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Bruce Holland

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An Alarming Study

A recent American Management Association's survey unearthed the alarming statistic that "executives spend about 75% of their valuable time putting out fires".

My initial reaction was to disbelieve this finding until I started doing some of my own investigations. These have involved asking senior managers how they spend their time, then comparing this with what they think they should be doing. I've found that most people are currently involved in urgent routine activities such as excessive paperwork, solving other people's problems, correcting errors, and administration. Whereas almost everyone would prefer to be spending more time in leadership, strategy, envisioning, planning, development, communicating, thinking and learning.

Some of the main causes of fire fighting are:

  1. Lack of strategic focus
  2. People don't understand the strategies
  3. Not doing things right the first time
  4. Clogged up with non core business
  5. Managing rather than leading.

These subjects are too complex to do real justice to in the Newsletter, however, I have written several much longer papers on each of these subjects which I'm happy to send you if you ask.

Lack of strategic focus

The key concept in strategy is to be strongest at the decisive point. To be successful in any organisation there are thousands of things which need to be done well. However there are usually only two or three which are really decisive. The trick is to find these then to put enormous horsepower behind them so that they can not fail. Sometimes when I work with clients they want to select up to 10 strategies. In my experience more than 3 strategies and the the chance of any of them being successful is small.

This does not mean that these are the only things you should do. What it does mean is that they will be the things you should do first - they are not to be traded off. They will become the basis of your measurement and reporting, and the focus of your management meetings.

The bucket analogy

The best analogy I've heard comes from Covey. He said to imagine a big bucket. Beside the bucket are 3 large rocks. If you put the rocks into the bucket the bucket looks full. Except that if you shovel in some shingle it will slide down between the rocks and fill the gaps. Now the bucket is really full. Except that if you shovelled in some sand it slips between the shingle and fills the remaining gaps. But even now the bucket is not full because we have some water which finally tops it off. Now think about this analogy backwards. What would have happened if we had first put in the water, then the sand then the shingle? At the end there would have been no room for the rocks (the strategies). Many people don't get around to doing the really important things, either because they have not identified them or because they leave them until last.

People don't understand the strategies

Sometimes organisations have technically good strategies which fail through lack of implementation. It's usually because those at the grass roots (the people who will implement the strategies) don't understand them well enough. This results in managers either doing the work themselves or trying to bulldoze them through. Either way it's highly time consuming. If you want to significantly increase your chances of successful implementation then it's important that you create an opportunity for your front line to think through your organisation's strategies themselves.

In working with many organisations I have found that the ability to think strategically is fairly equally distributed across the organisation and has very little relationship with positions on organisation charts. At the grass roots people often use different words but their ideas and wisdom never fail to surprise management. If you don't have a "grass root strategy", you ignore it at your peril.

People not doing it right the first time

Does your organisation waste too much time correcting jobs which go wrong? This is a big one! It's a major reason for crisis management.

L.V.Martin says "It's the putting right that counts". I disagree. Too many outfits spend time correcting the job rather than correcting the process which led to the error in the first place.

In essence process improvement is about attitude, structure, measurement and improvement tools. Attitude accounts for perhaps 80% of the success. It's about getting the organisation's values right so all your people are customer focussed and thinking about every task in terms of how it will affect your customer's "moments of truth". Secondly it's about organisational structure and setting up improvement teams, support and coordination so that the effort can be organised. Thirdly it's about measurement and rewards and aligning these to the results you want. Finally it's about providing people with tools so that over time they can systematically work through all the processes they use and improve these from the perspective of your customer.

Clogged up with non core business

One of the reasons why some organisations are in crisis is that they are trying to be good at everything. Excellence is about focusing only on the things you can do to a world standard and shipping out the rest.

If the Olympics demanded that every runner also had to compete in swimming the world record times would be considerably worse.

Today most organisations are sloughing off a large part of their value chain and forming strategic partnerships with outside organisations. They realise that it's important for them to concentrate only on those parts where they can provide real competitive advantage, and that it's undesirable to own every step of the value chain. As Tom Peters says: "Most of yesterday's highly integrated giants are working over-time at splitting into more manageable, more energetic units - ie de-integrating. Then they are turning around and reintegrating, not by new acquisitions, but with alliances with all sorts of partners of all shapes and all sizes".

I work to help both parties achieve a clear vision of their joint future, an understanding what the end result of better cooperation will look like - including the advantages and disadvantages from each other's perspective. Then working to understand the key strategies which will drive the partnership towards their vision of the future.

Managing rather than leading

A leader is someone who other people follow." Leadership is different from management. Management is mainly about controlling and limiting people within a set of rules; leadership is just the opposite. Most people like to be led but dislike being managed.

Most organisations have senior people of both types. However, in my observation, in those organisations where the weighting is too heavily towards management, energy levels tend to drop and crisis situations tend to increase. This view is supported by the maths of chaos theory which shows that less control leads to more order and more control leads to less order.

Managers Tend To:

  1. Find reasons to exclude
  2. Catch people doing the wrong thing
  3. Celebrate their own success
  4. Control people
  5. Stand over people
  6. Want people to serve
  7. Sap individual initiative
  8. Limit others
  9. Be power based.

Leaders Tend To:

  1. Find reasons to ibclude
  2. Catch people doing the right thing
  3. Celebrate other p[eople's success before their own
  4. Liberate people
  5. Support people
  6. Want to serve people
  7. Generate individual initiative
  8. Expand others
  9. Be principles based.

Energy, commitment and tapping into the combined brainpower of all the people will be your main source of competitive advantage in the future. As a result you need to plan these factors at least as well as your other key resources. You may need to look into self managing teams and workplace reform and see whether your senior people are managers or leaders.

If it all looks too hard and depresssing or you don't have the time, that's where I can help you make it work.



Bruce Holland

Helps large organisations be focussed, fast and flexible. Places where people have more meaning, depth and connection.

Expert in Strategy, Structure, Culture and Leadership Development.

One of NZs most experienced change agents.

Liberating the Human Spirit at Work
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