Why your to-do list should be more about your priorities and less about ticking off boxes, and how to empower your employees
Frozen, the Walt Disney Animation Studios blockbuster, was not conceived or written as the film that you see today. Neither Anna nor Elsa were initially portrayed as troubled characters who still manage to provide hope. With just 18 months to turn around the script and get the movie ready for release, the director and studio heads knew they had to “shake things up"—but not at the cost of all the work that had been done. It is through this journey of rewriting that one of the key lessons of Charles Duhigg’s book, Smarter, Faster, Better—The Secrets Of Being Productive, is revealed: “Creativity is just problem-solving. Once people see it as problem-solving, it stops seeming like magic, because it’s not."
Achieving short-term goals makes people feel good. Why is that not enough?
I think if they are working on the right short-term goals, sure it’s enough. But one of the risks, and we know this from studies, is that when people are asked to set short-term goals, there is a natural bias to try and set goals that are most easily achievable. We know from a neurological perspective that the feeling of achieving a goal is good; you can actually see a reward sensation in a person’s brain when they are able to check something off their to-do list. But the question is how do you make the goal-setting process and to-do list something more than just keeping track of what to do next. How you do something that forces you to think about your priorities and choose goals not based on whether they are accomplishable but on whether or not it is the most useful thing for you to be doing. This is why psychologists have come up with a system of stretch goals and smart goals.
So what is the difference between these two sets of goals? How do you include both in your daily routine?
If you get done the easiest things daily, it’s unlikely that those are the most important things for you. You can spend an entire day replying to emails and get to an inbox zero position but if this does not get you particularly closer to what you care about, it’s not a productive use of time. A stretch goal can be a huge ambition like writing a book, or it can even be a modest target, like finish chapter 1 of the book by the end of this week. It’s something that reminds you that here is my top priority, something I care about the most. It’s important to put this on the list daily so that even if you can’t do much about it, at least you are reminded about the things that you should care about, and that should be top of the mind. The problem is that these can be overwhelming sometimes because while you can tell yourself you have to do this, it does not necessarily mean you will know how to.
But is that not disheartening?
Absolutely. That’s why you have to pair stretch goals with smart goals. Smart goals are powerful because they are easy to remember and easy to do. These are achievable within a timeline. Smart goals help you to make a system that does not let your stretch goals seem undoable.
In the book, you indicate that innovation is not always a bright, new shiny idea. Sometimes it’s also a proven concept used differently. Does that not dilute the purpose of innovation?
The point is that this is not just about recycling old ideas. It’s that you are taking old ideas and presenting them in a new context, and that is innovative. In art, for instance, Marcel Duchamp taking a urinal and putting it in a gallery. There is nothing new in a urinal but this did lead to the birth of the Modernist Art Movement—the appropriation of devices in new settings. You cannot argue that this was not incredibly creative.
If the rules for success and failure of all teams are the same, then why don’t we always get the same results? Don’t leaders or team composition?
In general, those are rules about how teams become effective. If you have a team that does not know how to do their job in the first place, it does not matter how well they gel as a team, they will never do their job right. The converse is also true. If you have a team in which everyone knows the job but does not talk to each other, there is no psychological safety, there is no equality in conversations, then you will have a bunch of individuals who do their jobs but they will not gel as a team. You will never see the sum become greater than the whole of the parts. Leadership matters significantly in this. There are formal and informal leaders. These people tend to create the culture of the team.
One idea in the book is that if you want to get employees more involved, then go with the concept of decentralizing power. Why would you then need managers or leaders?
Let’s draw a line between leadership and management. I think everyone will agree that a team always needs a manager: someone who starts a meeting, sets the agenda, includes everyone in the conversation, etc. Managing and leadership look similar but these are different. Good leaders will try to make themselves into good managers and empower their employees to lead themselves to some degree. Leading yourself does not mean you ignore what your manager says. In fact, it seems you often turn to your manager, asking for more information, guidance, more expertise, but it also means that employees are empowered to make their own decisions.
You can also listen to the interview with Charles Duhigg here.
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