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Initiative Overload

by David Brock on November 26th, 2019

Individually and organizationally, we are obsessed with getting things done. It’s important, it’s how we learn, grow, and achieve.

Too often, however, this obsession is dysfunctional. We overload ourselves and our organizations with too many things—too many “strategic initiatives,” too many meetings, too many “top priorities,” too much activity.

Too often, in our quest to get thing things done, we get nothing done. But we are busy! Too many of us fell victim to the fashion, several years ago, of multitasking–only to find we accomplished much less. Or in some cases, like driving, created real danger.

Depending on the scientific studies you read, the human mind can only deal with 1-4 things at one time. We know Dunbars number–the number of close relationships you can manage–is 148.

Yet somehow, we tend to get sucked into initiative and relationship overload.

There are lots of reasons we do this, most of them bad, though perhaps well intended. Initiative overload doesn’t require thoughtfulness, it doesn’t require vicious prioritization, it doesn’t require us to understand the relationships between people, activity, and things. It doesn’t require focus.

Initiative overload enables us encourages us to be sloppy and undisciplined. As a result, we are busy, but achieve nothing. (For the very old time computer geeks, this concept in computer memory management was i known as “thrashing.”)

Often, I cause clients great grief (not maliciously, but often purposefully). They are ambitious, they want to grow and improve. They want to conquer the world–or at least their markets, they want to do everything. And then I say, “What are your top two priorities?”

Usually, it’s met with an outcry, “We can’t just do 2!”

In my normal sensitive manner, I respond, “Cool, what are your top 2 priorities?”

When they realize I won’t compromise (OK, every once in a while, I let them have 3), the ensuing discussion is fascinating. The limitation of 2 forces them to focus. It forces them to look at everything they are doing. At what has an impact, what doesn’t, what they may be doing just because they always have done it.

It focuses them to look at the interrelationships of everything they do. They begin to discover, “If we do this, then these things are also solved….” or “If we do this, then these things become unimportant….”

It’s tough work–which is, possibly, why we avoid doing it. The mindless pursuit of everything is easy, though not productive.

In doing this, we get great clarity and have the ability to simplify.

In our rush to get things done, to attack our long to-do list or list of initiatives, we seldom take the time to focus, to understand root causes, to simplify.

The most effective organizations and individuals I know are viciously focused, evaluating everything they do against their top 2 priorities. Perhaps, it’s time for more of us to do the same.

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