Why focus is a leadership superpower

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What does it take to become an agile leader? The ability to focus on one thing, and one thing only, before moving to the next.

Extreme focus on the wildly important is a critical enabler for delivering results.

We’ve all had people working for us whose answer to “When will that thing be done” is “I’m working on it”, and the thing never seems to appear. Continually asking, being promised and not getting the results is one of the most frustrating situations a leader experiences.

These problems have a single root cause: trying to do more than the natural capacity. This is true for both delivering the day job, and for improvements that make the day job easier.

Why is this so painful? Three reasons:

1. Doing more things takes longer

Parallel work takes longer than serial work.

Imagine three projects, A, B and C. Each takes your team about a month’s worth of work to complete and delivers £10k of value per month once done. When the team are working on all three in perfect parallel, it will take you three times as long to deliver anything, and the valuable outcomes you’d hoped for have less time to make an impact.

This is doubly painful when the valuable outcomes are testing a hypothesis in a disruptive world of environmental change. Being able to respond much faster to opportunities and threats is a serious competitive advantage. You’re learning faster and your organisation is smarter.

2. Multitasking is a myth

We have all seen job adverts for all levels of roles, requiring effective multitasking. It’s a great idea, but that’s not how humans work. We task-switch. That task switching involves the effort of setting a mental save state to be able to pick up when we return to the task, and the effort of resuming. The more cognitively intensive the work, the harder this is.

So, while splitting multiple projects across a team is painful enough when each can focus on one thing, having people work on multiple projects at the same time is horrible.

If you were splitting your three projects above across the entire team, it wouldn’t take 3 months to get any of them delivered, it would take 5 months.

Do you know the 10 commandments of time management? Read them and obey!

3. Cognitive load is a productivity drag

On top of all this task switching, simply managing multiple projects escalates the draw on your management capacity. Think of the number of status reports and meetings that are required to track them.

The follow-up meetings to ask why everything takes so long. The stakeholders you’re annoying. That’s just the formal load. Add the risk of being lobbied to add yet another thing in the coffee queue. The more items you have committed to, the more of this work takes place.

We know this is the wrong approach. We know to under-promise and over-deliver, yet time and time again, we’re unable to make that a reality, in our own commitments and where we’re demonstrating agile leadership of others.

There is only one way out of this pain, one simple remedy to reliably make and fulfil commitments: Do less.

Agile leaders focus on the wildly important

The most effective way to show agile leadership in your organisation is to identify and prioritise the one thing that would make the most difference, most strongly advancing the goal of your organisation. Do that, and only that. Finish it and move on to the next. Repeat.

Sounds wrong, doesn’t it?

Our gut tells us that the sooner we start something, the sooner it will be done. But the opposite is true: when we deprioritise starting new things in favour of finishing existing ones, our queue of work clears and starts outputting the value we crave.

If you recognised your organisation in this, lead it into one immediate action, one default answer and one ongoing behaviour:

  • Agile leader action: take all the things you’ve currently committed your team to do. Kill half of them. Things will get better.

  • Agile leader answer: from today, if anyone asks you to take on anything new, the default answer is ‘No’.

  • Leading agile behaviour: take on a mantra for yourself, your sponsors and your team: ‘Stop starting, start finishing’. Repeat this whenever a new thing is proposed. Keep repeating it until you hear other people telling it to each other. And you see them acting on it.

Agile leaders play a vital role in the success of agile adoption in their organisation, and they are key to avoiding the most common pitfalls of agile transformations.  

 

About Martin Burns

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Martin has held many different positions over two decades: business analyst, project manager, Scrum Master and even a “weird web developer guy”—all fueling his passion for continuous improvement. A Lean coach with experience in industries including media, financial and government, Martin excels at improving delivery in complex, multistakeholder environments. Instead of a cookie-cutter approach to agile, he tailors a transformation approach from an organization’s current and desired future states. A key strength is as a non-dogmatic bridge-builder—coming from a disciplined work environment, he empathizes with structured organizations that are learning to let go and change, while still bringing a restless activism. His vision for sustainable delivery organizations is “everyone can go home at 5.” For Martin, agile is a never-ending journey and “... even though some have started it earlier, we’re all in it together.”

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