In a recent poll, a majority of Americans answered affirmatively when asked if President Joe Biden was trying to do too much. At the same time, fully 7 in 10 polled say that America is on the wrong track. That the latter sentiment is accompanying the former should not come as a surprise to anyone who actually wakes up with the responsibility for running a business and/or leading other human beings. People are capable of handling only so much, and when their practical limits are exceeded, bad things start to happen. Smart business leaders are those who recognize these things and plan accordingly – ensuring that their teams focus on a finite number of manageable priorities.
Science has proven that the human capacity for keeping track of things is severely limited. In fact, recent work by University of Oregon Psychiatrists, Edward Awh and Edward Vogel found that the maximum number of things humans can comfortably keep track of at any one time is four. This was backed up by research from University of Missouri scientist, Nelson Cowan, whose study confirmed that the central working memory faculty for most adults is limited to three to five separate items. But despite such research, so many businesses suffer from initiative overload, creating issues which are plain to both rank and file and leadership alike.
In a survey of some 1,800 executives conducted by Strategy&, a part of PwC, nearly two-thirds (64%) reported that they have too many conflicting priorities. And a whopping 81% said that their growth initiatives actually lead to waste at least some of the time. These are the people in charge of choosing the number of initiatives, and they’re admitting that they are creating a problem. In most cases, it’s not happening because they are bad people; it’s largely cultural. See, almost no one wants to be the person who says no to taking on another task. Human nature also dictates that more is better than less. And in a “do more with less” economy, who’s to say when enough is enough? But whether well-meaning or not, a problem is still a problem.
It’s a problem that results in slipping service and quality levels, waning motivation and morale, missed targets and deadlines, periods where nothing seems to get done, and a sense that all hope and joy is lost. Worst of all, good people start leaving. In their recent piece examining what’s behind the “Great Resignation,” employee experience software provider, Limeade, reported that fully 40% had departed due to burnout. A recent survey from YPulse showed similar findings. Workers have had it with organizations that are trying to do too much (with too little), and they are leaving as a result. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
In my work with business leaders seeking business improvement, I purposely constrain them to focus on the top three to five things that will have the greatest impact on moving them closest to their strategic and financial objectives in the next 365 days. In doing so, these teams limit their priorities not only to the most critically important activities they might undertake, but also ensures, one, that they do not exceed their or their people’s own capacity for keeping track of key information, and, two, likewise ensures that they are not overwhelming their people with an overabundance of confusing and/or conflicting priorities. Once declared, these businesses then communicate these three to five things constantly throughout their organizations until every person in them knows them by rote. As a result of focusing on fewer things, these organizations, paradoxically accomplish more, and they do so with happier people and with far less waste.
See, the waste referred to earlier, is actually a by-product of trying to accomplish too much. It’s the result of come-backs due to shoddy work, resources spent on initiatives that are never completed, and the cost involved in having to re-hire associates that leave because they are pushed beyond their limits, just to name a few. When teams focus on fewer, more rapidly achieved initiatives, there is far less waste, less turnover, and more winning.
These are organizations that a majority of their associates would rate as being on the right track. And while business is not a popularity contest, having more of your associates believing in what you’re doing is a very good thing. It all starts with recognizing that there’s such a thing as too much and that a focus on three to five things is just right.