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Change Work Is Strategic Work
How much time do you spend each week working through the important, deep, and future-building work? How much time could have been spent on the significant, strategic change work that often gets lost — either in routines or in the swirl of urgent items that seem to appear out of nowhere?
Take a minute to look back at your schedule over the last few weeks if you really want to get a clear picture.
Chances are you’ve been caught up in a strategic-routine-urgent logjam.
If you’re seeing this play out on your schedule, consider the compound effect of this playing out across your team – those four to eight people you spend 80% of your working time with.
When you look at teamwork, you’ll find that collaboration mostly falls into one of three buckets:
Strategic work: work that is longer term and catalytic for an important objective or issue
Routine work: tasks that pop up regularly, such as weekly reports
Urgent work: time-sensitive and important tasks
We can’t control the urgent things that come up, and hopefully the routines we have in place are set up to support those moments when they arise. Where things tend to get slippery though is how we spend the time we have (or think we have) for that important, future-building strategic work.
Why "Two Weeks From Now” is Closer Than You Think
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the “father of flow,” once wrote about how, if you look at your schedule from two weeks ago, unless you make specific, instrumental changes during your week, your schedule two weeks from now is probably going to look the same.
We have this myth in our brains that two weeks from now is wide open. We don’t have to worry about it now because in the future we’ll have the time.
Except… it’s not really that open, not when you think about it.
At the team level, you're rolling in routine stuff, things you know are just going to happen, but they still take up time to do. And there's probably going to be something that's urgent, right?
And that's not even counting meetings, which usually fall into the routine bucket, but require urgency every so often.
So how much time do you actually have for the future building work? Time to:
dream up the next product offering?
dig into that deep problem or question that’s been nagging you?
plan an approach to that opportunity you’re trying to advance?
When I’m consulting on strategic planning with a client, one of the first things I'll come in and say is, “What's our actual capacity for change here?”
I’m not talking about the emotional capacity, which is also important, but what is the actual capacity on schedules?
Prioritization and the People it Impacts
This is where the disconnect often comes in on teams. Managers and leaders expect a lot more of the strategic, future-building work to happen. That’s natural — we (hopefully) take pride in our roles and company vision, aiming to elevate what we stand for, and push our boundaries beyond the limits of success.
However, most managers and leaders don’t have a firm grasp of how the routine tasks and the urgent stuff dominate the team structure.
If routine tasks and urgent work items are taking up 110% of people's time, we have to do something different.
We can't just assume that we're going to put more units of stuff in a bag that's already overfilled.
I was recently talking to a CEO who was frustrated that an important project didn’t seem to be getting the attention it deserved. I pointed out that prioritizing the project meant there was work that would need to live on someone’s schedule.
Which led me to ask “Is there any room for this to go on their schedule?”
And followed by:
Are there enough focus blocks to move this strategic work forward?
And if not, what are we gonna do about that?
This is where on the individual side, the five projects rule is super helpful. It’s the sort of thing that it's really a gauge for what you can fit in and what your capacity really equals out to be. Projects have to move out before new ones can be moved in.
And at a team level, it’s especially important for managers and leaders, but it's really all of us at a certain point. You have to honor that you're not going to get everything done and that something either has to be dropped or pushed forward in an imperfect state.
Where’s Your Capacity for Strategic Work?
Understanding your capacity for change starts with understanding how much room in your (your team’s) schedule there is to take on strategic work. If it’s just filled with urgent and recurring work, take a look at all the routine tasks and projects and ask yourself the following:
Can I/we eliminate it? Would it make any difference if we did?
Can I/we continue intentionally deferring recurring tasks without causing urgent or strategic harm?
Can I/we outsource the task or offload it to another team or function?
Can I/we be smarter and more efficient about the task?
From here, you’ll be able to build in space for strategic thinking that will expand you, your company, your team, and more, to the next level of success — without compromising the essence of what makes you flow.
Team Habits explores this more, as does beat turnout by getting real about focus block availability. If you’re seeing that the great strategic initiatives you’re coming up with aren’t getting done, check your team’s capacity before you question their character or competency.