When we’re getting traction on something new, we typically have a week’s worth of work to do, and an hour to do it. The International Labor Organization says Americans win the prize for the most overworked people in the world.1 We’re productive, not because we work well (Europe matches our hourly efficiency) but because . . . we just work more hours. That means we’re working hard, but not smart. By working smart, we can still produce and also have a life.2 The challenge is pouring time and energy strictly into what really matters by exploiting your moments of truth.

Begin at the end

Most of our time at work is wasted. Only some of what we do moves the business forward. The rest is plain, old-fashioned bureaucracy. But you can’t know what moves the business forward unless you know where “forward” is.

In your search for moments that matter, keep your highest end goal—your vision—constantly in mind. Think golf—the secret to a good golf game (so they tell me) is not aiming at the ball; it’s aiming past the ball. Be guided by the direction, not the specific next step. We often get caught up in aiming at the ball. For example, many executives aim for shareholder wealth. Bad idea. Shareholders get wealthy when customers pay good money for products that solve real problems. Aim for that. Your vision proclaims how you plan to satisfy customers. Do that well and the money will follow.

The measurement moments

Some of your most important moments are when you have the chance to gather key information. A trip to a competitor’s plant, for example, can be an excellent opportunity to spot best practices and gather competitive intelligence. For a financial analyst, the critical moment may be the chance to hear a CEO speak on his or her company’s future plans.

You need to know what information is critical and also how you’ll use it when you get it.

As you prepare for measurement moments, know what information you’ll ignore. Then ignore it. We’re so awash in information that it’s tempting to collect it believing that any knowledge is useful. Nothing could be less true. Lots of access to the wrong information obscures what really matters. Financial markets are a great example. Tracking a company’s stock price—a common pastime—is often a source of bad information. The stock’s daily rise and fall promotes emotional decisions that are better made with careful thought and deliberation.

You need to know what information is critical and also how you’ll use it when you get it. Then when your Moment arrives, you’ll know what to look for, you can go for it, and then spring into action. I’ve seen marketing departments get a critical chance to talk to customers. They wanted information about a customer’s buying behavior, but didn’t think about how their questions would gather that information. So they asked about brand recognition instead. Is brand recognition important? Probably so. But they missed the chance to gather and use the information that was really critical.

The decision moments

Often, a decision will be a Moment of Truth. In the moment that something triggers the need for a decision, you must to be ready to move.

Decisions are rich events. Your values get expressed through your decisions. Decisions communicate your priorities to everyone (including you!). Depending on who’s involved, the decision can also be building political capital among those who take part.

Taking the best advantage of a moment of decision demands that you have the information you need for the decision, the people involved, and the means to communicate and act on the decision. You also need to know when to trigger the decision.

Shell Oil’s famous scenario planning of the early 1980s is a great example of identifying and acting on moments of truth. One of Shell’s scenarios was exploring the fall of the Soviet Union. Early on, they identified Mikhail Gorbachev as a pivotal player in the USSR’s future. When he rose to power that triggered Shell to act on its scenario to prepare for the opening of the country. Thinking through their strategic decisions ahead of time gave them a huge lead when the time came to make those decisions.

Your critical decisions will change over time, which makes preparation an ongoing project. A young software company was deciding how to spend far-higher-than-expected profits. One manager asked if higher sales figures came from growing market share or from losing share in a market that was growing overall. Alas, the marketing manager hadn’t prepared that information. Product plans were made without that information, and the company didn’t get traction in the evolving market. If you’re going to be prepared for your decision “moments of truth,” know what information you’ll need to make the decisions and arrange to have it at your fingertips.

Future moments

Shell’s scenario group wasn’t just finding triggers; at a deeper level, they were finding issues with long lead times and addressing them soon enough to do something smart. Do you know what you need in place this time next year? Five years from now? Two weeks from now? Sometimes you need concentrated efforts now to prepare for crucial events much later.

Relationship building is a long-lead-time activity that can be crucial. If you’re going to be entering a new market in a year, now is the time to start getting to know the key influencers, industry reporters, and main distributors. When the time comes to enter the market, you’ll be able to jump right in with credibility, having already started building the relationships you need.

SoftSoap’s rise to market dominance is a great example of a long-term moment. The SoftSoap creators realized that competitive products would need plastic pumps for the liquid soap. So SoftSoap bought up the world’s supply of plastic pumps, forcing competitors to wait a year until more pumps could be made. By imagining the future and understanding the long-lead-time issues, a single purchase event became the moment that gave them a year’s head start in their market.

As important as it may seem to create that great new logo for the product, don’t do it!

Infrastructure investments are moments that lock in commitments that can make or break your future. A CEO recently confided that his company can enter a new market and hit 26 percent profit margins within three months. Unfortunately, the company overinvested in too-large plants early in the game—assets that are such a drag the company may still fail. When you have a moment of decision or implementation with huge long-term consequences, it’s worth the time to focus on making the right decision.

Look across all business areas

When you’re searching for your most important moments, remember to consider the entire business. We often think first of areas we know well, and forget others. But the best leverage points rarely cluster in one functional place. Sometimes you may focus efforts on finishing development for a trade show. Then, emphasis shifts to landing a key distribution contract. Next, your most important moment may be when your first reviewer receives and uses your product. Your job is aligning all your efforts behind each moment so you squeeze every bit of value from your significant events and decisions.

Moments that don’t matter

Your goal here is really to tease out the moments when your actions really matter, and concentrate on those. That’s only half the battle, however. The biggest challenge can be in dropping efforts on the moments that don’t matter.

Human beings have a weird habit of creating projects and initiatives that never die. Once something is under way, we want to keep it alive no matter how useless it is. Resist! As important as it may seem to create that great new logo for the product, don’t do it! Face facts: The logo won’t make or break a product launch. A product that doesn’t solve the problem, will. Be ruthless about putting limited resources—including your time—into only those moments linked directly to success.

Concentrate on high-leverage moments

Remember our goal is achieving more by doing less. You may identify more moments of truth than you possibly have time to pursue. Choose between them by putting your efforts where the leverage is greatest, where you get the biggest bang for the buck.

Leverage is simply the biggest return for your effort. If you have three public events you can speak at, one to a group of customers, one to a group of the most influential industry distributors, and one to your local bridge club, chances are that the distributors will be your best bet. Why? Because if ten distributors are impressed, they can help you reach thousands of others.

At the end of the day, results matter—not efforts. When an important initiative isn’t gaining traction, or when you’re starting something new, the secret lies in “micro-focusing” on the moments that make a difference. If you know where you’re going, you can put your effort into just the measurements, decisions, and long-term important initiatives that will let you move ahead with results and not merely hard work.

© 2004 by Stever Robbins. All rights reserved in all media.

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Give Your Organization Serious Traction

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