Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Why deselection is difficult despite increasing capacity demands

By Karrikins Group

I have yet to meet a colleague, client or friend who has too much time. We are all inundated every day with a multitude of tasks, large and small, that fill up our calendars and eat away at our capacity. Take your own struggles and multiply them by thousands of other people to start to understand the challenges around organizational capacity.

In our personal lives, capacity constraints can prevent us from achieving long-term goals like learning a new skill, connecting more deeply with friends and loved ones or going back to school. Organizationally, it often creates a crisis culture where the most urgent tasks, primarily around the core business, get done (and often done well), but the strategic goals like new product development, improving quality, re-engaging customers, deploying new technologies or other strategic transformation efforts are pushed off till another day when we have more time.  

The problem is the day with an open block on your calendar to focus on strategic goals never arrives. Even the “tiger teams” that get pulled together to focus on strategy struggle to find time and resources to dedicate to the task.

In the face of these challenges, it’s common for leaders to launch efforts to prioritize tasks. The result of which are tools, guidelines and workflows designed to speed up decision-making, set standards, create a rank order of objectives and make results more predictable; most of the companies we work with are pretty good at developing and implementing these diagnostics – in fact, that’s where they spend most of their time and energy. The downside is more material to learn, maintain and keep current, and the net result is rarely an opportunity to work on strategic goals. Additionally, these diagnostics create conditions where the cultural challenges around capacity creation are at best an afterthought. Here’s the thing. Time and time again, companies have proven that, to use an old axiom, “culture eats strategy for lunch.”

So what might be a different approach to finding elusive capacity in an organization that is stretched thin? The answer is to forget about prioritization and instead take an aggressive and committed approach to deselection and alignment.

  • Prioritizing means saying you will do some things today and others tomorrow. It is an ordering exercise designed to assign a qualitative or quantitative importance score to each task based on a set of criteria.
  • Deselection is different from prioritization in that it means saying “no” to new tasks that may not be aligned with your strategy and mercilessly eliminating existing, misaligned tasks. This is a triage exercise, understanding that all tasks can’t be saved based on our existing capacity, we need to make difficult decisions about what needs to be jettisoned.

So why don’t more organizations eliminate responsibilities that are orthogonal to the long-term strategic goals of the organization? While it is easy to pay lip service to deselection, it is much harder to align and deliver on that promise. Seen through the lens of culture, it is no surprise that companies are historically bad at deselecting and historically great at over-committing, stretching resources too thin and failing to deliver their best value because they are stuck in what they’ve always done.        

In the next five blog posts, we will unpack the cultural inhibitors to deselection and how addressing them will create time, focus and results for your business. They include the impacts of ownership, identity, emotion, habit and collaboration on efforts to deselect and align an organization to its highest order value. When organizations embed deselection into their culture, it creates capacity to work on what matters most – the projects, products, clients and employees who are most closely aligned with the strategic goals of the organization. Keep in mind that you need a well-defined and well-articulated strategy against which to align and deselect. Deselection won’t matter if you have the wrong strategy!

You may find some of the topics uncomfortable as you think about how you manage your own time and how your company works. That’s OK! That means you are starting to think about the context within which you make decisions and take actions, and it is only by digging into context that you can truly embrace deselection and alignment and start to find more time to work on what matters most

This is the first post in a six-part blog series that examines the cultural barriers to deselection. They include the impacts of ownership, identity, emotion, habit and collaboration on the ability of an organization to deselect, align and increase capacity. This first post provides an overview of deselection and why the cultural aspects of it are important.

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