How To Overcome The Activity Trap

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The Three-Headed Monster: Part 2

Introduction

In Part I of this series, I introduced the “three headed monster” that interferes with our ability to formulate strategic thoughts, function at a strategic level, and execute on gap closing actions that ensure we remain relevant and contribute value over the long run. I presented the first head of the beast, “crisis management” and talked about ways to stop being a reactive leader and instead develop long term, strategic solutions to prevent crisis from stealing your focus. In this article, I want to explore the second head of this monster that plagues many managers: “the activity trap.”

The Second Head

Early on in my education, I had the privilege of having George Odiorne as the Dean of the business school I attended.  He later wrote the first book on this topic, “Management and the Activity Trap.”   Dean Odiorne used to say that many managers consider their long list of daily tasks as a badge of honor.  He said that some managers even see them as prized possessions and a source of job security.

In reality, uncontrolled activity is a trap and a gigantic source of insecurity.  If you are continually consumed by a litany of routine activities, you are actually exposing yourself to obsolescence.  I understand it can be a real challenge when on one hand we are measured by our ability to deliver results today and keep the lights on, while on the other we are expected to shape the future, see around corners, and look over the horizon.

The activity trap is the “tyranny of the mundane.” It includes the trivial issues, irritations, requests, and routine activities that eat up our time and resources.  Many of these tasks and activities are necessary, but they can lull us into a state of complacency and cause us to lose sight of our visions for the future.  For example, when a business or team has enjoyed a continuous run of success they may become too comfortable and convinced that all is well.  They assume the success they are enjoying will go on forever if they continue to show up and do what they have always done. In these situations, success feels normal; in fact, some people call it the “normalcy bias.”  If we can keep the lights on, execute the normal routine tasks and take care of the “punch list” we can ward off substitutes, competitors, and environmental threats.  The truth is, taking care of the usual details, activities and complexities in the moment will not prevent obsolescence and the calcification that naturally builds up in any system or organism when it becomes stagnant.

Keep in mind that the activity trap is different than the crisis management trap. When you are in a genuine crisis, you have to act and set everything else aside.  It can feel like the tyranny of the urgent, but really it is truly vital. In a crisis you should stay focused until you have drained the swamp and held off the alligators.   However, whether you are caught in a crisis or mired in the activity trap, you are allowing yourself to be distracted from a higher calling: fulfilling your strategic mission.

So what is the antidote to the activity trap?  How do we create a firewall so that the activity trap doesn’t expand and take over our work life?  I recommend a regular review the 3-Ds: delete, delegate, and defer. Use this method to look for opportunities to keep the all-consuming punch list of activities from getting in the way of making the strategic changes you need in order to keep you in business long term.

Let’s take a look at the first “D:” Delete.    If you are going to make progress with your strategic blueprint, you have to make tough decisions; you have to be clear about what to do and what not to do.  Sometimes the people around you will want to make their urgent priority your priority too. If you allow this to happen it will eat into your finite reserve of time and resources.  One study we saw a few years ago suggested that most managers get their first interruption of the day within eight minutes after they begin their work day. Unless you actively use the delete button on some of the activities that creep into your daily agenda, you are doomed.  If you want to be a successful strategic thinker and leader, you have to decide what to say no to and when to say it.

The second “D” is equally important: Delegate.  No, I am not talking about delegating the irrelevant stuff and tasks that are comprised of empty calories.  Rather I mean delegate meaningful activities and tasks that are useful and necessary, but also provides learning opportunities for others while spreading out the workload.  Too many managers are afraid to ask people to figure out how to handle an issue, be more productive and efficient, and do more to add value. You have to be courageous and willing to let go of tasks that others can effectively handle, freeing up your time for strategic planning.

Don’t forget the third “D” you need to utilize in this process: Defer.  Yes, there are some tasks that you can postpone and delay.  These are the tasks that can wait, that are not critical. I promise there are some items on your list that fall into this category. Create a queue and give these tasks a number.  You will get to them in due time, but you can’t let them control your agenda.  You have to manage these activities and not let them manage you.

So, the whole point of this article is to illustrate that if you don’t have strategic awareness and presence of mind, the activity trap will grow and expand, choking off any opportunity to work on your strategic agenda.  Every day and every week you have to get out your pruning shears and trim back the undergrowth using the 3-Ds.  By implementing this process, making smart decisions and tradeoffs that keep things in perspective you will erect a barrier against the activity trap. Be aware that if you try to be all things to all people…you fail.  You need to be alert and vigilant as you take control of your own personal activity trap.

Remember, finding a solution and simplifying your business life is only part of the solution. The real challenge is to figure out your strategic role with the time and resources that can be saved when you put a strategic perspective on things. In my next article I will talk about the third head, “the micro-manager” and present ideas on how to battle this final piece of the three-headed monster.

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About the Author

Steven Stowell, Ph.D.

Dr. Steven J. Stowell is the Founder and President of the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness, Inc. CMOE was created in 1978 for the purpose of helping individuals and teams maximize their effectiveness and create strategic competitiveness. Steve’s special interests lie in helping leaders and organizations transform into high-performance cultures that are focused on long-term, sustained growth. Steve began his career working in the energy industry. During the past 30 years, Steve has consulted with both small and large corporations, government agencies, school systems, and non-profit organizations in 35 different countries. Steve enjoys the challenges of • Helping functional organizations define, create, and execute strategy in order to differentiate the business. • Developing and designing creative and innovative learning experiences, simulations, and keynote presentations. • Helping functions across the organization be more effective and aligned in executing long-term plans. The centerpiece of Steve’s consulting, learning, and executive coaching work is his advocacy of applied research and data collection. Steve is a highly effective presenter and facilitator and enjoys creating customized solutions, assisting senior teams, defining strategic direction from the individual level to the corporate and business-unit level, and improving teams that are faced with important challenges and issues.