With all my talk of change as your most formidable competitor, it’s easy to see disruptive forces and the ever-increasing pace of change as the enemy that your business must defeat. But the real enemy of business evolution is not change, but how ‘now’ cripples your ability to focus on what’s ‘next’.
It’s the multitude of forces, both life forces and our genetic predisposition, that keep us anchored in the present – the immediate and urgent – and prevents us from effectively focusing our thinking and activity on the future.
To become the sort of nimble and adaptive organisation that translates strategic aspirations into operational reality, you must be able to take action today. Action that progressively shapes and moulds the business into the future version of itself. You need to be intentional about defeating the forces that stop you from making ‘next’ a part of your ‘now’.
Time and attention is a finite resource – spend it wisely.
More than at any point in history, time and attention are your most valuable resources. The demands of the immediate and urgent on your time are greater than they have ever been. The growing volume of information that must be processed in our hyper-connected world is placing unprecedented demands on the attention of today’s business leaders. The constant bombardment of apps, articles and performance metrics that emphasise the importance of productivity means the ‘business of busyness’ is our top consumer of time and energy.
As a result, the efficiency with which we spend our time is prioritised over the effectiveness. We place emphasis on minimising the expenditure of our attention on those things that don’t provide immediate value rather than investing it wisely in the business’s long-term health. This focus then spreads through the enterprise as a reflection of what is perceived as important – behaviour that is valued.
The good news – we are genetically wired for this type of reactionary environment.
For millennia, our foremost concerns were the immediate need to find food and maintain our shelters while constantly being on the lookout for danger.
When faced with an urgent threat or emerging crisis, we get physically aroused through the release of adrenaline and cortisol. This allows us to spring into action and face the challenge or flee quickly. We get psychological pleasure from the dopamine hit that accompanies this arousal. We get a sense of satisfaction from a day filled with problem-solving because of the in-built release of serotonin.
The stakes aren’t quite as high today as they were for our ancestors. You are unlikely to get physically eaten while solving the daily challenges in your business. However, it does imply that the immediate and urgent isn’t just a condition that exists within your business environment; it’s also a physiological trap we are pre-disposed to fall into.
The beauty of problems that come flowing into your office – via the phone, email or unexpected visitors – is that you don’t have to go searching for them. You can turn on your reactive brain and let your instincts take over. There is also a strong sense of accomplishment that comes from a day filled with putting out fires, solving pressing problems or getting through your to-do list (who hasn’t added a thing or two to their ‘list’ that they’ve already completed just to get the affirming satisfaction of ticking it off!).
The bad news – if you wait until you see the sabre-toothed tiger then there’s a good chance it’s too late.
At the other extreme of our behavioural pre-disposition is the human tendency to focus on avoiding loss rather acquiring equivalent gains – what cognitive psychologists call ‘loss aversion’. Studies have shown that we’re over twice as likely to expend effort to avoid a loss than to obtain a gain of equal value.
This means that in a time- and attention-poor world, future-focused work – the acquisition of gain or advantage – gets pushed into the background by our affinity for ‘fire-fighting and expediting’.
As a result, most organisations don’t acknowledge a problem or a threat until it is a BIG problem or threat – one that has confirmed its existence by manifesting itself as a negative business performance result. Even more importantly, new ideas and opportunities don’t get serious attention until the market – or a competitor – has demonstrated their viability. Often, this demonstration is couched in terms of some type of emerging business problem or threat.
To take advantage of our affinity for the immediate, we need to bring the next into the now.
If you want to make strategy part of your business’s day-to-day reality, you must bring the future into the present in a way that takes advantage of how we naturally allocate our time and attention. You need to translate the ethereal world of strategic aspiration into specific, outcome-focused initiatives – strategic projects as I call them – that move the business step-by-step toward your strategic goals.
Give these projects distinction and priority by:
- Establishing a strategic roadmap that makes the most important projects a business imperative that has immediacy.
- Creating a strategic execution framework that allows your people to use the strength of their knowledge and experience to deliver successful outcomes that progress your strategic agenda – rather than being burdened by creating project momentum.
- Maintaining an accountability structure that values making and keeping commitments – to fellow team members as well as the purpose the team collectively serves.
- Learning from every forward step you take – both the successes and the things that don’t go to plan – so you’re constantly growing both as a business and as a strategic execution organisation.
- Recognising strategic progress and celebrating success so that you give your future-focused activities meaning and value – value that far outweighs the avoidance of today’s minor pains and problems.
How do you make your future-focused work a priority on today’s ‘to do’ list? What steps have you taken to get your team to value the creation of gain as much as the management of threats and risks? Do your people know what they can be doing today that serves the business’s strategic goals? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.