Too Busy To Save Your Company

One of my final posts of 2012 memorialized the brands we lost last year, and inspired the question, how do so many companies so often so badly miss the boat?  It’s even more perplexing when they know where it’s docked, what time it leaves, and who is the captain of that departing ship.  Seems they are just too busy to make their way to the boarding gate.

Yep, you could have found your way out, met the challenge of creative destruction, and banked the opportunity by reallocating resources from historic enterprises to future growth, but you didn’t.  How does that keep happening?

In a recent Wall Street Journal profile, longtime media executive Strauss Zelnick, who has worked his way through several platform shifts, summarized it perfectly:

One of the problems with some of the diversified media conglomerates is you get the benefit of the cash flow of legacy assets and the burden of owning legacy assets. You own a motion-picture company and you should be thinking about what digital technology will do to your business. But when you wake up in the morning you’ve got to be on the phone with the folks in your studio, talking about a $200 million picture that’s going to cost $300 million and the star who’s not showing up at work and the marketing plan that’s going to cost you $100 million world-wide.

When someone says to you, “I think you should meet with this guy, he’s 26 years old, he graduated from MIT, he’s in Brooklyn doing a really interesting social media startup,” you say, “It does sound interesting but I’m too busy to do that.”

That happens a lot, way too often.  People are so busy in their jobs, ensconced in the past, they have no time to breathe the future.  Then the future becomes the present, and it’s too late.

Busy, busy, busy.  But is busy the same as productive?  Not quite.  Sometimes, not at all.  Companies intend to keep you busy.  If you aren’t busy, or if you at least don’t look busy, you’re probably at risk.  But do you add real value, especially in light of constant change?

How we prioritize our time says a great deal about what we value.  In leadership positions, we have to manage available time carefully, our “to-do” lists are rewritten each day, week, month, and year as a series of choices.  In the simplest examples, we have to decide which emails and calls to answer, which reports to read, which employees and customers to see.  On a more grand scale, we have to develop a strategic plan and manage the component tactics that are meant to create value for all stakeholders in that plan.

Exhaustion does not look forwardWe have an awful lot of choices to make short and long-term.  There are things we can change and some we cannot.  One thing human beings have yet to do is create more time on the clock.  We think we do this by multi-tasking (or foregoing sleep, family, and fun), but we are just borrowing against a fixed asset.  The choices we make about priorities have much more impact on the far-ranging output of our ventures than any hour we steal back, the memo we draft during the meeting we’ve decided we can ignore while sitting in it.

Which brings us back to the most important question — are we not only busy, but productive?  Are the choices we are making that comprise that busy state truly adding value commensurate with our position and expectation?  Surely meeting with every young entrepreneur or technologist who fires off a business plan would be impractical, in fact irresponsible!  Think of all the wasted time given the low the hit rate for unproven initiatives.  Many executives choose to delegate this kind of responsibility to a new box on the org chart — for a while it was vogue to have a Chief Innovation Officer.  I was sourced on what I thought of that several times over the past few years, to which I replied, isn’t the CEO always the Chief Innovation Officer?  And if she or he is, doesn’t everyone on the leader’s team up and down the line know immediately they are de facto part of the solution by virtue of the reporting structure?  Remember the old maxim — what my boss finds interesting, I find fascinating.

Carving out discretionary time might be the most important thing an executive can do — thinking time, learning time, creative time — and yet, where does it get prioritized?  Too often somewhere between doing an expense report and tidying up your desk, after hours when you’re exhausted.  What if you scheduled an hour at the beginning of each day specifically for exploratory purpose?  Or if not at the beginning of the day, as a respite sometime during the day?  You could block it on your calendar like an appointment with your boss, inviolable, as important as anything else you are doing.  You could make it clear to those around you that you wanted them to help you fill that hour with introductions to out of the ordinary people, invitations to exhibits, maybe just an obscure white paper on a tangential topic.  Your hour could then become their hour, and the exploration could cascade.  Would you catch every single opportunity that might have eluded you?  Doubtful.  But would you instill a culture of openness where meaningful resources were clearly dedicated to the unknown?  It couldn’t hurt.

Just walking that walk, talking often about your natural curiosity, leading by example to set the tone for the mandate and institutional respect of creativity, yeah, I think that would help.  There is a good deal of room between having to ingest every new idea that comes your way and fully delegating innovation to an isolated “special projects” department.  Balance in leadership is critical, making good on today’s commitments while preparing for tomorrow, and it would be hard to maintain respect in an organization for a boss who neglected contractual obligations that paid the bills to wander aimlessly in dreamland.

Clearly there is no textbook approach on getting this right or fewer companies would fail, but leaders who strive to find a workable balance between maintaining focus on existing lines of business while bridging access to the unknown — even if only by maintaining an honest open door policy — seem to have a better shot at extended shelf life.  Whenever I worked for someone who did this, who asked me to bring them interesting stuff to look at that may not have mattered to everything else we were doing, that made me think harder about everything we weren’t doing to deflect the attackers quietly sneaking up on our castle.  It also led to a few projects over the years I never would have conceived could make a difference in our business.

Fostering a culture of openness is much more promising than insisting on a culture of busy-ness.  And there you have it, that strange root word that compels us to activity often in abstraction of thought.  We need both to survive, don’t you think?  If you have a moment, get back to me on that — although I will understand if you’re dance card is full.  In fact I expect just that.

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