Do you have school age children? If not now, perhaps in the past? Do you remember those nights when your daughter or son—or perhaps both—had a boatload of homework, not just in one subject but in several on the same night? How did that work for you?

If your household is anything like ours was with four school age children, it was worse than chaos; it was soul robbing for both parents and kids. (As an aside, it might surprise or anger you to know that there is good science that says that homework doesn’t provide any academic benefit! Read THIS.)

Teachers don’t conspire to create chaos or destroy the souls of the children they teach, it’s just that there is no coordination of all that activity. I see the same thing in business. Too many well—meaning people at the corporate office who have objectives to improve their functional area come up with programs for the field to execute without awareness or concern for how many other competing priorities end up on the desk of someone in the field. Usually the guy or gal who also owns customer relations. 

I’ve seen this in all kinds of organizations. In the military, the sergeants and lieutenants seem to get the brunt of it. In retail, it is the store manager. In a global business, it might be the country manager. Regardless of whose shoulders all of this work lands on, too many priorities kill organizational effectiveness. 

The VP of Ops has three system changes that he is responsible for this year. The VP of product development is rolling out four new products, all requiring significant training for sales and service staff. The VP of HR has decided that the compensation structure must change and that there will be no more annual performance reviews, but mandatory weekly one-on-ones. The sales VP is rolling out a new CRM program at the same time that the CFO is implementing a new accounting package. All of those executives are being bonused on the success of their programs. And then there are all of those customers to be served!

You can’t tread water in business. You’re either moving forward or sinking, so you must innovate and change. However, too many priorities mean that that are no priorities. 

The only one who can manage this is the CEO. There is only one person to whom everything rolls up. Many may see the problem, and the people in the field certainly experience it, but only one can solve it.

Leadership has obligations and one of them is deciding how much activity, how much change their organization can stomach and still perform. 

“There ought to be a law!” our beleaguered sergeants in the field might say. Well, there is! It’s called Little’s Law. Look it up HERE.

Basically, it says that the length of time it takes to get stuff done is the product of the actual work required to get it done and the amount of stuff (i.e. projects) being worked on. The more stuff in the system, the longer it takes for all those individual projects to get done. When you start throwing in the psychological soul-robbing elements of being overworked you have a real mess on your hands!

Here is my message to CEOs. Get out of mahogany row and go talk with the sergeants of your organization. Ask them a couple of questions:

  • What are the top priorities that you are hearing from management?
  • What are we doing around here that is a waste of time?
  • What are we doing that has negative impact on our ability to serve your customer?

Put your thick skin on. You’re going to get an earful if your people trust you. If they don’t, that’s your problem as well. Both solvable!