The Merits of Multitasking

You know what business is like—the best plans don’t always work out. Unexpected issues arise, requiring midcourse corrections. New opportunities pop up but there’s no time to pursue them. Does this sound familiar? We all see and experience it. We also see people who make things happen despite all the chaos, time commitments, and obstacles. Some folks even make it look easy. How do they do it? There are hundreds of theories and books about how to better use time, how to overcome obstacles, and how to better exploit opportunities. Many of them can work. But whatever theory followed or techniques used, there is an element often missed. It’s the ability to accomplish multiple things at once. It’s being able to multitask or, as one ad campaign put it, it’s the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time.

However we develop and execute our business strategy, none of us can afford to have an unclear vision about where that strategy is taking us. A lack of clarity wastes time and squanders resources. We must know what we want our business to look like today and tomorrow. The possibilities are endless, which is exactly why we need a vision to guide us and our team members so everyone knows exactly where we are going.

Let’s assume we know where we want to go. Our vision is the starting point; it’s the ante if we want to play in the game. But, we must be prepared to execute each element of the plan sequentially and each element of the plan simultaneously. Sounds easy enough, but several interrelated activities must work together effectively, including an abundance of preparation, focus, organization, and accountability. Let’s consider each of these elements.

Preparation: It makes sense that the bigger the investment, the more preparation required. But whether we spend a few hundred or a few million dollars, the effective accomplishment of any task or initiative requires preparation. If the initiative or action is important to your business, write-up a brief one-page description of what you want to happen. Too often we see failure because we were not clear on what we wanted to do and what was required to make it happen. If you cannot get down on one page what you want done, then you don’t really know what you want. Bigger goals may need more detail, but too often what you really need is to be very clear about the objective or opportunity, the obstacles or significant points to consider, the basic steps to get it done, who will do it, and when.

Recently, I read a terrific book written by retired Army General Tommy Franks that had an unexpected benefit. A Soldier’s Story is about the General’s life, starting as a Private, and what he learned as he faced his growing military responsibilities. The unexpected benefit was a tool he discovered following a devastating helicopter crash, killing key members of his team for which he felt personally accountable. He decided from that day forward to write down on a 3” x 5” card the five most important issues and the five most important opportunities he faced that day. He wanted to be prepared for the most significant events he thought he could encounter. He used this daily technique for the rest of his career and over 5,000 cards later, he remains convinced that it was crucial to his success.

Preparation is the key to executing each element of our strategy. Make sure everyone knows what is expected, why, and when.

Focus: The benefits of adequate and thorough preparation are huge, especially when it comes to focus. The one-page document suggested will help the team zero in on what needs to be done. The devil is always in the details, and without a clear understanding of the direction and what is expected, it is difficult to focus on the necessary human and financial resources to get initiatives accomplished.

It is important to focus clearly on four areas to drive results: people, processes, systems, and money. Just like the one-pager, being focused doesn’t need to be too complicated. If the task is important, you need to ask yourself if you have the people to get it done; what operational processes are impacted (and do they need to be changed?); if systems or technology are involved will they do what is required and if not how can we change the system; and what will we need for investment and where will we get the money? If you cannot answer these basic questions satisfactorily, don’t move forward until they can be answered.

If you are able to focus on the people, processes, systems, and money needed to achieve the expected results, you are well on your way to successful execution of important strategies.

Organization: Potentially terrific ideas often fail because there is simply not adequate organizational support to get them done. Once you are focused enough to know what it takes to make a key initiative or opportunity happen, you must make sure there is proper organization to achieve the expected or anticipated results.

Sometimes, because we talk about what needs to get done, we think it will happen—it doesn’t. It takes specific actions properly scheduled that bring together the required people, processes, systems, and money. These required actions need organization and organizational commitment. It sounds simple enough, but it takes creating an action plan. It requires at least a simple set of steps to be followed. Write it down, and make sure everyone knows what needs to be done and when.

We need to create specific action plans that clearly spell out what needs to be done and when. If it is important, write it down.

Accountability: The best-laid plans require accountability. Even if well-planned, those plans must hold people accountable to deliver. You may think that a new assignment can’t be all that hard, so you just add it to your or someone else’s other jobs. It might work in some cases, but often it doesn’t. You can assign individual team members specific assignments, but you must hold someone accountable for the results. It doesn’t have to be their only job, but if it is really important, perhaps it should be.

Accountability for results requires both monetary reward and recognition. The reward must be meaningful and important compared to other compensation.

We can accomplish more when we set stretch objectives. Don’t be afraid to undertake concurrent projects. We can do more things simultaneously if we are smart about it. It requires first a vision and direction, and setting priorities for what’s important. Then, with preparation, focus, organization, and accountability, meaningful results can happen.