The Power of Three

            Our business and personal problems are complex and need to be attacked on multiple fronts simultaneously, like the invasion plan for D-Day.   This is what I thought for most of my adult life.  Being an attorney was the ideal profession: seeing the complicated web of issues that needed to be addressed in every situation was what people paid us for.   This approach worked well when the goal was to protect a client from the parade of horribles that could result from a certain plan of action (and for billing hours).   The same thought process does not necessarily work well in business or the rest of our lives.   Complexity is real but can human beings truly function within that reality?

             There has been a lot of talk about multi-tasking over the last couple of decades.  All of us need to be able to work on our computer while talking on the cell phone while ordering a latte while planning the rest of our day.   There is so much to do in a day and we are blessed with multiple technologies to do it.   Unfortunately, we have the same human brain.   Studies show that multi-tasking is a myth; what we call multitasking is just doing one thing at a time really fast, and generally fairly poorly. Complexity and multi-tasking are related.  The need to "multitask" arises because we view our to-do list as a series of unrelated events that form a complex system that we may or may not completely comprehend at any moment in time.  My son the chef refers to those moments where we lose sight of the big picture as "being in the weeds."  Our brains really do not allow us to do multiple intellectual processes at once and we are incapable of completely understanding the vast implications of complex systems.

             By way of example, I do not believe that drug companies start with the intention of creating medicines that will actually harm people nor do I believe that chemical and food companies try and create things that will poison us.  It is simply not good business.   They simply get lost in the weeds and solve one problem while creating several new ones that were not self-evident at the time.  We all do this on a daily basis to some extent.   We start a process to address a legitimate need and only later find out what the implications of our actions were.  How many times have we done something that we thought was generous or cruel only to find out that the results were the far different than we expected?  This is the human condition; we cannot understand all the implications of a single action as it runs through the complex web of interactions.  A simple hello to a stranger on the street could have a profound effect on the world and we would never know.

             To me this is a fascinating subject that is perfect for late night conversations over bourbon when no one is making any sense anyway.  What is important is that we recognize that we cannot fully comprehend all the implications of what we are trying to do.   This recognition can provide us with the freedom to step back from complexity and to stay out of the weeds.  This, in my opinion, is what effective strategic planning is all about.  Planning requires simplicity and clarity in terms of setting goals and flexibility and humility to modify goals when things inevitably do not work out as planned.  It is this latter issue that plaques the corporate world.   The issue is not that the chemical company set out to poison people, the issue is what they do when they realize that there is a problem.   The Flint Michigan water crisis is a tragic example of the phenomenon.

             Professor Donald Haider, a professor of strategy at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, once told me that an organization should have no more than three major goals in any year.   As a young COO, this seemed impossible to me.   There was so much to do in so many areas of the business.  Over time I saw the deep wisdom in his approach and the power of just three goals.  For a goal to be “major” it should have a profound and lasting impact on the organization in terms of culture, process, reputation, or financial stability.  It should also engage a significant percentage of the resources of the organization.  A major goal will have a large number of steps but one overarching purpose.

               Limiting yourself to a small number of goals is powerful for a number of reasons:

  •  Deciding on three goals requires serious reflection and prioritization.

  • Three goals focus the entire organization and are easy for everyone to remember.

  • With a limited number of goals, the chances of succeeding increases, which creates an atmosphere of confidence and optimism.   An annual strategic planning meeting that starts with a discussion of how we sort of accomplished parts of seven goals is not energizing and does not reinforce a culture that stresses completion.

  • While accomplishing the goals may be complex, the limited number of goals is simplifying and provides people with a “sense of control.”  Actual control is not possible, but a sense of taking charge of your destiny is motivating.

  • Simplification and clear direction reduce stress in the organization and discourage multi-tasking.

 What if things change?   What if a better goal emerges?   Chances are that unexpected things will happen and that people will and should constantly come up with new additional ideas.   We do not want to be so rigid that we cannot admit that we may have made a mistake and are unable to change direction.   I was taught that there were two principles that one had to follow as a leader; (a) do not fall in love with your ideas or the strategic plan; you need to be able to change course if required, and (b) be disciplined and thoughtful about abandoning your stated goals.   When that new idea presents itself, you must first ask does it help us achieve the existing goals in a better way?  If yes, go for it.   If not, then ask is it more important than our existing goals?  If yes, you must decide if it is achievable this year.  If it is, make the change.  If it is not more important or it is not currently achievable, write the idea up and stick it in a file for next year’s planning meeting.  Do not simply ignore it.  Over time you will build a file of ideas that you should look at annually to see what resonates or inspires.

 Over time, you will find that the focus of limiting your annual goals will result in more rapid success and growth.   I have learned that this concept works in our personal lives as well.   Simplify and clarify and you can harness the Power of Three.