HBO’s award-winning show ‘Chernobyl’ describes the origins, aftermath, and choices surrounding one of the most catastrophic events of the twentieth century — the nuclear accident that occurred in April, 1986 at the No. 4 reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat in Ukraine.
In the third episode¹, “Open Wide, O Earth,” Boris Shcherbina, the Soviet politician responsible for cleaning up the aftermath of the reactor meltdown, spoke to the supreme Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
SHCHERBINA:The situation inside the core is deteriorating faster than anticipated. The concrete pad will hold for 6 to 8 weeks, but after that, Legasov estimates a 50% chance the fuel will breach the pad and meltdown into the groundwater itself.
GORBACHEV:And where does that groundwater go?
SHCHERBINA:The Pripyat River, which feeds into the Dnieper. The primary water supply for approximately fifty million people — not to mention crops and livestock — would be... unusable.
Faced with horrifying consequences, four hundred Soviet miners were tasked with tunneling under the reactor core and concrete foundation. Their efforts avoided a second, greater nuclear event. One that would poison the groundwater and water supply, and turn half a continent into a nuclear desert. One in four of the miners died of radiation-related illnesses.
Those incredibly brave, mostly forgotten miners made an enormous sacrifice — they dug, in record time, under brutal conditions, a tunnel that saved millions of lives.
The dramatic events of Chernobyl show stupidity, blindness, and devastation. They also show valor, sacrifice, and effort in the face of a crisis. The smaller, human story of those mostly forgotten miners shows the power of focus on Task — on a specific action, on work, to avoid disaster.
This lesson is especially important now.
According to a study by the National Opinion Research Center out of the University of Chicago — many Americans are feeling an increased level of hopelessness and loneliness. This is echoed around the world. At the frontlines of this pandemic, and for those lucky enough to be working remotely, work is a source of pride, comfort, and a respite.
But, we can easily feel overwhelmed.
How do we prioritize work? How do we make sure we work on the right thing? And how do we make sure that our work is rewarding, both for ourselves and the business?
The drama of Chernobyl is a stark example of heroism and sacrifice. There are countless stories like that. These stories are being written now, not just of healthcare workers on the frontline, but feeding the hungry in a city under lockdown, or delivering coffee and walking the dogs, or pedalling books to help people in quarantine. ²
They’re all stories of decisive focus — work — in the face of a crisis.
But for every story of courage and action — there are countless stories where the day is not saved. Where the work was the wrong thing.
Think of Wells Fargo — a scandal of phony accounts and fraud, and at the root, a culture of poor communication and mixed messages.³
Think of Boeing, and the Boeing Max 737 fiasco — an example of inaction and delay, which led to further fatalities.⁴
Think of Blockbuster — an example of the writing being on the wall, but too much organizational inertia to overcome it.⁶
There’s nothing like a crisis to focus our work. But it has to be the right work. Working on the wrong thing can make things worse. If there’s one thing we do know, it’s that success demands singleness of purpose. This isn’t a new idea. Peter Drucker, the management guru, said, “If there is any one secret of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first, and they do one thing at a time.”
You can’t do everything. You can’t multitask your way out of a crisis. You have to work your way out of it. So what do you do?
Think about the things that are on your schedule right now. Think about today, or yesterday. What actually took time on your calendar.
Do you have the right priorities, the right balance?Balance is important to avoid burn-out. This isn’t just about work. This is about life. We all need time to relax, time to exercise, time to recharge. That’s what balance is about.
If you were asked to think about it — which of the following four might represent you this week?
Remember the importance of balance. Even if you have the right priorities, if you have so many that there’s no longer time for you, then something needs to change.
We’ve previously shared with you the cornerstone ideas of Touch and Task. Now we have two new words to add to them. Those words are Core and Critical.
To prioritize work and rediscover balance, work on stuff that’s Core or Critical. Better yet — work on both. That’s how you achieve focus. That’s how you get singleness of purpose.
Core work keeps the lights on. It brings revenue. It makes customers happy. It saves cost. It’s everything you do today to keep the business going.
Ask yourself the following questions: Will it put money in the bank? (for the company, not you! We assume you get paid...) Will it put a smile on a customer's face? Will it save the company money? AND will it do that sometime this quarter — relatively quickly. If the answer is yes - the work you’re doing is Core.
Critical work improves things. It’s a better or new way to bring in revenue. It’s a better or new way to make customers happy. It’s a better or new way to save costs. It’s everything you do to set the business up for the future.
To identify work that’s Critical, try these questions instead: Will it improve things? Will it improve how we bring in business? Or open up new business? Will it improve our customer experience? Will it improve our efficiency or effectiveness?
You’re looking for this improvement sometime between now and the next eighteen months. (It may be a longer term project).
Think about anything you worked on in the last couple of weeks that neither qualifies as Core nor Critical. This third bucket is full of the sort of activities Drucker described as: “there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done.”
Don’t despair though. Just because something isn’t Core or Critical, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. It should just be treated differently.
Those remaining tasks are Busywork. Three strategies are available to you:
It may not be Core or Critical for you, but could be for someone else. Expenses are a classic example. Filing an expense report, right now, may be the last thing you need to do. But it’s a way to contain costs. And that’s Core work for someone. The best you can do here is minimize it. Renegotiate. (You probably won’t get away with that with expenses).
It might still be important work in some way, but it’s laborious, difficult, or prone to error. It could produce results that are hit or miss with the customer. It might be inefficient or ineffective.
Work like this is a prime candidate for something that should be Critical. Redesigning or rethinking the work could result in improvements for the future.
Some busy work you just don’t want to do. Go through all your work, as a team and as an individual. Think about what isn’t relevant anymore. A report you still produce, but no-one reads? A conference call that could be an email? This is what you need to stop.
Here’s a guess. You’re thinking of that staff meeting, or that check-in that’s scheduled on your calendar, and you’re thinking that it’s Busywork.
Meetings, like PowerPoint, aren’t inherently good or bad. They can however get really bad when we don’t think about them, and just use them like a blunt instrument. Too many meetings drain time and promote burnout.
It’s not the meetings that are bad, it’s the way we do the meetings. Cloud video conferencing company, Bluejeans, recently published some revealing research:
“Are we spending more of our time in meetings?”
Yes - last year, over two thirds of us experienced an increase in time spent in meetings.
“How much time do we spend in meetings?”
Roughly a day and a half a week. For some of us, it feels like more.
“How is your meeting culture?”
Three quarters said it was, “OK” or bad. — only 1 in 4 reported a good meeting culture.
“Are your meetings any good?”
Over a third found them neither valuable nor worthless. That’s a pretty poor showing.
We can’t cancel all meetings. We have to think about when to have them, how to have them, and focus on outcomes not activity. Focus them on getting work done that’s Core and Critical.
Google has a ‘20% rule’. For employees, 20% of time is dedicated to thinking about the future — on side projects. This is 20% of the organization’s time being spent on Critical, which drives innovation.
Few of us are likely to be near that. We all have too much Busywork, a lot of Core, and too little Critical.
Work out how much of your work falls into each of those three buckets, and then minimize the Busywork. For an innovative company, or team, 80% Core, 20% Critical is a good balance. For an operational group, or highly operational company — look for about 90% Core, 10% Critical.
To figure out the rhythm that keeps our teams (and let’s face it — ourselves) focused on Core and Critical, we can borrow an idea from Donald Sull at MIT. It’s the idea that in a chaotic complex world, work needs to contain four elements. Those elements, Sull calls F.A.S.T.⁷
Goals and outcomes must be overt and unmissable. Work needs to be resolutely outcome focused.
When there’s a lot going on (as there is right now), and with teams being remote, it’s essential to help team members stay on track. That means not just doing the work, it’s about doing the right work.
Frequently discussing the work however, does not mean micro-managing it.
To be inspiring, work needs to be challenging. Good things come from goals that stretch our teams — for example, they nudge people to improve skills, and they drive innovation.
When we’re setting those goals, it’s also essential to keep them realistic. If the goal is too far out of reach, that’s a powerful way to demotivate people.
Sometimes, when we set challenging but realistic goals, team members need a confidence boost. Breaking the work down into chunks, or taking time to discuss the team-members past successes are both good approaches to building belief that ambitious goals are doable.
Right now, this is especially true. Work needs to be super-specific and super-clear.
Even in the best of times, it’s not unusual that even though we thought we were really clear about what needed to happen, other people still didn’t get the idea. If people can get muddled in the best of times, then it’s important right now to go for maximum clarity.
Metrics and milestones focus direction. Ensure that the metrics you set are ones measuring outputs and not just actions. Also, keep a look out for possible conflicts between team goals and individual goals. That way you keep everybody moving in the same direction.
This has resonance when team members are physically isolated from each other.
When you’re focused on Core and Critical work, then along with your colleagues, you’re all part of a wider mission. That knowledge helps engagement. People like to feel they’re part of something.
Look for the opportunities to show how everyone’s work contributes to that larger goal. Team meetings are a good time to do this. Make sure everybody gets airtime to share what they’re working on. This also flushes-out Busywork that might have crept into agendas.
The final question to answer is ‘how do I assign Core and Critical tasks among my team?’
Pick no more than 2-3 Core ‘jobs’ and assign them. Focus on the outcomes, progress and learning.
This is re-imagining the future. Pick 1 thing here. No more than that.
We’ve talked about that.
Multitasking is a myth.⁸ It’s actually difficult to do two things at once, like walk and chew gum — well maybe not that. But try the child’s game of rubbing your left hand in a circle on your tummy and patting your head with your right. Pause. See? When we think we’re multi-tasking, we’re actually switch-tasking, with divided attention, which is unproductive and inefficient.
The answer: Structure the day. Reduce the number of tasks and assignments. Keep reducing until people find a rhythm.
We talked about this. It’s natural right now to get some people that struggle. Pair them with someone that can help — whether it’s just for the social aspect of working on a job together, or because there can be real skill transfer. Let the ‘senior’ partner know their role and discuss it with them.
Find a rhythm. This is difficult. This will be for the long haul. Working flat out in a sprint is OK. But then there needs to be downtime — and not just in the evening, but days when you are not sprinting. When you’re organizing, or just vegging. Everyone will have their own rhythm, and your job as a leader is to have these one-on-one conversations to make sure that each person on your team finds theirs. Be supportive and encouraging in this
Your work may never be immortalized in a TV show or movie.
Myths and stories tell of mortals made to work unceasingly on needless tasks. They range from King Sisyphus eternally pushing a boulder up a mountain (every time he arrived at the top, the boulder would just roll back down again), through to modern office workers feeling like human hamsters on an always-spinning hamster wheel. The common thread is that the work can feel meaningless and never-ending. The person is incredibly busy, but not on stuff that matters.
We need to make it a priority as leaders to correct this — re-balancing work to Core and Critical. Core work is contributing directly to the health of the business. Now. Today! It has meaning and impact. Critical work will ensure the health of the business tomorrow. It’s a creative space with tremendous value.
It’s the Busywork that drains and frustrates us. Reduce it, reassign it, or stop it altogether, and give your team the more frequent satisfaction of knowing Mission Accomplished.
¹ Mazin, Craig. “Chernobyl/ Open Wide, O Earth.” Episode 3, HBO..
² Broom, Douglas. “Meet the Everyday Heroes of the Pandemic.” World Economic Forum.
³ Staff, The Week. “Wells Fargo's Phony-Account Scandal, Explained.” The Week - All You Need to Know about Everything That Matters, The Week, 17 Sept. 2016.
⁴ Bachman, Justin, and Mary Schlangenstein. “Will Boeing Ever Recover From the 737 Max Debacle?” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg Businessweek.
⁵ Shaughnessy, Haydn. “Why RIM's Failure Could Be Your Failure Too.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 13 Apr. 2012.
⁶ Satell, Greg. “A Look Back At Why Blockbuster Really Failed And Why It Didn't Have To.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 21 Sept. 2014.
⁷ Sull, Donald, and Charles Sull. “With Goals, FAST Beats SMART.” MIT Sloan Management Review, 5 June 2018.
⁸ Napier, Nancy K. “The Myth of Multitasking.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 12 May 2014.