“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”
— Peter Drucker
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?
It’s not just doing the work. It’s working on the right thing.
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
Success demands singleness of purpose.
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?
What’s the work you have to do today?
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.
Core and Critical.
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.
How do I know if my work is Core?
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.
How do I know if my work is Critical?
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).
How do I know if my work is Core or Critical?
What about everything else?
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.
What do I do with my Busywork?
Busywork — A special word about meetings.
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.
What’s the right balance of 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.
How do I get my teams to focus on Core and 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.
Ambitious but realistic.
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.