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If everything is important...

Organizational Health

In my latest book, Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars, I present a model for achieving alignment across departments within an organization, and eliminating unnecessary and costly infighting. A pleasant by-product of that model is improved prioritization for companies, something that is sorely lacking for so many of them.

Most of the companies I have encountered over the years seem addicted to having a long list of "top" priorities. As a result, they're unable to focus on any one of them out of fear that doing so will somewhat increase the likelihood that others will fall by the wayside.

And so, the vast majority of these organizations end up peanut-buttering their energy and attention across so many different activities that none of them seem to be any more imperative than another. Hence the phrase, "if everything is important, then nothing is."

Managers and employees alike are left scratching their heads as they try to decipher where to focus their limited time and resources, ultimately defaulting to whatever activity is most urgent or most tactically relevant to their isolated jobs.

I've found that the best way to demonstrate the problem — and illustrate a solution — is to start close to home. In fact, at home itself.

Establish a Thematic Goal

Every family can relate to the craziness of trying to manage a long list of competing priorities. Keeping the kids active versus spending more time at home as a family. Saving money for college vs. taking nice vacations. Maintaining date night with your spouse vs. carving out one-on-one time with the kids. Working harder to earn more money for the family vs. coaching the little league team. The list is endless, leaving us breathless and frustrated, and all-too-often, feeling defeated.

And that's where a thematic goal can be so helpful for a family. For those who haven't read Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars, a thematic goal is a rallying cry that gives people in an organization an unambiguous sense of what is most important during a given period of time, usually 6 - 12 months. Let's take a look at how this might apply in our homes.

Imagine that you have three boys, and that you are living somewhere close to the edge of chaos. Between baseball and school and church and soccer and cub scouts and gymnastics and homework and housework and office work and yard work - there is little time for sleep, let alone family management. Now imagine that you or your wife becomes pregnant. I cannot only imagine this, but I have recently experienced it.

I thought it would be a good opportunity to put my theory of a thematic goal to the test. Immediately, my wife, Laura, and I agreed what our thematic goal would be: Prepare For Baby #4. Easy enough. The sub-text of this goal was to keep our family sane and ensure that it had a fighting chance to stay that way going forward.

Keep in mind that there were other things we wanted to do during that time period. Like redo the front yard or take up pilates. But it was also clear to us that preparing for the arrival of another child was far and away the most important priority, and that nothing should prevent us from doing so. If that meant that the front yard would be a jungle for another six months and our inability to touch our toes without bending our knees would continue for awhile, then so be it.

The next question we had to answer about our priority was, how? How do we go about doing this? Do we walk around every day mumbling the mantra "Prepare For Baby #4", "Prepare For Baby #4"? Or do we plaster "PFB #4" signs all over the house to remind us? Only if we want our friends to make fun of us.

Make it Real

The first thing we needed to do was decide what we would need to accomplish in order to say that we had, indeed, adequately prepared for our new arrival. After some thought and conversation, we decided that there were four general categories (I call them defining objectives in the book, because they define what is required to accomplish the thematic goal).

  • Finish a house remodel that was behind schedule and had the potential for dragging on far into the future. We couldn't have construction taking place under the same roof where a newborn was living.
  • Outsource a few household responsibilities that we would not be able to continue doing, and that weren't core to being good parents. In our case, that meant a little more help with house cleaning and some external financial management support.
  • Make our eight year old twins self-sufficient in terms of making breakfast, dressing themselves for school, taking showers, etc, because we could no longer afford to supervise these activities. And our three and a half year old would need to make a major step up in terms of discipline, involving sleep hours, tantrums and television.
  • Purge our house of the countless "things" that we didn't really need to have, in order to make room for an influx of baby supplies.

So that was our basic structure for our rallying cry. If we could manage to make progress in each of these areas, we would be well on our way to sanely welcoming our new little boy. By the way, Michael was born on April 7, healthy and happy, thank God.

This concept of having a thematic goal and defining objectives is a simple one, and therein lies its power. It provides us with a manageable list of relevant issues that we can get our hands and minds around over an extended period of time. And just as importantly, it gives us permission to ignore other issues that would otherwise compete for our attention.

For most of us, whether we're running a household, a junior high school, a church or a corporation, our biggest challenge quickly becomes deciding what NOT to do. And when our heads hit the pillow at night, we don't want to be thinking about a long list of unrelated issues and e-mails and complaints that just happen to have found their way onto our desks.

If we're going to be losing sleep, we at least ought to be focused on those issues that truly matter most. And if there is no such list, then we're going to be losing a lot of sleep with little or nothing to show for it.