Trips Without Destinations

When I was a kid, we’d sometimes go for a Sunday drive after church. I suspect my mother, a widow with two kids, just wanted some quiet time, but I remember mostly being bored. We lived in the Midwest and frankly, once you’ve seen one field of sugar beets, the others aren’t that interesting!

We had no destination on these drives. We were just killing time, which now seems like a crime! We all have only so much time on this earth; why would we want to kill it?

Taking a trip without a destination isn’t damaging when you’re talking about a Sunday drive. I admit to occasionally doing so now with my wife, but we live in an area with some dramatic scenery, so it feels worthwhile. (To those of you in the Midwest, the people are wonderful and the sunsets spectacular, so please forgive me for being bored by the agriculture!)

Unfortunately, people in the business world too often take trips without destinations, and that is a crime. Meetings without objectives, activity lacking an overarching strategy, investment minus a desired rate of return, hiring without a clear criteria, expensive training programs absent success measurement, annual meetings with no clear objectives — those are all just Sunday drives.

Unclear objectives are the root cause of much busy work, wasted expense and business failure. I believe it’s the No. 1 time sucker, patience sapper and budget-killing disease in most organizations. No one does this intentionally, but without a clear sense of what adds value and the discipline to stick with a process, it happens to the best of us.

A former colleague once asked me to speak at his organization’s annual gathering. This was a huge company, and I was honored. When I asked him what he wanted me to address and how it fit into the objectives for the meeting, he talked around the issue but had no real answer for why the meeting was being held beyond, “We always hold this meeting; it’s on the calendar and I have blank space on the agenda.” I declined and suggested that he save the company a million bucks (hard costs plus opportunity costs) and cancel the meeting.

Here are some suggestions from my best clients regarding how to avoid Sunday drives:

  1. Always have objectives for meetings. If you’re brave, create a new rule that no one has to attend a meeting unless there are clear objectives identified upfront.
  2. Ask yourself, “What can I do today to add the most value to the organization?”
  3. Ask yourself when you start a new activity, “Does this help us achieve our strategy or my objectives?”
  4. Every couple of years, review your “operating system” and identify those practices, programs, projects and yes — even people — that don’t add value and redeploy the assets. These things pop up in large organizations like plants in a garden without clear intent. Is it a flower or a weed?
  5. If you don’t have a clear strategy that identifies where you play and how you’ll win, get some help to clarify this! Without a clear strategy, your team isn’t aligned and you’re wasting resources!
  6. Create a personal plan. Are you making progress or just driving aimlessly?

It’s OK to have unscheduled time, to do enjoyable things for their inherent value, to walk around and smell the daisies. I like to fly-fish and I don’t eat the fish, but it’s one way to keep myself sane, happy and in touch with the universe.

If, however, your organization is on more of a Sunday drive than a planned trip, stop! Choose a destination, grab a map and pick a route!

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