, simpler tasks. The next thing you know, it's already the end of the day and while you were busy all day, you can't really identify what you did throughout the day.

According to a 2018 study titled "The Mere Urgency Effect," this preference for activity was revealed across five experiments in which participants had to make trade-off decisions between tasks that varied in urgency and importance. Urgent tasks (including those that merely seemed urgent) were favored over important ones, even though the important tasks paid more. No matter the payoff, we tend to pay more attention to time when we feel we have less of it. When we feel busy, we are more likely to favor urgent tasks, even if they are unimportant. And this tendency becomes stronger the busier we are. We're never not fighting that tension. And it's making all of us grow slower than we should. Being overly busy makes us feel good, even if we complain about. And if you say it doesn't make you feel good, OK, then you're addicted to it. Either way, it's a downward spiral of ineffectiveness.

That tendency, that move toward urgency, doesn't seem like a big challenge because we can override that tendency — at least we think we can. The problem is, in order to get anything of real value done, to work on that big project, to forge ahead on executing a strategy, we feel as if we first need to get through that barrier of acting on the seemingly urgent. However, if your goal is explosive growth, you need to do what Justina did and prioritize her focus.

The question posed to Justina was, can you put energy into strategic, non-urgent activities? In the moment, it feels good to act on the urgent. And it feels bad to act on the non-urgent. She had to convince herself that she was not wasting time, when, in fact, she was working on the most important thing she could be doing. If your company had good leadership, it should be obvious which projects should occupy your day. But we feel this sort of withdrawal symptom from acting on urgency. So, in the moment, satisfying that sense of urgency feels good all day long. Until the end of the day, when you're talking to your colleagues or your spouse, and you say, "I worked hard all day, but I don't feel as if I got anything done."

Time, focus and prioritization

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It's not all the owner's fault. If the employees aren't getting their projects done, make no mistake about it, it is THEIR fault. But if you want them to succeed in making your company better, you must give them the tools they need. And that's time, focus, and intentional prioritization. When your management team is focused on fixing daily problems, whether they are truly urgent or not, your business will never advance. The Whac-A-Mole management style clogs up the flow of new initiatives and corporate improvement. If your business has that management style, eventually your competition is going to beat you out.

Leaders need to eliminate the feeling of "there is too much to do" so that their people can focus on what's most important. Management cannot be engaged in fulfilling the company's vision if they are constantly whacking a labor of moles. Company leaders can't ask management to focus more effort on building revenue and developing their people if they aren't willing to allow managers to block off time to do so, which means that those daily moles must either be delayed, or be handled by someone else.

The good news is that less is more.

It's exceedingly important for your management to have a list of the top 2 or 3 initiatives they need to prioritize and accomplish. They need to focus on less to accomplish more. I'm not saying to ignore the important items that pop up which you must address to maintain daily operations. But your management must narrow their focus to work on what needs to be accomplished for you to beat your competition. The rest can either be put off, because your sense of urgency is overstated, or it can be delegated to people that are better suited for the task. If you don't have that person, hire a Whac-A-Mole champion, or designate one who isn't your top management.

Your chance of successfully achieving goals goes up if you keep the number limited to a few. According to FranklinCovey, if you only focus on two to three goals, you'll get two to three done. If you focus on four to 10 goals, you'll only get one to two done. If you focus on 11-20 goals, you'll get zero done. When you try to do too much, you'll experience diminishing returns. It's not as if you accomplish nothing if you finish zero goals; you're still whacking those moles. But it does mean that you're not executing any new initiatives, while your competition is. It means you're paying your top management to do things that someone getting paid half as much could do instead.

Those 11-20 goals are almost always good ideas. The problem is you're always going to have more good ideas than capacity to execute them. You can't say yes to all the good ideas, and you must find the right people to handle the day-to-day problems that pop up. Or, at least, do what Justina did. She found someone to handle one-fourth of the mole problems, allowing her to be able to spend a quarter of her time on important tasks. The solution to having a better business is to make sure that you give your people time to work on things that are important, but not necessarily urgent. For this time to be effective, Justina needed to stop trying to multitask and instead focus on starting a project, finishing it and then moving onto the next. That means no email or other distractions. Your calendar is blocked off, and the "do not disturb" sign is on the door.

This requires a change in behavior. Your management team needs to acknowledge their addiction to urgency. They need fewer goals, which is difficult for them because you hired ambitious people and it's hard for them to say "no" to good ideas. They want to try and do more, not less — even when less is more! This is where the owner plays an important role. You must tell your people that you want them to change their behavior and focus on the prioritized goals and let them know that they won't be judged on unwhacked moles. You need to let them know that your criterion of measuring their effectiveness as a manager isn't how busy they are, but how successful they are at completing new, game-changing initiatives.

Disclosures: Allen Harris, the author of Build It, Sell It, Profit - Taking Care of Business Today to Get Top Dollar When You Retire, is a Certified Business Valuation Specialist, Certified Value Growth Advisor, and Certified Exit Planning Advisor for business owners. He is the owner Berkshire Money Management (BMM) in Dalton, MA, managing investments of more than $500 million. Allen's forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of the information presented here should be construed as an endorsement of BMM or a solicitation to become a client of BMM. Direct inquiries to Allen at AHarris@BerkshireMM.com.


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