Are you working on the business or in the business?

Last week I had a conversation with another organization development consultant. We go back a long way but only connect up about once a year. There is usually no sense of awkwardness, despite the time-gap between communications.

Remedial Projects: He was bemoaning the fact that although we have a lot of sophisticated tools at our disposal (appreciate inquiry, scenario planning, development centres) the type of projects he generally gets involved in could be described as remedial.  Problem-solving relationships, overcoming customer defections, dealing with supply-chain issues. The list goes on. It’s as if the managers in client organizations are always driving on dipped headlights, never on full beam. The space being managed is the ‘here and now’, seldom the future. Certainly not the distant future. It made me think about why managers have a magnetic pull towards shorter-term issues.  There are 2 key explanatory reasons, both of which are simple to understand but a bit more complex to fix.

Reason #1: We consciously work on stuff we like doing.  Reason #2: Unconsciously, we avoid stuff that makes us feel insecure. Let’s look at both issues.

I’m Loving It: The McDonald’s slogan could equally be applied to management. We are all attracted to working on things that we like doing, regardless of whether these things are important or not. I currently play off a golf handicap of 18. Every time I take a lesson, I keep practicing my drive, looking for extra distance. But the real problem is that I should be practicing short irons because that’s where I screw up on the course.  I don’t take short-game lessons partly because I can’t be bothered (rationalizing “it’s not the day job” to ease the guilt after yet another poor round). Arguably this is OK in the hobby space when we can afford to be somewhat less disciplined.  But in professionally managing an organization, leaders need to focus on the key strategic issues – not fill up their days with projects that amuse them.

I‘m Ignoring It: You know the feeling. The roof on the new house extension is giving trouble and will need to be remodeled (“That’s big bucks”). The Chief Engineer, while brilliant, is almost certainly an alcoholic (“I know him for years and just can’t go there”). Unconsciously we swim away from issues that cause mental discomfort. Managing an uncertain future, anticipating the impact of new technologies, understanding key customers’ plans are critical tasks for organization leaders. They also happen to be grey, uncertain and anxiety provoking.  So, how much time are you investing in these areas? If you don’t have an immediate answer, check your diary. How you spend your time is the best indicator of whether you are working on the business or in the business.

Not Either/Or: Sometimes the argument is made that managers are good at operations or good at strategy – as if the two elements of the job can somehow be separated.  The reality is that you need to do both.  You can’t be great at changing gears but poor at steering. Both skills are needed to drive successfully.  In driving an organization forward, a solid percentage of your time needs to be spent on managing the future. Go on now. Check that diary for the last 12 months. Do the math. Then ask yourself the hard questions. Stop being a busy fool and start making a difference by working on the business and not in the business.

OK, consider yourself fully briefed. Now let me get back to that instructional video on power golf – hitting mighty shots off the tee…


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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