Many years ago (I won’t say how many), I had a new boss (we’ll call him “Kevin”). He was actually my supervisor’s boss. Kevin had spent most of his career in communication roles (he created presentations and documents to give to the board.) When Kevin came from a part of the organization whose priorities were presentations (pretty ones) into the department I worked for he was coming into a working group that on a daily basis created transactions that enabled the business to produce products. In my case, I had double duty working with two different groups as their support person. I had just received approval on a $75+ million project and had one week to get all the spending items set up. Kevin arrived on Monday and I had to have all the paperwork for ordering equipment, the release of funds, etc. done by Friday.

Make It “Pretty” or Be Productive, You Choose

Every Friday there was management review of each of operational area. The senior management for our group would come to town and every area analyst (my position) would go in to review performance metrics for our operations. I had been doing the reviews for my area for a year at the time Kevin arrived. On Tuesday, Kevin came by my desk and told me to “pretty up” my one-page report for Friday. I told him about the spending deadline and agreed that if I had time before Friday’s review, I would take a look at the document. At that point I had 20% of the 1000 line items created.

Priorities at workThe next day, Wednesday, Kevin came by to see my revised, “pretty” one pager. It was, of course, done. I had 40% of the line items done after working 16 hours on Monday and Tuesday. I again said when I got a chance, I would take a look at improving the document. I went back to working on my line items.

On Thursday morning Kevin came by and demanded that I stop and “pretty up” the schedule for the 9:00 am Friday meeting. I told Kevin that I wouldn’t be doing that. I had to get the line items done and I had some doubts as to whether I would even be in the Friday meeting at all if I didn’t have the line items done. I explained that I kept getting interrupted and that was slowing the process down. He went to my supervisor. They both came out to direct me to “pretty up” the schedule. Now if it was a five-minute task to pretty up the document, it might have been worth the break. But it was easily going to take half the day to do.

Focused on Productivity and Priorities

I picked up the phone and called my mentor. (I was fortunate to have a formal mentor in this company, who was there to help me navigate the challenges.) I was 45 minutes away from his office without traffic. His assistant said he could see me in 30 minutes for 15 minutes. I made it in time (and no one was hurt). I sat down with my mentor, who was one of the executives that would be in the Friday meeting and had been seeing that document for a year) and told him my dilemma. I had critical priorities that had to be completed on the spending project by Friday close of business, but I kept being interrupted and berated for not taking the time to beautify an internal document that the exec team had been seeing for a year!

As we talked, my mentor was dumbfounded that the priorities weren’t clear to my managers. The project spending had to be done. Not only was any time away from that project (including my trip to his office) putting the project at risk, but an internal document needed to be focused on content and not appearance. If it was readable, contained the information in the proper format to make decisions, that was all that mattered—especially after having that report in place for a year.

Realign Activities to Results

As a result of our mentor session, he made a call that shall we say “realigned” everyone’s priorities. He made it clear the difference between real productivity and priorities and busywork. It was a lesson my managers never forgot. You see, my mentor was their boss.

Lessons Learned from “Pretty Work” and “Just in Case”

From this one example where the priorities established for the organization weren’t being translated and cascaded down through the organization properly, you may be able to identify similar misalignments in your organization. Is every level of your organization prioritizing the work that matters? It meant that many times the work that made the products, that served the customer, was placed at a lower priority than internal politics and “pretty work.”

Unfortunately. for many companies, their self-assessment reveals that many times the work that made the products, that served the customer, was placed at a lower priority than internal politics and “pretty work.”

Another Lesson in Priorities

Another example came when this same organization decided to speed up reporting processes and reduce the number of performance metrics that each area of the business reported on. So, the goal of the organization was to reduce the complexity of data capture, tracking, analysis, and reporting by focusing on the metrics that were critical to the organization’s ability to act and compete.

So the Board and Senior Leadership team picked around 10 metrics to have the organizations report on. And manufacturing had one set. Marketing and sales had their own and so on. So overall there would be 10 metrics for each area that would sum up to the organizations 10 key metrics.

Based on those requirements a new performance reporting system was being developed. We began modeling the new system with database software. As the system was designed, the project manager kept hearing from the various areas about “well we want to track this too, just in case.” The corporate key metrics established by Corporate required around 1 million pieces of data to be collected worldwide and consolidated. With the addition of the “just in case” data, the data being collected was suddenly around 1 trillion data points. The database model couldn’t even handle it! The new system with all the “just in case” items was now bigger and more cumbersome than the old systems!

Check Your Focus

If you want your organization to thrive, be honest about what your team is working on and prioritizing. Are your employees working to make things look “pretty” or are they focused on productivity? Have you created an atmosphere where people know what to work on? Or are they busy making sure they are covered “just in case” you change your mind? In other words, are you being consistent? Are you articulating a vision, setting goals, and then enabling your team to work toward that vision and those goals?

So, the big question for you is: Do you say what you want them to do—reach those goals—and stick with it? Are you focused? Are you measuring results or watching the amount of time your team is in the office? Are you measuring performance based on the things that move the organization toward the goal? Or are you rewarding something else? If you want

  • to succeed, then you have to be focused on the goal.

  • your people to work toward the goal, then you have to focus them on that goal.

  • do more with less, then you have to be focused on what matters

    Then, forget the “busyness” and get down to business. Start now.


Copyright ©2016 Lea A. Strickland, F.O.C.U.S. Resource, Inc.





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