Many have felt the emotional drain of working hard without meaningful or measurable gain. You spend your days firefighting, and by the time you extinguish one fire, two more have erupted. Time passes, and you watch in vain as the hours, days, and weeks go up in smoke.
Few would argue that fire prevention is preferable to firefighting, but we often are seduced to tackle seemingly essential items and, in doing so, unintentionally light a fire. In short, leaders can also be arsonists in their organizations.
The perceived urgency of multiple tasks fuels a leader’s “get it done” attitude. This situation is especially true in a start-up when the leader is the CEO (Chief Everything Officer). When reacting replaces responding, and busyness overshadows effectiveness, chaos reigns, and seldom is a leader spending time to determine if they are working on the right things.
To help combat working on unimportant tasks, President Dwight D. Eisenhower developed a two-by-two matrix with urgency on one axis and importance on the other. The famed “Eisenhower Matrix” is also described as the “Time Management Matrix” by Stephen R. Covey in the third habit (Put First Things First) of his well-known book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Both men agree that leaders should spend their time on important but not urgent tasks. These tasks are known as Quadrant II activities. It sounds simple enough, but what is an important activity?
First, leaders must spend time on activities that they are uniquely talented to perform. If someone else is equally or better skilled, the best decision is to delegate the action. Out of the remaining tasks, a leader should then assess which will have the greatest lever or impact. The size of a task alone is not an accurate measure, as small things can lead to big things. Many have played with dominos. Not the game per se, but standing them up on their short edge in a long line or an elaborate pattern and then, with a slight touch, watching the chain reaction as one domino topples another that topples another. It is a simple matter of physics, but you may not know the immense power that little domino has.
In 1983, Lorne Whitehead wrote in the American Journal of Physics that he had discovered that domino falls could not only topple many things, but they could also topple bigger things. In that article, he described how a single 1.25” x 2.5” domino can topple skyscraper-sized objects. Okay, while that is interesting, what does that have to do with life in an organization? The answer is the ONE Thing.
In his book, The ONE Thing, Gary Keller presents a single focusing question – “What is the ONE thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
In short, what is the first domino? What is that single thing that I can do that will solve my problem, make my task easier, save me time, or prevent me from dealing with the same situation in the future?
As Keller explains, the structure of the question itself is powerful. The first portion, “What is the ONE thing I can do…” tells us that the answer will be one thing, not many. The phrase “can do” is an embedded command directing us to take an action that is possible, meaning we have the capacity or ability to do it. We should, could, or would do many things but never do. In reality, an action we “do” always beats a good intention.
The second part of the focusing question, “…such that by doing it…” tells us that there are conditions that our task selection must meet. The one thing we choose to do must affect the goal. A domino that falls and does not hit another is ineffective.
The final portion of the focusing question, “…everything else will be easier or unnecessary,” is the ultimate leverage test. If that statement is true, we have found our first domino.
So, as we approach our work, take a moment to see the entirety of the task and ask the focusing question. Put down the gasoline can and the matches, find your first domino, watch it douse the largest of fires, and solve your impossible problems.