Strategy Session: Sweating the Big Stuff

AV SS Sweat The Big Stuff

The April 2014 Strategy Session (Alberta Venture) was essentially about being productive, organized and not procrastinating. You know: focusing on the Big Picture? Getting things done? The amount of time I whittled away while trying to focus on getting it done… ugh. My experts would be appalled. Please meet:

Donna Finley, principal and co-founder with Framework Partners

Laura Stack, author of Execution Is THE Strategy, also known as the Productivity Pro, and

Les Hewitt, author of The Power of Focus aka the Focus Coach

Published edited full text available at Alberta Venture

Unedited text below:

Strategy Session: The Big Picture: tackling the “important-but-not-urgent” quadrant

 by Marzena Czarnecka

US General Brigadier Rhonda Cornum cemented her philosophy in life as she processed the trauma she endured during the first Iraq war. It’s shockingly simple. Ready? Nothing more than this:

“Prioritize. A. B. C. Discard C.”

Brilliant, right? And thoroughly effective. You’re going to do that right now. A. B. C. Discard… what are you doing? I said discard C. Sweetheart. All of it. Why are you fiddling with that folder? Chuck it. It’s not important. I know Joe attached a sticky note to it (how quaint!) saying, “Please review and comment when you have the chance.” And I know it’s easy to flip through the pages. And then make a big “check” next to that particular item. “Reviewed Joe’s folder.” Check! But see, that’s how C—the unimportant stuff that you should discard—takes over your agenda and keeps you from focusing on A.

You bristle. You are a howling success and you excel at meeting every deadline, target, metric. Absolutely. You do all the stuff that needs to be done… so long as it’s urgent. If it’s attached to timelines, deadlines, operational day-to-day and even quarter-to-quarter, year-to-year matters, it gets done. Every competent business person and leader—and you are oh-so-competent—gets all that done, because the price of dropping those balls is immediate failure. Some of that stuff is A. But most of it is B, which means that most of A—the really, really important stuff—you never get to. Be honest. Of course you don’t. You don’t because it’s… well, first, it’s really, really difficult. And second—because it’s not urgent. It doesn’t have a ticking-clock attached to it. No one’s going to scream at you if you push it off to tomorrow. Next week. Next month. Next year…

You know I’m right. Donna Finley, principal and co-founder with Framework Partners, has worked with hundreds of you over the years and she has a succinct list of all the A things you never get to, no matter how often you put them on your daily to do list. Boiled down to its absolute essentials, the A pile should consist of strategic planning, risk management, building relationships, and governance/leadership issues. All that Big Picture stuff you know you should invest your time in… but don’t.

But—you’ve got to learn how to tackle this bit of your to do list. Because the price of ignoring A is… eventual failure. Running a company without a strategic plan and a sense of where you’re heading? You’re doomed. And you’re too smart to fail. So. Here’s what you’ve got to do.

1. Create urgency.

If your strategic plan-succession plan-risk mitigation strategy-board governance overhaul does not have a deadline, it’s not a plan. “If you don’t have a deadline, you just have a dream,” says Laura Stack, author of Execution Is THE Strategy, also known as the Productivity Pro. “And if you’re in business, a dream is just wishful thinking. A goal is a dream with a deadline.”

As a leader, Stack says, your job is to create that deadline—and then work to meet it.

All right. Choose an agenda item. Give it a deadline. Now, if you’re like most people, you’re now going to ignore that item until three days before the deadline, panic, and either do a half-ass job of it or just push it of until the next quarter and feel terrible about yourself. Right? Wrong. You’re going to do this next:

2. Create a startline.

Tomorrow? Next week? When are you going to start working on this project? “I’m busy. I can always find things to occupy my time. If I haven’t nailed down how I’m going to integrate a particular strategy into my day-to-day existence, six months will go by, a year will go by – and it won’t happen,” says Stack.

You’ve got your strategy—you’ve got your deadline—now break it down. “Think of start dates, next steps. Here’s this massive 100-hour thing that I need to finish in six months. Break it down. Think in terms of how to begin,” Stack urges.

This, frankly, is where it all comes apart for people. Inertia is powerful. You’ve created the deadline. You’re adding THIS to your to do list for tomorrow.

If that’s all you’ve done, you’ve set yourself up for failure. Here’s what you have to do instead.

3. Throw away your daily to do list.

Les Hewitt, author of The Power of Focus aka the Focus Coach, likes to tell his clients, “The worst thing you can do is plan your day.” Don’t panic: he’s not telling you to throw away your agenda. Not exactly. He’s trying to teach you how to discard C. And discarding C begins with moving away from what you think you need to accomplish in this hour—in this very short, very finite eight-to-12 (remember, baby, working more is not necessarily indicative of being productive) time block—and focusing on the most important, mission-critical priorities you need to accomplish over a longer term.

Instead of planning your day, Hewitt wants you to plan your week. Better yet, plan your quarter—have 90-day targets and goals, operational and Big Picture, that you’re working to meet. Plan your year. And only then, once you’ve got a clear idea of that Big Picture, pay attention to your week—and finally, your day. “But people start at ‘what am I going to do today’ and they get distracted from what they should focus on,” Hewitt says.

Wait. Did you catch that potential problem? We’ve started by creating urgency… but do you really know what you’re getting all urgent about? Do you know what your priorities should be—what you should focus on?

4. Give yourself time to think.

There are many methodologies of crafting Big Picture plans; what they all boil down to is simply this: you need to give yourself time to think. So put time to think on your agenda and make it inviolate. I know I just told you to throw away your daily to do list: don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to think every day just yet. But… open your calendar on your laptop or phone for me, right now. Put an hour-long weekly meeting, between you and you, into that schedule right now. Monday at 9 a.m.? Thursday at 3 p.m.? Sunday at 8 p.m.? Matters not when, take an hour. Too much? 30 minutes. (But seriously: you don’t have time to think for one hour each week? Do you want your business to succeed or not? Block that hour off!) During this time, you don’t check email, Twitter or texts. You don’t respond to the telephone or open your office door. You think. You work on A. You grind at what that Big Picture is supposed to be. You ask yourself questions. And if one of those questions is, “Why is this so hard?”—that’s a terrific start, actually.

All right, now look at that calendar from afar and now block off a weekend every quarter. It’s your strategic retreat. You can do it in a place you love that makes you relax—and pop outside for a hike, ski jaunt, encounter with a trout or deer to refresh your brain—or you can lock yourself in a city hotel room. Do it all by yourself, or with a “strategic thinking” partner—someone within your company or just a business colleague. But do it.

Think. Work on what’s really important.

Don’t have time? Remember what we started with? “Prioritize. A. B. C. Discard C.” And now, look at all that time… to think.

For the superstars only: you know what you’ve got to focus on. You’ve created urgency—a deadline. A startline. I’m so proud of you and I think you are now ready to think every day. Open up that calendar again… and mark off one or two blocks of time a day when you work on A. Stack has two one-hour blocks a day, and her staff (and clients) know they’re inviolate. “You protect that time for all you’re worth,” she says. “Somebody better be bleeding if I’m interrupted during those time blocks.”

5. Get help.

For Finley, working on the Big Picture starts with some heavy self-awareness work and recognizing whether you’re the type of leader who can transform an organization or whether what you excel at is continuous operational improvement. Management gurus have a transformational leadership fetish, but here’s the thing: not everyone is one, and that’s ok—so long as you know who you are, what you can do, and how to get help with the tasks you don’t excel at. If you’re a terrible big picture-transformational thinker (I don’t believe it, myself, I think you rock, but for argument’s sake, let’s say you’re an operational superstar, but thoroughly strategically impaired), you can get help from third party experts and consultants. They are legion and, as Finley notes, an “objective” third party evaluation will bring to the fore issues people immersed in the business do not see.

But they won’t help you think. They won’t create and protect your time to think. You’ll still have to do that for yourself.

6. Get accountable.

Ready to get serious about revamping how you tackle your agenda? You don’t look enthusiastic. What’s the matter, babe? Overwhelmed? No? Ah, you call it realistic. You do know yourself. And you know that one of the reasons your risk mitigation plan is still just a pipe dream and you haven’t had a good hard look at that really bad shareholders’ agreement in over a decade is because you’re the boss and nobody’s riding your ass to get it done.

Find a way to be accountable, says Hewitt. Get a mentor. Connect with a peer group of leaders with similar issues. Get a coach, therapist, third-party-advisor. Ask your banker, lawyer or accountant to call you to account. Make your commitments and timelines public to your employees and commit to giving them an account of how you’re meeting them.

Get a tattoo that says “Big Picture” thinker… you get the picture.

Now. A. B. C.

Discard C.

Marzena Czarnecka is a Calgary-based business and legal affairs writer. She can be reached at, @paddleink on Twitter, and visited at

Our Experts Recommend:

The Art of Possibility: transforming professional and personal lives by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander (Penguin 2000)

Execution is THE Strategy by Laura Stack (2014)

The Power of Focus: how to hit your business, personal and financial targets with absolute certainty, by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hanson and Les Hewitt (Health Communications Inc., 2000)