It is not surprising that leaders love to reach for bright, shiny objects. As a rule, we crave new knowledge so that we can try it out and find applications for our customers. This tendency to chase the new sometimes takes our attention away from the harder tasks at hand.
This is not an article about slowing down the pace of technological change or ignoring trends. It is about how as leaders, sometimes it is more helpful to model self-discipline when we see a bright shiny object glimmering in the distance than jump off a ledge reaching for it every time.
Bright, Shiny Objects
I’ll use myself as an example. One of the hardest challenges I face when I open my email or read professional journals is seeing what others are accomplishing that we haven’t had the resources to approach or attain yet. For example, I happened to be in Washington, D.C. for Library Advocacy Day in 2015 when the White House announced the ConnectEd program. We had been making attempts at integrating the public library card with our local school ID’s, had heard about some success others were having, and now, here it was, a national initiative announced by the President, no less. Very. Shiny. Object.
At this time, our library system was severely underfunded and entering into a mill levy campaign to remedy that situation. Our local school district was embroiled in their own political troubles, with a recall petition brewing. As we built our Plan A (mill levy passes) and Plan B (mill levy doesn’t pass) budgets, I tried to tend to this initiative with the school as best I could during these months. On both our sides, connecting and making progress was hit and miss. We both had to step away, temporarily, in order to focus our energies on the more pressing challenges at hand.
Hold that Thought
In the meantime, other public libraries and schools across the country made huge progress in this area, getting national press and getting farther along the path of increased use of the library by school kids. As a consolation, we put this initiative in our 2016 strategic plan, hoping to make better progress this year. Reality hit again as we realized our school district had an entirely new board to orient and we had specific promises to keep to our voters who had passed our mill levy by a narrow margin. Once again, it is delayed.
I tell this story because I think it’s important for leaders to model the behavior we expect from others. It is so easy to get derailed or distracted by ideas that really can wait. I have several techniques I’ve learned that help me practice self-discipline at work:
Make a note – When I’m in a meeting and have something I want to say that is sparked by the current discussion but that I know will take us off task, I try to make a note to put it on a future agenda. I know from experience that if I introduce a bright shiny object I can easily distract myself and others on the team at just the wrong moment.
Change my posture – When I’m in a conversation or meeting and feel compelled to bring forward a bright shiny object that might derail, I change my physical posture. I literally shift my body to break myself out of my compulsion to interrupt the flow and focus of a topic. Sometimes I also have to change my breathing. It is easy to get excited about an idea and think that if I don’t bring it up right now, it will get lost. But watching disciplined leaders along the way has helped me learn that a good idea will always get its time. Finding the right time to introduce it can be a more effective approach than launching it as it enters my consciousness.
Time that email – Experience has taught me to better time an email to match the mood and capacity of an individual or organization. If I overload someone who is already overloaded, my bright shiny object email is likely to get lost in their inbox or worse, take their focus off the more important task they have at hand. I’ve also learned the hard way that sending an important message at the end of the day on Friday –even though we are open 7 days a week – almost assures an idea gets lost by Monday.
Keep the Strategic Focus – As I made my way up the leadership ladder, I learned many lessons about organizational capacity and strategic focus. I continue to learn and teach the message that when we keep our strategic focus, we do a better job of reaching the outcomes we set out to reach. The more distracted we let ourselves be by bright shiny objects, the less likely we are to effectively reach our most important goals. I used to hate it when my boss would say “Why this? Why now?” I’ve come to realize that saying “Not yet” or “Next year” can be the most powerful words I can use as a leader. .
Sometimes you need More Troops – When it seems like we keep saying “not yet” or “next year” or worse when we have to keep saying “no” it might be time to say “why not?” In order to do that, we have to be willing to reexamine our strategic focus based on new information or adjust resources to take advantage of a surging trend.
Questions to help Hold that Thought
Some questions I ask myself: Is this idea one that needs to be brought forward right this minute or should it wait? Will it help this person if I bring this idea forward to them right now or will it distract or overwhelm them? When is a better time to bring this idea forward? Who else might I consult with before bringing this idea forward in my organization? What intentionality do I have about holding this thought or bringing it forward? Who is it serving? What fact finding should I do before bringing this forward? How does this idea align with the current and future goals of the organization?
Thinking, fast and slow/Daniel Kahneman (2011)
This book isn’t about self-discipline although it takes a lot of discipline to stick with it. Instead, it is a book that describes the research around how the brain works in decision-making. What is it about our brain that makes us jump and make a quick decision? When does our brain need to slow down and why. Fascinating reading.