Freedom within a framework
Thoughts on Excellence Free E-Newsletter Series
Volume 13, Issue No. 1
By Dan Coughlin
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A lot of people talk about thinking outside the box. I want you to think inside the box.
Imagine two boxes, one quite large and the other rather small. The small box is inside the big box. In the large box is everything that you are capable of doing. Inside the small box are the few things you can do that you believe will have the greatest positive impact on improving your most important desired business outcome.
STAY INSIDE THE SMALL BOX
Too often, in my opinion, people allow themselves to be pulled into all kinds of activities because they are able to do them. Weeks, months, and even years fly by while these people are busy doing all sorts of different things that they are able to do. They go home quite exhausted at the end of each day knowing that they worked hard. The problem is they haven’t penetrated the desired results to anywhere near the degree that they could have. They essentially tried to please people in different departments and different customers and different prospective customers and different volunteer groups. They kept moving all around in the big box.
Rather than allowing yourself to fill up your day doing everything you are capable of doing, I encourage you to stay very disciplined about choosing at most four things you can do that will have the greatest positive impact on improving results and not allowing yourself to be pulled into two dozen different activities just because you are able to do them.
Staying inside the small box might mean you actually have a few hours each day where you are not racing off to put out the latest fire or to have lunch with a customer that you just talked with last week or to listen to your co-worker rant about the company’s new direction. It might mean that you actually slow down, relax your brain, go for long walks, and work fewer hours. However, in those fewer hours, your efforts and your activities will be concentrated on improving a specific outcome or two.
There is still plenty of room for freedom inside the small box. You can figure out ways to do these few activities better. You might find ways to combine two of the activities together so they have an even greater impact. You might even decide to stop doing one of these four things and start doing one new thing. What you’re not going to do though is allow 12 different activities into the small box. That’s why I call this “freedom in a framework.” The framework is the small box, the choosing of at most four activities that you are going to focus on doing as well as you can.
You can be an innovator in the small box. You don’t always have to do what you have done in the past. You can direct your four activities toward creating more appropriate value for your customers. The folks at Apple innovated to an extraordinarily high degree in creating their magical devices, but they did it by operating inside a small box.
THE 30-MINUTE QUESTIONS
When I’m giving an Executive Mentoring session over the phone, I will ask the person what he or she can do this month to really impact a desired business result. Many times, I’ve heard, “I can do lots of things, but I don’t have enough time.” Then I ask, “If you had the time, what would you do?” Over the years I’ve heard all kinds of answers like “I would spend time with my top 10 employees to help them get to the next level,” “I would spend time with our newest employees to make sure they transition successfully into our company,” “I would spend time with our best customers to make sure they are getting their needs met properly” and on and on. Then I ask, “Well, why not choose one of those ideas and do it this month?” Invariably the answer is, “I wish I could, but I don’t have enough time. I’m way too busy doing other stuff.”
Let’s think about that for a moment. The person is saying they don’t have any time to do the things that he or she believes would matter the most.
At that point, I probe a little further. I’ll say, “I understand you are super busy. In a month’s time I’m guessing you are working between 150 and 250 hours a month. In that time frame how much time do you think you have to dedicate to one of these activities?” Usually I hear, “Maybe 30 minutes at the most here and there during the month.” To which I say, “30 minutes is more than zero. So we’ve established that you do have some time, just not very much. Is that correct?” At that point I start to get some buy-in to where I’m heading.
Now I try to get the person focused by asking, “What can you do in less than 30 minutes to strengthen your relationship with a great customer?” (or “…to strengthen your relationship with your best employee?” or “…to strengthen your relationship with your newest employee?” or wherever he or she said was the desired area of focus.)
Within the very tight framework of 30 minutes, the person suddenly becomes very creative in thinking of ideas he or she could actually do. A handwritten letter takes less than 30 minutes. Picking up the phone and asking the person how he or she is doing takes less than 30 minutes. Sitting in a customer’s office to ask how your product is working out for him or her takes less than 30 minutes.
When you get people to take the pressure off of having to carve out 20 hours to accomplish something, they start to see all kinds of things they can actually do in less than 30 minutes.
STRATEGIC PLANNING & A DECK OF CARDS
One more area where I feel people can operate within a tighter framework is strategic planning. Many times I’ve observed a business planning process where people search for ideas on how to improve results. They come into the meeting room with a lot of good ideas on how to improve results over the next 12 months. Let’s say they bring in 52 ideas. Then they start to plan out the next 12 months by organizing the 52 ideas and saying, “We will do the first 13 ideas in the first quarter, the next 13 in the second quarter, the next 13 in the third quarter, and the next 13 in the fourth quarter.”
It’s as though they feel they have to play every card in their deck at some point during the year and they need to plan out when each card will be laid down.
I encourage you to add in one more step into that approach. I call it “search for the four Aces.” Before you commit anything to a calendar, go through your 52 ideas and search for the four best ideas you have. It might mean one person has three of the best ideas from the entire group. It doesn’t matter who came up with the four best ideas. Just keep discussing and debating and arguing until your group lands on the four best ideas. Set the other 48 ideas over to the side. You’re not going to play those cards.
Then schedule just these four ideas. What’s the best idea to implement in the first quarter, in the second quarter, the third quarter, and the fourth quarter? Then execute them as well as you possibly can.
Don’t try to do all 52 ideas. Remember that in poker four Aces beats almost every other combination of five cards. Rather than hoping that by playing all 52 cards you might end up with a straight flush, just select the four Aces and play them. You will win in the marketplace far more often this way.
If you just play your four Aces, are you guaranteed to achieve great results? Nope. Every idea contains risk and the possibility of failure.
If you just play your four Aces, do you have a better chance of executing each idea really well and increase your chances of the idea producing results than if you had tried to do all 52 ideas? Yes, I think so, and that’s why I encourage you to be courageous enough to select four cards and play them as well as you can.
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