“It’s Time to Put Your Strategy on a Diet”
David Packard once famously quipped, “More companies die from overeating than starvation.” As it turns out, recent studies about dieting show that Packard’s clever metaphor might be more instructive than he ever imagined — and they can provide modern leaders with important lessons about planning and strategy.
Here are four of those lessons.
Limit Your Plate Size. If you feel like your team has “too much on their plate,” you might consider using a smaller plate. Cornell psychologists led by Brian Wansink have found that plate size is one of the biggest predictors of overeating. Simply using smaller plates does wonders for limiting your calorie intake while requiring almost no self-discipline at meal time.
Leaders can shrink their plate size by setting limits on the number of priorities on their strategic plan. There is no magic number, but I recommend shooting for four priorities as a starting point for the year. Then every quarter should have no more than one top priority or “decision pulse.” You might still end up serving a five-course meal to your team each quarter, but your job as the leader is to make it crystal clear which one course is the main dish.
Let Them Eat Cake…Tomorrow. So what to do with all the valuable initiatives and worthy causes that didn’t fit on your small plate? Those would-be priorities go on your strategic non-action plan — your list of value-added initiatives that you are consciously putting on the back burner until next quarter or next year.
Here’s why it works: psychologist Nicole Mead found that dieters were more successful when they didn’t swear off chocolate cake forever, but instead told themselves, “I’ll have cake tomorrow.” Self-deprivation is hard. Promising to banish a coveted treat from the menu forever and ever is like one of those promises we know we’re going to break the second we make it. It feels much more doable and reasonable to say “I will let myself eat sweets again, but just not tonight.” Similarly, you can “eat” the items on your non-action plan again, just not today.
Avoid the “What-the-Hell-Effect.” Ever tried committing to eating only celery or drinking only water at happy hour, only to be persuaded to have just one little martini or salsa chip (baked not fried, of course)…which sets off a chain of events ending with pints of beer and buffalo wings? Psychologists call this the “What-The-Hell-Effect.” Once we get a little off course, it’s too easy to rationalize that the day is lost anyway so “what the hell,” may as well dig in and enjoy.
A small plate and a non-action plan can be overpowered by the hullabaloo of the average work day. Invariably, urgencies arise, fires need to be extinguished, and colleagues will need your expert counsel. By 10 a.m. every day can turn into a “what the Hell” day, in which your priorities lay untouched next to the empty bag of spicy Doritos and cheese dip.
The solution is scheduling “priori-time” every morning. Carve out as little as 10-15 minutes on your calendar very first thing every morning that you will devote to your top priority — and only your top priority. Don’t check email. Don’t listen to voicemail. Don’t chat with your colleagues. Even if it’s just staring blankly at your written priority for 15 minutes, you’ll be amazed at your progress by the end of one week, let alone a quarter or a year.
Surround Yourself with Healthy Eaters. Obesity is contagious. A fascinating study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that when your friends become overweight your odds of becoming overweight triple. Similarly, some company cultures are just strategically gluttonous cultures. As one client recently told me “being triple-booked is worn like a badge of honor around here.” Her company is far from unique. The prevailing belief is that limiting the number of projects and priorities you take on will be a career-damaging sign of weakness or incompetence. One study we conducted revealed a troubling paradox: While 71% of people believed they would become more productive if they focused more on top priorities at the expense of lesser priorities, over half of that same group believes they would simultaneously lose respect from their peers and their boss.
Did you catch that? For all the lip service organizational leaders pay to staying focused and prioritizing, the general belief is that the actual practice of staying focused will cause you to lose respect in your organization. As a leader, the simplest things you can do to turn the tide is to show your team your non-action plan and co-create one with each of your direct reports. Make sure your plan includes at least one or two projects that will surprise them. Maybe it’s a pet project you’ve been attached to; another business they know you’ve wanted to acquire, but are waiting on; or a new product you’ve been itching to launch but are delaying until next year. It could be anything that clearly reveals your self-restraint in service of the top priorities.
If Michael Porter’s assertion is correct that “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do” then adopting these “dieting” habits could turn you into a superb strategist. At the very least, they will spare you some indigestion.