Why We Can’t Get Things Done

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We all have things we want. Maybe it’s a trip to Thailand or to go back to school. Yet it seems like year after year passes, and that goal is exactly as far away from us as the day we set it.

If you are a CEO or a manager, you want things for your company. You want to move into that new market, or figure out mobile, or build a competency in an are you feel you are weak, such as design or customer service. And yet, even in the most successful companies, the thing we have determined must happen, doesn’t.

Why is this? If it is important then why doesn’t it happen? I believe there are five reasons.

One: We haven’t prioritized our goals.

There is an old saying, if everything is important, nothing is important. Too often we have many competing goals that all seem equally important. And they may feel equally important, but if I asked you to stack rank them instead of choose between them, you could probably put them in order. Once you’ve prioritized them, choosing to work on them one at a time has a much higher incidence of success.

It’s the same with a company, only worse. With so many people running around, you are sure you can get many goals to move forward. But the reality is, running a company takes work all by itself. Each day people are running hard to stay in place: fulfilling orders, stroking customers, minding hardware. Add to that background noise a half-dozen goals, and you assure very little beyond the bare necessities will happen.

By setting a single objective with only three key results to measure it, you can provide the kind of focus needed to achieve great things despite life’s little distractions.

Two: We haven’t communicated the goal obsessively and comprehensively.

“When you are tired of saying it, they are starting to hear it” – Jeff Weiner, CEO of Linkedin

Once you have picked the goal you want your team to focus on, you have to reiterate it daily. But it’s not enough to talk about it, you must weave reminders into every aspect of the company life. Progress toward the goal is updated, and thus reiterated, in status meetings and weekly status emails. New projects are evaluated against the goal. Each activity done in the company is tied back to the goal, and each achievement is celebrated as progress toward the goal.  To set a goal and then ignore it is an easy recipe for failure.

By continually repeating the goal every Monday in the commitment meetings, in the weekly status emails and in the friday wins celebrations, we assure that the goal is front of mind and tied to all activities.

Three: We haven’t made time for what matters

“What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” – Dwight Eisenhower

The Eisenhower box is a common time management tool. Most people focus on the lower right, where you stop doing what is unimportant and not urgent. But how many people take the upper left seriously and schedule what must be done? Urgent things get done, both important and unimportant, because we feel keenly the pressure of time. Unless we bring that pressure to other important things, they will continue living in the land of tomorrow. And because we live in the land of today, we never do them. When important tasks to reach out goals become urgent, they get done. Committing to your team you will do them within a set time does the trick.  Block out time to do what matters.

There is nothing as invigorating as a deadline. By committing every Monday to work toward the objective, you assure you’ll be held accountable to progress.

Four: We don’t have a plan to get things done

Once we know the one thing we must make happen, we think willpower is enough. Just Do It, right? Wrong.

When people want to lose weight, they do better with weight-watchers than willpower. When people want to get fit, they do better with personal trainers than will power. That’s because willpower is a finite resource. This was shown in a famous 1996 study by Roy Baumeister, in which subjects forbidden to eat a bowl of radishes were able to work twice as long on unsolvable math problems than those who had been forbidden to eat freshly baked chocolate cookies. (we also learned that it doesn’t take much willpower to skip eating radishes). After a long day of not quitting your job, killing your coworkers, or hitting reply-all on that email chain hitting the gym or turning down a slide of birthday cake is beyond anyone’s will.

You need a process that helps you make sense of the work you need to do, and keeps you on track even when you are tired. The process reminds you what to do, even when you don’t feel like doing it. The original OKR system was just a way to set smart stretch goals. But the system around it— commitment, celebrations, check-ins— makes sure you continue to make progress toward your goals even when you feel more like eating a cookie.

Pick a system, such as OKRs, that will get you to your goal.

Five: We give up instead of iterate

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy

When I work with clients to implement OKRs, I give them a warning: you will fail. You will all fail their first time in your own special way.

Maybe a company will find they have sandbaggers, and they manage to make all their key results in the first try because no one ever sets hard goals. This is a company that is afraid to fail, and has never learned what a stretch goal really is. The next cycle, they have to push themselves farther. Maybe they are the opposite, and don’t make key results, because they are constantly over-promising and under-delivering. This is a company lying to itself, and it also needs to learn what is is truly capable of. The most common issue is no follow through. I’ve seen any number of companies set OKRs, then ignore them the rest of the quarter. When the last week of the quarter shows up, they seem surprised when no progress has been made.

However the successful ones all have the same characteristic: they try again. The only hope for success is iteration. This does not mean blindly trying the same thing over and over again. I believe that is the definition of insanity. Instead you track closely what works, and what does not, and you do more of what works and less of what isn’t. The heart of success is learning.

Be willing to fail, but make sure you learn from why you failed, and make new mistakes. 

A Path to Success

It’s not complicated. It’s merely hard. Very hard. You have to pick what goal matters most, and not be greedy and unrealistic and try to do everything. You have to get clear in your mind and your message, then communicate it out over and over until everyone is on the same page. You have to dedicate time to accomplishing the goal, instead of endless hoping for a tomorrow that never comes. You have to have a plan that will keep you moving forward, even when you hare tired and disheartened. And you have to be ready for failure, ready to learn, and ready to try again.

We start our journey to our dreams by wanting, but we arrive by focusing, planning and learning.


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