I often think about how successful companies like Shopify, HootSuite, and Airbnb stay focused. These companies are all made up of smart, creative, and passionate teams (which are made up of smart, creative, and passionate individuals) who share common goals. They effectively communicate, collaborate, and align on priorities which lead to the creation of the products and services that we use in our daily lives.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
But consider that at one point, each of these companies were made up of just a handful of individuals who each had their unique way of getting things done and could get those things done relatively quickly and without much friction. But then they began to scale, and had to get everyone in the company on the same page. How were they able to grow, while retaining the level of focus of a team of two? Perhaps you’re in this position yourself: hanging in the balance of what happens next, or figuring out how to lead your team to a place of focus.
Whether you’re managing a small creative team, a large division, or an entire company, developing organizational focus can be challenging, especially when faced with multiple competing deadlines and priorities. You might have a clearly defined mission, vision, and values; your goals and objectives could be crystal clear, but how do you get your team to consistently focus on them?
It helps to think about what you do as an individual, and scale out those practices at a macro level. I’ve put together a handful of tips on how you can get your team to keep their eyes on the prize.
1. Focus on less
The ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, said it best: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Rather than trying to get everything done all at once, pick and choose your priorities carefully. Choose a handful of projects to work on that are mission critical. Apply the Pareto Principle: focus on the 20% of your work that will generate 80% of results.
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” – Steve Jobs
One mistake I’ve often seen teams make is biting off more than they can chew. When faced with a mountain of to-do’s, it can be paralyzing to consider the full scope of work ahead of you. It can scatter everyone’s attention. But when your team has just a handful of goals, it becomes easier to focus.
2. Keep a meta to-do list
Everyone has their personal system for knowing what to do and when. Some use sticky notes, others use agendas. Some commit to memory, and others use their calendar. No matter what tools individuals in the organization use for themselves, you can’t move forward with projects without a centralized to-do list that displays your team’s priorities.
“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”
3. Simplify priorities (and then simplify again)
Getting ideas off the ground requires careful planning; having a plan in the first place improves your chances for success. But there’s always a risk of falling into a trap that paralyzes ideas: over-planning. Too many details can be overwhelming and might stop making sense after a while. Scoping out priorities at a team level can also be a slow process.
For Noah Weiss (VP of Product at Foursquare), it’s about taking steps forward as quickly as possible without losing sight of long-term projects and goals. Weiss created a prioritized roadmap that was common across teams. He came up with a streamlined process that follows only three simple timelines: #now, #next, and #later.
- #Now deadlines should be set within a month (more or less). My team uses weekly sprints.
- #Next deadlines should be assigned to items due within 1-3 months. It helps to think in terms of quarters when it comes to #next deadlines.
- #Later deadlines should be set for things that are more than 3 months out. These deadlines form a pool that you can pull from to become #later and eventually #next deadlines.
These deadlines are especially helpful for those behemoth projects which require considerable roadmapping. Sure, you’ve got to be meticulous with these projects – there’s a lot of dependencies and complexities at work. Just be careful that the time and energy it takes to coordinate your efforts isn’t slowing you down. To keep the ball rolling, there’s a good chance that you’ll be just fine with #now, #next, and #later deadlines.
4. Embrace constraints
According to Parkinson’s Law, “Work expands so as to fill the time allocated for its completion.” Consider working in measured bursts to simulate a sense of urgency for your team.
43 Folders creator Merlin Mann shares his advice: select a modest goal for the day, just to get the ball rolling. He calls this approach “dashes,” and he identifies three types: time-based dash, unit-based dash, and combination dash.
- Time-Based Dash: Specify a time by which you hope to complete the task at hand (i.e. “I will stop working at 2pm”). This is now your “end state.” If you complete your task before this end state, great. If not, you must stop working on it when the time is up.
- Unit-Based Dash: Select a quantity of tasks to complete (i.e. “I will complete 30 tasks today”), or a specific amount of deliverables associated with the task (i.e. “I will write 5 pages of this report”). Work toward reaching this unit-based end-state, and you’re good to go!
- Combination Dash: Sometimes it helps to establish both a time-based end state as well as a unit-based end-state, and then stopping your work based on whichever state you reach first.
5. Use meetings effectively (or don’t use them at all)
Meetings are seldom the answer to developing organizational focus. In fact, they can be counterproductive by taking time away from actually getting the work done. There are a number of tried and tested practices to using meetings effectively to benefit everyone in your organization:
Don’t meet unless you absolutely have to
Find out why you’re meeting; is a meeting necessary? Consider that if you’re meeting for an hour, it’s not just an hour of company time that is being lost; it’s the hour multiplied by the total number of people in attendance. Meetings should only be called after a consensus has been reached that a meeting is necessary. A meeting might be necessary for either of two reasons:
- Conflict: The relevant stakeholders can debate the decisions, propose alternatives, suggest modifications, or address concerns. The decision should ultimately be resolved in the meeting.
- Coordination: If a decision demands complex collaboration from different people, teams or departments, stakeholders can convene to coordinate an action plan.
Set hard time limits for your meeting
Never schedule one-hour meetings. Factor in lead-up time and come-down time, as well as the concept of “ego depletion” which posits that after 90 minutes, the average human’s capacity for paying attention decays exponentially, and you’ll quickly see how one-hour meetings can throw your entire day off. Instead, limit yourself to 15 or 30 minutes. At most, schedule 37.5 minute meetings.
The specific time will subtly indicate to attendees that there’s a reason why the meeting (whomp whomp) has to end. Remember Parkinson’s Law when scheduling meetings: “Work expands so as to fill the time allocated for it.” Keep your meetings short.
Ask people to prepare in advance for meetings
In most meetings, 3 people are doing 70% of the talking. You know this person — they always need to get in the last word. Heck, you could be that person without even realizing that you are!
Meetings shouldn’t be used for brainstorming or blindsiding people. The best meetings inspire, align people, and generate value. To help this process along, send out questions, topics, and reading well in advance of the meeting so that your time spent together can be more productive.
Steer clear of status meetings
Considering they could chew up 300,000 hours a year and do very little to advance projects, make a pact with your team that you’ll no longer schedule status meetings. Status meetings are usually filled with a series of forgettable statements, with diminishing returns proportional to the total number of attendees. The next time you schedule a meeting, make sure it’s a working meeting. Anything else should be avoided.
Get your team focused
When you get down to it, an organization is simply a collection of people with common interests. Thomas Hobbes nailed the concept of organizations in Leviathan. A metaphor for the state, the Leviathan is described as an artificial person whose body is made up of all the bodies of its citizens, who are the literal members of the Leviathan’s body. Organizations, like states, are the combination of organizational components — people, processes, and systems.
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
It behooves you to examine how your team can better function as a singular entity, no matter how big or how small. Consider the aforementioned tactics to develop focus and alignment, and use the very same tactics you’d use at an individual level for the larger organization.
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