Role of Concentration and Priorities in Effectiveness


Role of Concentration and Priorities in Effectiveness

Both the concentration and setting of priorities play a major role in an executive’s effectiveness. In fact, an effective executive does first things first and he does one thing at a time. The need of concentration is embedded both in the nature of the executive job as well as in him as a person. There are many apparent reasons for this. There are always more important contributions to be made than there is time available to make them. If someone analyses the richness of the important tasks to which the executive contributes and the time available with the executive for the tasks, then he comes up with an embarrassing situation which reveals a scarcity of time available for the work that really contributes. It is a fact that no matter how well the executive manages his time, the greater part of it is still not his own and hence, there is always a time deficit.

The more an executive focuses on upward contribution, the more he needs fairly big continuous shares of his time. The more he switches from being busy for the achievement of the results, the more he has to make sustained efforts and these efforts require a fairly large quantity of time to bear fruit. And to ensure that this time which is really productive is available, the executive needs self-discipline and a very strong determination to say ‘No’. Similarly, the more the executive makes efforts at making strengths productive, the more he becomes conscious of the necessity to concentrate on the human strengths available to him on major opportunities. This is the only way to get results. But concentration is dictated also by the fact that most of the persons find it hard enough to do well even one thing at a time, let alone two.

People are indeed capable of doing an amazingly wide diversity of things. Their competences equate to a ‘multipurpose tool’.  But the way to use productively people’s great range of competences is to bring the large number of individual capabilities on his task, it is the concentration in which he is required to focus for the achievement.

Naturally people do differ. Some persons do their best work when doing two tasks in parallel at the same time, thus providing a change of pace. This presupposes however that they give each of the two tasks the minimum of the time needed to get anything done. But few persons may have the abilities to perform with excellence three major tasks simultaneously. Of course, there can be exceptions who can work on several tasks at the same time, all of them with excellence. But such persons are very rare. Normally people who carry out their work proficiently concentrate on one work at a time. They do not begin the next until they have completed the preceding one or until they have stopped working on it for the time being and put it away in the drawer.

Executives can hardly assume that they belong to the category of the ‘exception’ or ‘rare’. Concentration is necessary precisely since the executive faces so many tasks which are demanding to be done. For doing one thing at a time means doing it fast. The more a person can concentrate time, effort, and resources on a task, the greater the number and diversity of tasks he can actually perform.

There are examples available of the executives who have performed a number of tasks for their organization with excellence during their working years with the organization. These successful executives have always concentrated on one task at a time and took another task in their hand only after successfully completing the first task. They decide on their own direction. As a result, they always achieve success in whatever they do. It is unusual for an executive to do one task of big magnitude during his entire working tenure. Yet there are executives who have succeeded in doing many tasks. Such people succeed by doing tasks with single-minded concentration on one task at a time. This is the ‘secret’ of those people who ‘do so many things’ and apparently so many difficult things. They do only one at a time. As a result, they need much less time in the end than the rest of other people.

The people who get nothing done often work a great deal harder. In the first place, they underestimate the time which is needed for any one task. They always expect that everything will proceed without any hindrance. However, all the executives know that nothing moves forward without encountering obstacles. The unexpected always happens. In fact, the unexpected is indeed the only thing which a person can expect with full confidence. And it is always not a pleasant surprise. Hence, the effective executives allow a fair margin of time beyond what is actually needed to overcome these unexpected problems. In the second place, the typical executive, who in effect is ineffectual, tries to hurry. This hurriedness on his part only puts him further behind. Effective executive does not race. He sets an easy pace but keep going steadily. Finally, the typical executive who tries to do many things at the same time and hence, he never has the minimum necessary time for any of the tasks being handled by him. If one of his tasks faces any unexpected problem then the progress with respect to all his tasks suffer very badly.

Effective executives are aware that they are to do many things and these things are to be done effectively. Hence, they concentrate. They concentrate their energy and their time in doing one thing at a time, and on doing first things first.

The first rule for the concentration of executive efforts is to shed the past which has ceased to be productive. Effective executive periodically reviews his work programs and those of his subordinates to find out whether the work which has been planned need to be carried out now or has been done earlier. And unless he finds a positive unconditional answer, he drops the activity or curtails it sharply. At the least, he makes sure that no more resources are being invested in the no-longer productive past. And those resources, especially the scarce resources of human strength which are engaged in these tasks of yesterday, are immediately pulled out and put to work on the opportunities of tomorrow.

Executives are always found to be bailing out the past. This is but expected. Today’s situation results from the actions and decisions of yesterday. A person, however, whatever his title or rank is, cannot foresee the future. Yesterday’s decisions and actions, no matter how bold or wise they may have been, inevitably become today’s difficulties, disasters, and futilities. Yet it is the executive’s specific job to commit today’s resources for the future. This means that each executive continually has to spend time, energy, and resourcefulness on patching up or bailing out the actions and decisions of the past, whether his own or those of his predecessors. In fact this always takes up most of his time than any other task. But a person can at least try to limit his bondage to the past by cutting out those inherited activities and tasks that have ceased to promise results.

There is hardly an executive who has faced much difficulty in getting rid of the total failures since they mostly liquidate themselves. However, successes achieved in the past always linger on long beyond their productive life. Even more dangerous are the activities which are supposed to do well and which, for some reason or other, are not productive. These tend to become ‘investments in managerial ego’ and hallowed. Still these activities are to be clipped mercilessly, and if it is not done then they completely drain the organization. It is always the most capable people who are wasted in the futile attempt to obtain the ‘success it deserves’ for the investment in managerial ego.

Every organization is highly susceptible to these twin diseases but it is predominantly prevalent in large bureaucratic organizations. In such organizations the programs and activities grow old just as fast as the programs and activities of other organizations. Yet they are not only conceived as eternal but also they are welded into the structure through service rules and nearly become vested interests, with their own spokesmen. This is not too dangerous when the organization is small but the large organizations of today cannot afford the diversion of its energies and resources into yesterday.

In fact, there is serious need for a new principle of effective administration under which every action, every agency, and every program of the organization is conceived as temporary and as expiring automatically after a fixed number of years unless specifically prolonged due to the findings of a careful outside study carried out for the program, its results and its contributions.

Further any study carried out for the programme does not produce results as long as the traditional assumption is maintained that all programs last forever unless proven to have outlived their usefulness. In its place, the assumption is rather to be that all programs outlive their usefulness fast and are needed to be scrapped unless proven productive and necessary. Otherwise, modern organizations, while increasingly choking under rules, regulations, and forms, also gets further choked itself in its overweight.

But while the large organizations are particularly endangered by their size, no organization is immune to this disease. The management of the organization which complains the loudest about bureaucracy in the government may encourage in the organization the growth of various controls. In practice, these controls may not control anything. The management may have a multiple of studies which are only a cover-up for its own unwillingness to face up to a decision and results in the inflation of all kinds of resources. Such management may waste its own time and that of the key people in the organization on the obsolescent product of yesterday while starving the successful product of tomorrow.

The executive who wants to be effective and who wants his organization to be effective, controls all the programs, all the activities, and all the tasks. He always checks whether it is still worth doing. And if he finds that it is not then he gets rid of it so as to be able to concentrate on the few tasks that, if done with excellence, really make a difference in the results of his own task and in the performance of the organization.

Above all, the effective executive sheds off an old activity before he starts on a new one. This is necessary in order to keep the nature of the organization under control. Without it, the organization soon loses shape, cohesion, and manageability. It is always necessary to keep the organization’s need to stay lean and muscular.

But also, as every executive learns that nothing new is easy. It always gets into trouble. Unless a person has therefore built into the new effort the means for bailing it out when it runs into trouble, it gets condemned as a failure from the start. The only effective means for bailing out the new are those persons who have proven their capacity to perform. Such persons are always already busier than they are supposed to be. Unless one of such person is relieved of his present burden, he is not expected to take on the new task.

The alternative is to recruit new persons for the new tasks and this is quite risky. Normally the organization recruits new persons for the expansion of the already established and smoothly running facilities. But one starts the new facilities with persons of tested and proven strength, that is, with experts. Every new task is such a hazard (even if other persons have done the same job many times before) to which an experienced and effective executive will not, if humanly possible, add to it the additional hazard of recruiting an outside person to take charge. The executive has learned the hard way that many persons who looked like geniuses when they worked elsewhere turn into miserable failures within a few months after they have started working for the organization on the new job.

It is true that the organization needs to bring in fresh people with new ideas very often. If it only promotes from within it soon becomes ingrained with only old thinking and eventually become outdated. But if at all possible, management does not bring in the newcomers into positions where the risk is excessive such as into the position of the top executive positions or into the leadership of an important new activity. One brings them in just below the top and into an activity which is already well defined and reasonably well understood.

Systematic shedding off of the old persons is the one and only way for forcing of the new entries. There is no lack of ideas in any organization. Creativity is not normally a problem. Yet, only a few organizations ever get going on their own good ideas. It is since every person is very much busy on the tasks of the yesterday. Hence, it is very essential for an organization to put all programs and activities regularly on trial for their utilities and to get rid of those which cannot prove their productivity for the work and in stimulating creativity in the organization.

An organization is better off when it abandons a product or a process before it begins to decline. Such an organization does not invest scarce resources of people and capital into defending yesterday. It remains busy in making and selling of the new products. However, many of other organizations are run on different principles which are based on the thinking that there will always be a market for an efficient product or that the organization has duty to maintain the market of the product which the organization is producing since beginning. Such organizations, however, send their executives to seminars on creativity and normally complain about the absence of new products which the market needs. The need to shed off the outworn old to make possible the productive new is universal.

Priorities and posteriorities

There are always more productive tasks for tomorrow than there is time to do them and more opportunities than there are capable people to take advantage of them. Also there are always abundant problems and crises. Hence, it is necessary to make a decision to find the tasks which deserve priority and which are of lesser importance. But who is to make this decision, whether he is the executive or it is the pressures. But somehow the tasks get adjusted to the available time and the opportunities become available only to the extent to which the capable people are available to take charge of them. If the pressures rather than the executive are allowed to make the decision, the important tasks get certainly be sacrificed.

Typically, there is usually no time available for the most time-consuming part of any task which is the conversion of decision into action. No task is completed until it has become part of the organizational action and behaviour. This almost always means that no task is completed unless (i) other people have taken it on as their own, (ii) have accepted new ways of doing old things or the necessity for doing something new, and (iii) have otherwise made the executive’s  ‘completed’ project their own daily routine. If this is neglected because there is no time, then all the work and efforts which have been made are for nothing. Yet this is the invariable result of the executive’s failure to concentrate and to impose priorities.

Another predictable result of leaving control of priorities to the pressures is that the work of top management does not get done at all. That is always the work which can be postponed is that which does not try to solve yesterday’s crises but to make a different tomorrow. And the pressures always favour yesterday. In particular, a top management which lets it be controlled by the pressures neglects the one task which no one else can do. It does not pay attention to the outside of the organization. Hence, it loses touch with the only reality, the only area in which there are results. For the pressures always favour what goes on inside. They always favour what has happened over the future, the crisis over the opportunity, the immediate and visible over the real, and the urgent over the relevant.

However, the task is not to set priorities. That is easy. Everyone can do it. The reason why so few executives concentrate is the difficulty of setting ‘posteriorities’, that is, deciding what tasks not to tackle, and of sticking to the decision. Most executives have learned that what one postpones, one actually abandons. A good many of them suspect that there is nothing less desirable than to take up later a project one has postponed when it first came up. The timing is almost bound to be wrong, and timing is a most important element in the success of any effort. For doing a project five years later what it would have been smart to do the project five years earlier is almost a sure way for frustration and failure.

As an example, the merger of the two organizations which appeared so right six or seven years earlier, but had been to be postponed due to certain reason, rarely happens since the environment changes during the period. That an executive actually abandons what he postpones makes executives, however, cautious from postponing anything altogether. They know that this or that task is not a first priority, but giving it a posteriority is risky. What the executive has relegated may turn out to be the competitor’s success. There is no guarantee that the policy area an administrator has decided to shed may not become into the hottest and most dangerous issue.

Setting a posteriority is also unpleasant. Every posteriority is normally top priority of someone else. It is much easier to draw up a nice list of top priorities and then to hedge by trying to do just a little bit of everything else as well. This makes everyone happy. The only drawback is, of course, that nothing whatever gets done.

A lot can be said about the analysis of priorities. Though the most important thing about priorities and posteriorities is not the intelligent analysis but it is the courage. Courage rather than analysis dictates the truly important steps for identifying priorities. These steps (Fig 1) are (i) to pick the future as against the past, (ii) to focus on opportunity rather than on problem, (iii) to choose one’s own direction rather than follow the trend, and (iv) to aim high, aim for something which is going to make a difference, rather than for something which is safe and easy to do.

Fig 1 Steps for identifying priorities

A good many studies of research scientists have shown that achievement depends less on ability in doing research than on the courage to go after opportunity. Those research scientists who pick their projects according to the greatest likelihood of quick success rather than according to the challenge of the problem are unlikely to achieve excellence. Achievement goes to the persons who pick their research priorities by the opportunity and who consider other criteria only as qualifiers rather than as determinants. Similarly, in market, the successful organizations are not those which work at developing new products for their existing line but which aim at innovating new technologies or new areas of doing the business. As a rule it is just as risky, just as strenuous, and just as uncertain to do something small that is new as it is to do something big that is new. It is more productive to convert an opportunity into results than to solve a problem and this is the only way which restores the equilibrium of yesterday.

Priorities and posteriorities always have to be reconsidered and revised in the light of realities. No organizational management is allowed by ever changing environment to stick to its list of priority tasks. In fact accomplishing a person’s priority tasks always changes the priorities and posteriorities themselves. In other words, the effective executive does not truly commit himself beyond the one task which he concentrates currently. Then he reviews the situation and picks the next one task which then becomes his priority. Concentration which consists of the courage to impose on time and events his own decision as to what really matters and comes first, is the executive’s only hope of becoming the master of time and events instead of their whipping boy.