When I work with clients on a specific problem, I have disciplined myself to ask “what solutions have you tried so far?” Their answers are often enlightening.
The Limitations of Hard Work
Writers have expended gallons of ink on the problem of motivating people to take action on their pressing concerns. In many if not most cultures, “hard work” is enshrined as a cardinal virtue. We tell our children “work hard and you will succeed.” Lack of motivation and focused effort derail many, and yet beyond this roadblock lies another hurdle: awareness, management, and refinement of committed action. Without accurate insight on the results of our work, we may easily find ourselves running very fast and getting exactly nowhere.
What Game are You Playing?
Although it sometimes seems too basic to mention, over and over again I find that my clients often lack a clear sense of what success looks like. On the other hand they are brutally aware that whatever success might be, their current life is not “it.”
Clear goals are great for motivation, but they’re also essential for managing effort. Without a clear vision of the destination, eager beavers often find themselves chastising themselves for goofing off, or patting themselves on the back for driving themselves in ultimately futile directions, where the true benefits of action are nil.
On big projects, ultimate goals are necessary, but not sufficient. To understand progress requires a model for success. I am inspired by the image of the “sales funnel.” To greatly summarize, sales people put sales leads (people who might buy their product) into the wide mouth of the funnel. Within the funnel is a multi-step process that transforms the relationship between salesperson and prospect into one of vendor and buyer.
The sales funnel teaches a hard truth: that it takes a lot of leads to get to each buyer. Failure is expected and designed into the process. One way to improve sales is simply dump more leads into the top of the funnel (i.e., take more action). The funnel metaphor also reveals that there are measurable steps necessary to convert a prospect into a purchaser. Each of the steps becomes an intermediate and measurable goal. Knowing these steps allows insight into the “game” of selling.
What’s Your Batting Average?
Another major slip-up in managing effort is knowing the goal, but failing to measure progress towards this ultimate objective. The sales funnel is one example of how to break a lofty goal into a series of smaller goals. Most projects are amenable to similar analysis. The value of the breakdown is that it shows how effective you are at each stage in the process. Returning to the sales example, perhaps a seller is outstanding at setting up meetings (e.g., successful 80% of the time) but awful at closing deals (e.g., not one close this week). In that case, working harder on setting up meetings probably won’t build sales nearly as well as improving on the close. “What’s measured gets managed,” stated efficiency expert Peter Drucker. All too often, people fail to take a serious look at their effectiveness and few stop to understand their process well enough to find the weak links.
Inevitably, people enjoy certain parts of a process more than others. Nearly everyone likes doing tasks that make them feel competent and avoid tasks where they feel inept or unsure. I suspect this tendency underlies our reluctance to really understand our work flow and improve our most awkward stages even though these failed steps threaten to undermine the whole endeavor.
Getting More by Doing Less
Some projects are like the sales funnel, in that there is one starting point and one ending point. More often, the process has branches and options. Job seekers could send out resumes, or they could contact recruiters, or network with their colleagues. Any of these three actions could lead to a job. In a sense, then, the job seeker has three separate funnels to track. He or she now has the opportunity to track each funnel in relation to the others in terms of the rate of progress towards finding a job.
Once again, when people are even aware they have options for which funnel to “feed” they often end up feeding the easiest funnel and not the most productive one. My experience in job hunting is that sending resumes in response to job postings is both the easiest and least productive avenue for job seekers. The result is predictable: lots of job-hunters working very hard and getting few if any responses. They often blame the economy or the job market before considering alternate methods. Often the best way to get better results is to stop doing the things that experience has proven give you nothing in return.
Somewhere, Someone is Succeeding
Recognizing that success is a repeatable, measurable process can be liberating. Other times, the process can be elusive to find or understand. Sometimes it seems as if there’s no way through at all. While lost causes do exist, the chances are good that for any goal, someone is succeeding at that goal. If you can discover their process, you save yourself the trouble of reinventing that wheel and moreover you have a process proven to deliver results.
Rinse and Repeat
If you’ve had the good sense to break down your process into steps and then monitor your performance, then you’re well ahead of most people. Yet there’s one final refinement I would like to offer: processes break, get stale, or just plain wear out. My father made a good living by staying on at one company, getting the occasional promotion, and caching in on his pension when he retired. In my life, that plan is a non-starter. One of the reasons job seekers still send out scads of resumes in spite of weak response is that in better economic times, the approach actually worked. People are creatures of habit and it takes guts to recognize a time-honored recipe no longer works, but the cost is a loss of time and effort we can never get back.
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