The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do”. Michael Porter
What are the things you are not going to do? This always seems to be a challenge for organisations and I have seen many leaders avoid this question because they want to see all their ideas implemented. Projects were selected because they were important and once time has been invested it is hard to give up.  Understandable, but not always helpful to engaging an organisation or getting results.  If this approach is used resources are diluted and people are left doing many different activities, with slow progress being made on each task.  Projects/tasks that get done are the ones that seem simple, or ones that have strong project leaders, or those that a leader has as their individual (rather than organisational) priority. Or nothing gets done and the organisation continues to do what it has always done as day to day work consumes resources rather than people finding time for what is critical, but sometimes less urgent, to move the organization forward.  Sound familiar?

What are some proven techniques that have helped organisations and individuals focus and abandon tasks that are not as important?

  1. Actively select and implement priorities

Selection of the 3-5 top organisational priorities that will move the organisation forward. (click here for more information about how to do this)  Called “strategic imperatives” or “battles to be won” or “big rocks” they are the important few that will make or break the organisation if addressed effectively.  Naming them with strong language captures attention and helps focus. Selection of priorities is done based on a clear future vision and a strong common understanding of the environment that the organisation works in. What is the one thing (the “home run” ) that you absolutely need to achieve? All other priorities will be second to this. This creates clear focus and enables better decision making. Communicate priorities and that people should not work on other projects.

  1. Clarify roles and be conscious of overload

In a world where roles are constantly changing, matrix working is becoming the norm as is an expectation that we will be proactive and collaborate with others.  Not surprisingly roles are becoming more diffuse and lacking in clarity.  As leaders at all levels we constantly need to clarify what our roles are so that we can focus (as an individual or as a team) on delivering what is adding the most value to the organization and not get overloaded in constantly adding tasks to our existing role. We all have times when we do take on extra work, but being aware of this and ensuring this is a temporary situation is the first step to managing workload.

  1. Say No! Have an active and visible goal to abandon lower priority activities and create mechanisms to achieve this

Often forgotten by leaders, this is the most important thing to do to reduce perception of overload and to allow people to focus on organisational imperatives rather than feeling stressed.   Hold meetings where abandonment is the focus.  List out all the activities that are being done and ask the question – what can we take off our plate?  To implement abandonment ideas, understand any risks with abandoning the activity and any barriers that would stop you moving forward so that you feel comfortable abandoning activities / projects when you leave the meeting.  Whilst searching for abandonment ideas capture opportunities to reduce workload by asking “what can be delayed to another day?” or “what task can be reduced or diminished?” which will also help to focus your organization on those activities that are truly important.   By identifying and communicating activities you have abandoned, you are sharing the importance of the activity and creating momentum for more abandonment and more focused success.

  1. Identify the behaviours that are stopping you saying “no”

Despite having priorities set, clear roles and mechanisms to help you focus sometimes it’s still hard to say no.  It might be that you have a tendency to micro manage?  or you’re hyper competitive? or a bit of a “pleaser”?  All of these traits can lead to you doing more than is yours to do, leading to resentment, friction and demotivation in both you and others. Meanwhile, efficiency decreases alongside a rise in duplication within the business.  Many people are concerned that saying “no” will create tension, conflict and come across as unhelpful and fly in the face of the typically expected “can do” attitude.  So what then?  A great option is to ask solid questions that help to understand the changing priorities.  For example; “This sounds like a new priority.  Is that right?  / How does this sit alongside the previous priorities we’ve agreed?  / What needs to stop in order that this new activity take priority?”  Prioritisation is a skill that needs to be learned and practiced.  Warren Buffett notes “We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.’”

With solid clarity of priorities and of your role, effective self-management and good open questioning ensuring you’re fully informed of the latest context, comes a self-assuredness.  You are more in charge of your choices  enabling you to more effectively articulate your priorities with integrity and a generosity of spirit.  Even if you are, in the end, saying “no”.  After all as Steve Jobs said : “Focusing is about saying ‘no.’”   If all individuals in an organisation can increase their capability to effectively say no organisational performance will rise to a new level.


To Cat Guynan for taking my thoughts to the individual level – where change really happens

To Raymond Castonguay for role modelling focus and giving feedback on a achieving goals  and suggesting the “home run”