Dear Karin & David,
What do you do with a boss who makes it impossible to focus? We agree on a direction and three days later he has seventeen new ideas, dumps them on us, and the managers are expected to somehow get their teams organized and performing. We can’t ever finish one project before starting three more. Of course, I’m asking for a friend.
We hear you.
It can be incredibly frustrating when it feels like you can’t focus. We have worked for, consulted with many, (and even been) leaders whose frequent new ideas leave their people gasping for breath and confused as to where to focus.
The good news is that these leaders can bring many strengths to their jobs and together you can be very effective.
Let’s start by appreciating what your boss is bringing to the relationship. It sounds like your boss is an innovator. These people see the world as a series of opportunities.
They’re energized by possibilities and can create new and exciting ways of doing things. They often think about the big picture, start initiatives noone’s ever thought of, and are the antidote to lethargic “business as usual.” All sorts of ideas excite them and their enthusiasm can be contagious and motivating.
Remember these assets as you consider the challenges: they get distracted, their excitement can be exhausting, and it’s easy for projects to get lost as they pile up.
Next, let’s look at how you can help yourself and your boss to maintain focus.
First, have a conversation to establish the MITs for the year and for the immediate quarter. What is the Most Important Thing you and your team will achieve? We recommend you initiate this conversation so it doesn’t seem like a reaction or negation of your boss’s latest idea.
Next, communicate weekly with your boss about how you are making progress toward the agreed-upon MITs. (We recommend using the MIT Huddle Planner to facilitate these conversations.) This serves two purposes: First, it lets your boss know what you’re doing. Second, it subtly reminds your boss what you both agreed were the Most Important Things you would do.
Third, when your boss brings their latest new idea:
- Take time to listen. Make the effort to understand why it excites them and why they think it’s a good idea.
- Validate their reason for suggesting it by reflecting what you hear. e.g.: “That sounds like a great way to get in front of more customers.” Note that this isn’t a commitment to do it. You’re entering into the conversation by ensuring you’ve understood the reason for their suggestion.
- Ask how it aligns with other priorities. e.g.: “I know you’ve asked us to prioritize the new product development and customer retention this quarter. Is this an alternative to those priorities? Would you like resources reassigned this quarter or is this for the future? Which of these initiatives is the Most Important Thing?”When you ask these clarifying questions, your boss will often think about just how much of a priority the new idea should be. Sometimes they’ll say something like “It’s a fun idea, but let’s maintain our current focus for now.” Other times, however, they’ll have a good reason that the new idea ought to be pursued. It may achieve more than an existing initiative or meet a more urgent issue your boss has to respond to.
- Check for Understanding. e.g.: “Okay, let me make sure I’ve got it: we’re going to stick with new product development and customer retention as our MITs this quarter. We’ll reconvene in six weeks to look at this idea with an eye to scheduling it for next quarter. Do I have that right?”
After this conversation, continue your weekly communications about the progress you’ve made on your MITs. This cadence of communication and conversation will help everyone think through priorities and shift them with clarity and purpose.
We’ve coached many managers on both sides of these conversations. In our experience, the idea-generating managers may initially be a little frustrated, but they come to value the questions.
In the words of Matt, a CFO who was frustrating his team with weekly new ideas:
“I hated it when my direct reports would ask me ‘How does this idea fit in with our other priorities?’ but after a few times, it helped me to really think it through and keep us focused on what mattered most.”
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