Narrow your focus

October 22, 2014 -  By

The rule of focusing on no more than two goals at a time has guided me throughout my career. It’s helped me, and many other individuals and companies, achieve goals. I’m fortunate to have been influenced by many successful leaders and training programs in and out of the green industry. I’ve consistently been taught the discipline of narrowing the focus, particularly when trying to achieve improvement goals.

For a goal to truly be a goal, it must include a measurable result and a deadline. One of the most famous goals achieved in American history was established in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. He set a goal of “before this decade is out … landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” It was achieved in late July 1969. What makes Kennedy’s statement a goal and not just a wish is he established a desired and measurable result of putting a man on the moon and returning him home safely. He also established a deadline for the result to be achieved. Not only did we put one man on the moon, we put three there and returned them safely.

Many times we set goals using the shoot, ready, aim method, not realizing we haven’t determined the target. For example, a goal I hear from many landscape companies is to improve production efficiency. What does that mean, particularly for the team of people we want to be more efficient? It means nothing to them other than the owners want them to save money so they can put more in their pockets.

Let’s set that same goal and redefine it to mean improve production efficiency by 5 percent, from 37 percent of labor cost compared to gross revenue down to 32 percent of labor cost compared to gross revenue by the end of next quarter. This speaks to what the current result is (37 percent) and what we want the desired and measurable result to be (32 percent) by a specific time (the end of the quarter). The added benefit could be to reward the crew accountable for this goal with a bonus for reaching the measurable target, which is a reason for them to reach the goal.

When setting and achieving goals, focusing on no more than two goals at a time is a proven number to use as a guide. Franklin Covey’s “The 4 Disciplines of Execution” statistically qualifies that the more goals you try to reach, the less likely they’ll be achieved (see chart on page 62).
Massachusetts Institute of Technology neuroscientist Earl Miller said, “Trying to concentrate on more than two tasks causes an overload of a brain’s processing capacity.” The same is true of companies and organizations that set lofty quantities of goals for improvement. It’s proven that when organizations try to focus on more than two or three big goals or initiatives at a time, while also trying to conduct the day-to-day business, they rarely meet their goals.

How to find focus

Most people are multitaskers by nature. Therefore, it’s challenging for leaders to decide what goals to focus on first. There are so many things we want to improve. One recommendation is to identify the most important things on which to focus. These typically look the same for most landscape companies: quality, efficiency and profitability. Focus on two or no more than three vital things, and then decide what goals fit in which buckets. For example, the goal of improving labor costs fits in the efficiency bucket. Once you’ve identified all the goals on which you want to focus, pick the top two and stick with those until they’re achieved. Then move on to the next two. Depending on the complexity of the goal, each could take a week to a year or more to accomplish. No matter the time frame, experience has proven it’s best to focus on no more than two goals at a time.

When you establish goals measured by objective results, the benefit is the ability to hold the organization accountable. Instead of subjectively measuring people to be accountable for improving something, you’re able to hold them accountable by using simple, measurable results. Did we improve labor from 37 percent to 32 percent or didn’t we? It’s unemotional, with a narrow focus that’s clear for everyone.

 

Sexton, who has been active in the green industry for more than 25 years, serves as the director of education and outreach for the Snow & Ice Management Association. He’s also founder and managing director for WIT Cos., which provides advisory, training and technology services. Reach him at phillsexton1@gmail.com.

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