Coupling & Crosstalk: Priorities First! Or Last? Or Not At All?

pina colada - canstockphoto1826026
Coupling & Crosstalk is my column in the MEPTEC Report. This column appears in the Fall 2013 edition on page 12.

Electronic coupling is the transfer of energy from one circuit or medium to another. Sometimes it is intentional and sometimes not (crosstalk). I hope that this column by mixing technology and general observations is thought provoking and “couples” with your thinking. Most of the time I will stick to technology but occasional crosstalk diversions may deliver a message closer to home.


Priorities First! Or Last? Or Not At All?

Do I confuse being busy with being productive?

Does being efficient help me reach my goals?

What should my goals be?

Maybe I’m too much of a management geek since I spend my “lazy” summer days thinking about these topics instead of working on my tan.  Okay, truth be told I don’t have many “lazy” summer days and I certainly don’t worry about my tan but I do think about these questions and more

Most of us have our own “management” or “productivity” systems. Some may follow Ivy Lee’s famous advice to Charles M. Schwab of Bethlehem Steel “to write down your top six priorities, in order, for tomorrow and do nothing but them in sequence!” Others may use David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology “for stress free productivity” to which I’m partial. And there are those who work in a chaotic stream of consciousness fashion but may be mistaken for a whirling dervish.

The weakness with all these systems is one’s self control to stay on course all (or most of) the time. In today’s hyper-connected world, I cannot image most professionals – let alone a C-level executive – being able to focus exclusively on six priorities in order per Mr. Lee. Maybe one or two priorities for a short [Ed note: Phone rings, author answers. Author then goes off to check email messages that just arrived.] period of time perhaps enabled by an administrative assistant with the demeanor of a stone wall. It may not only be the lost ability to focus but the continual flow and interruption of data that often changes one’s priorities. The world has changed significantly from the one character per second ticker tape world Mr. Lee departed in 1934.

With ever shifting priorities, it is important to remember the difference between tactics and strategy. [Ed note: Author is distracted responding to a text message.] Priorities are the order in which tactics need to be tackled based on current urgency and importance. Tactics are set based upon short-term actions and reactions whereas strategy is one’s overarching high-level goals which should not change on a short-term basis. Typical strategic questions are: What markets should your company pursue? What should be your career progression? How to pay for your child’s higher education in ten years?

Tactics are the steps of what activities need to happen – and in what order – to achieve these strategic goals. Tactical examples include: perform a market survey to identify which markets to enter, earn a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) degree to increase the likelihood of being promoted to an executive position, and stop buying coffee at the coffee bar in order to save the money for a college fund. [Ed note: Author has just gotten up to refill his tea.]

When you are busy fighting the “good fight” or even the “daily grind”, you may be too focused on your priorities and tactics to step back and worry about strategy. Large companies often have the luxury of sufficient staffing with people solely focused on “strategic” planning and review. (Of course, the role of “Vice President of Strategic Planning” might cover a multitude of activities beyond planning sometimes akin to a minister without portfolio.) Regardless of staffing, better performing companies, small or large, often rely on a regular planning cycle, sometimes with the help of outside consultant(s), to perform strategic planning. Yes, the team may gripe about doing the work to prepare since it is time away from their tactical work but without it they may never get “out of the trenches.”

As one adjusts strategy and/or tactics, human nature due to loss aversion biases us against making efficient choices where cost has been sunk. You may have worked very hard on a project or spent a lot of money purchasing equipment. However, from a pure economic and business decision framework sunk costs are irrelevant. Decisions need to be made on the present value of past work or costs and opportunity cost.

We do not like to concede that many things are not worth what we paid for them even if we know they depreciate. Reality often sets in when we ask someone else to value an item. It is far harder to recognize that past time “invested” is also a sunk cost since you will never get it back. Like a good poker player, you need to know when to hold and when to fold! (If you really hate a movie twenty minutes in, aren’t you better off leaving the theatre early regardless of ticket price and otherwise enjoy your time?)

Time is one of the most precious commodities (for you and your company) and you need to carefully examine the return on investment for all activities. How do these activities fit into your tactical plan and how well do they align with your strategy? Yes, some professionals make commitments that no longer fit their priorities due to changes in tactics or strategy. Instead of becoming known as someone who over commits but does not deliver, a true professional finds creative ways to gracefully adjust the commitment to everyone’s satisfaction.

Summer vacations often provide a good time to “disconnect” from the daily chaos and data overflows. Even if you only have a week planned, take time to step back and contemplate both personal and work strategies. This way you can adjust your tactics and reset your priorities when you return. Of course, resting and relaxing may seem wasteful but we do all need downtime for good health. Please pass me my piña colada; I need to go float in the pool… [Ed note: Author leaves smartphone on desk unanswered.]

Let us continue the discussion below. I welcome your comments!

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