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CEOs: Focus on Undoing, Not Doing

CEOs: Focus on Undoing, Not Doing


scott maxwellScott Maxwell
Scott is the Senior Managing Director at OpenView Venture Partners.

We all have goals for things that we need to get done. But, too often, we get caught up in (and distracted by) trying to do too much. Here’s why focusing on “undoing” things can be more productive.

If CEOs aren’t careful (and even if they are), activities tend to build up in the queue, particularly as a company grows and time moves on. Naturally, this raises the CEO’s level of stress and lowers their overall productivity.

Sure, the reality of being a CEO is that there will always be something new to do, something new to accomplish, and something new to fix. But when those things pile up, it can become incredibly difficult to figure out what exactly needs to be done first.

When was the last time you tried undoing something?

Think about it. If you’ve ever tried to stop eating, stop smoking, or stop drinking, you understand how difficult it is to undo personal habits. Businesses habits are similar, as most activities get started and then have a particular inertia to them. Most businesses don’t keep track of all their cumulative activities. In fact, much more often they focus on what they should do in addition to what they are already doing. Inevitably, that puts more stuff on a CEO’s plate and makes it virtually impossible to ever get anything done.

Truth is, it’s much harder to stop doing something than to start doing something — particularly when it comes to business processes.

This overabundance of doing rolls over to employees as well, who then develop a “this is how we do things” mindset and a need to feel that the things they are doing are valuable to the business (which also leads them to have a high perceived value of lower value activities).

Net net, it becomes extremely difficult to undo things!

How to Create a Plan for “Undoing”

The only management systems that most companies have to manage the undoing of things are cost budgeting systems, but most emerging growth companies are not very sophisticated with this type of management. Furthermore, very few CEOs and management teams budget from a zero-base (instead, their starting point is past activities).

So, in that kind of environment, how do you manage to get things undone?

There are only two management approaches that I have seen work in my time working with growing technology companies:

  • Think short-term: The best approach is when you can zero-base activities relatively frequently and be absolutely clear on what your people are working on and what the short-term priorities are. This is generally easier in development, sales, and customer services groups than in marketing, finance, IT, and admin functions, but doing this will allow you to explicitly stop certain activities and allow more time for the high value activities. This works particularly well in agile development environments for development, well managed sales groups, and well defined customer service processes.
  • Force feed prioritization: If you can’t for some reason do the above, then try putting enough goals on everyone’s plate so that they have too much to do. This approach generally leads to a prioritization conversation (or more resources if you aren’t careful!), which leads to activities being dropped off the plate (ideally, the lower value activities). This approach isn’t perfect, but it works. A similar approach is to keep your hiring extremely lean vs. demand as you grow, which will keep the focus on the high value activities.

The bottom line is that when you try to do too much, you end up doing nothing.

So, rather than focusing on what else you can do as a CEO, think instead about what you — and your team — could be undoing (or taking off your plate) to make yourselves more productive. This will force you to have laser focus on truly high value activities and implement things that make you (and your business) more valuable.

Have any ideas or tips for improving CEO or employee productivity? Or, do you disagree with any of my advice in this post? Let’s get the conversation going in the comments section below!

Note: The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views held by Inc42, its creators or employees. Inc42 is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by guest bloggers.

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