Snakes and Ladders

In “First Things First“, Stephen Covey categorized work into a four box grid aligned to the “importance” of work and the “urgency” of that work. the clear motivation is to stop doing those things that are both not urgent and not important. Second we need to have the strength to stop doing the things that are urgent but not important.

With the unimportant tasks eliminated we need to look at where we are spending our time to most effectively move our organizations (and lives) forward.

The pace of competition and life in general seems to be increasing at an exponential rate over the past several years, and at the same time our organizations have been under severe productivity challenges. The result is that in many cases we are being asked to generate increasing returns with fewer staff to do the work. Given this landscape is it any surprise that more and more when I am talking with other leaders they are lamenting that they are spending increasing hours and supporting an overwhelming schedule just to keep up with the urgent and important tasks?

I liken this to the childhood game of Snakes and Ladders where a game board is littered with Snakes which send you backwards in the game and ladders that push you forward.

Those important and urgent tasks are like the snakes in the game, they are inevitable and clearly will come up (with increasing frequency these days), but the time you spend solving them actually sets you back in many cases. Regulation of industry is a great example of this. As governments around the work continue to implement new regulations to protect the consumer, prevent another financial meltdown, and align the market to foreign policies businesses are forced to implement changes in their organizations with very tight timelines, deferring other strategic work that they were planning.

The ladders represent the important but not urgent tasks in your business. With the pace we are all running to try to avoid and/or deal with the snakes, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to plan to build some ladders into our day.

The problem with this paradigm is that it is self-reinforcing. The more time we spend dealing with snakes, the further behind we get and the less time we have to build ladders. Eventually our day becomes a snake pit with the density of that Indiana Jones meets in “Raiders of the Lost Ark“.

The only way to break the cycle is to focus time on building the critical ladders today, even though the snakes are swarming at our feet.

As a leader this means placing critical importance on building a few key ladders:

  1. Make sure the tasks you are working on are truly “important”
    With a high volume of “urgent” tasks it is likely that some unimportant ones will sneak through. It’s also a good time to validate your criteria for “important” since it’s likely that what was considered important a few years ago has shifted, or that by asking a few questions about the task you’re being asked to do you may find that the urgency is more perceived than real.
  2. Focus on getting the right people on the bus
    When the pace of business change was slower and market growth came easier it was easier to accept that your team wasn’t perfect. A nail in the tire of the bus and a slow and squeaky entry door can be managed when you’re not driving through a snake pit. Now that those market compensators are gone though it’s time to make sure that you have the right people on the bus, the bus is in top running condition, and you have the engagement of the team that they would get out and push the bus with you if something goes wrong. You can’t afford to hire just to fill a seat – you need to take the time to find top talent and build an engaged and passionate culture.
  3. Delegate
    Now that you have the right people on the bus and the right culture it’s time to leverage the team to free your time to build the critical ladders. Too many leaders haven’t made the transition from doer to leader effectively and/or have a perception that when it comes to snakes (urgent/important) that they need to apply their experience and knowledge directly to the problem to be successful. You need to recognize that if you were successful in putting the right people on the bus then delegating these critical tasks to them is the only option that maximizes your chance for long term success.
  4. Streamline the work
    Processes and procedures remain important, particularly in large and distributed organizations, but those processes have to be lean if you’re going to effectively free time from the snakes to look at the ladders. Reexamine the value you are trying to deliver in each part of your process and then eliminate anything that doesn’t directly support that value. In older or poorly designed processes you may find that you are able to eliminate significant (>80%) amounts of work just by rethinking the value proposition.

I’m sure that there are a dozen or more other important ladders that we should be building, but setting the foundation today to prioritize ladder building even when the snakes are swarming will set you up to rise above the swarm and leave your competitors behind to deal with them.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what the most critical Ladders to build are, or your experiences in shifting your focus to apply more time in the Important/Not Urgent box of the Covey matrix.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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