Don’t chop water when you should be carrying wood.
- Old Zen Proverb (updated for the 21st Century)
Last week , I wrote about the connection between vision, strategy, and action in a business, and how great organizations find the balance between:
a) Making the right changes at the right time and
b) Having the discipline to “keep on keeping on” and just doing more of what is working.
Note well that b) is particularly hard to maintain when the tasks and activities that ARE working become repetitive and lack in excitement and drama.
So how does do executives find this balance - between being creative and just keeping their heads down and plowing forward?
Well, luckily in the past few years a large and impressive business literature has sprung up that codifies best practices of how to find this all-important balance.
It can best be summarized by the phrase “immersion plus spaced repetition” and goes like this:
1. Everything, of course, begins with ideas, with the best ones arising from a series of introspective strategic planning and goal-setting sessions that clarify objectives and the obstacles standing in the way of their accomplishment.
This immersive process - done at least annually but at the best companies quarterly - both defines what needs to be done and inspires all to take on the hard work of getting it done.
The value of inspiration cannot be underestimated – Thomas Edison famously said that “genius was 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration” but that 1% “spark” is uber-critical in propelling an organization through the various thresholds of change.
2. But, as anyone that attended an exciting or invigorating conference or strategic planning session can attest (and as I am sure Mr. Edison reflected on often during long nights at the lab), inspiration fades over time.
Even worse, when the inspiration is not followed through on, cynicism can set in and actually leave an organization worse off than if the planning sessions were never done in the first place!
So how to avoid this distressing fate?
3. Well, by keeping the ideas, goals, and objectives of the planning session alive through their regular review and adjustment.
Think of it this way - if a well-run strategic planning session is the essence of good leadership, then repetitive goals reviews are the essence of good management.
Great managers check in with their teams as often as daily - if only for 5 or 10 minutes - to review the day’s objectives and to keep the shorter term work flow aligned with the longer term planning and mission objectives.
The old adage that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time is never more true than when is comes to these spaced and repetitive management check-ins.
When done right, they measure, acknowledge, and reward incremental progress and prevent the desire for the perfect from getting in the way of the doable and the done.
Then, the organization reconvenes and reviews progress against stated goals, assesses what worked and what didn’t, and then refines and updates the key goals and objectives.
And after this next round of strategic planning, what is done?
Well, the spaced and repetitive management check-ins begin anew.
Wood is chopped, water is carried.
Following this simple but disciplined formula, over time great ideas become great realities, businesses are built, and legacies and fortunes are made.
And for investors, far more than technology these “above the line” leadership, management, and company culture disciplines separate the well-run companies to back from the disorganized ones to avoid.
So what are you waiting for?