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It’s a strategy, not a job jar.

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Teams are like families. They eat together, work together, and play together. And like families, teams have things they must do, want to do, and get to do. I grew up reading a comic strip where the family wrote all their big projects on slips of paper and threw them in a jar. Each weekend, the parents drew a slip or two and tackled those projects…. until something pressing, like fixing a broken appliance, watching the big game, or taking a long walk came first.

As teams begin each year, they set goals, build a plan, and formulate a strategy. Now, strategies are not job jars, but unfortunately many teams build their annual strategy with little thought beyond throwing every task and project in a “jar” and drawing them out randomly. Like the comic strip family, teams discover the “to-dos” they throw in their job jars get shelved as more pressing day-to-day issues, stuff too mundane to put in the strategy, take precedence. Looking at what a strategy actually is will help your team avoid spending precious time and energy on something you will never do.

Shortly after I took command of a US Air Force wing, our team met to set our goals and formulate our strategy for the coming year. My five direct reports each brought a list of worthy goals and projects to the table—all required cooperation between our different sectors and central base staff. Full of purpose and good intentions, we set 39 annual goals for our 3,500-person wing, which turned out to be way too much task for our team. We had thrown everything in our job jar and pulled it all out believing we would get everything done in just one year.

As our wing leadership team met each quarter to monitor progress, we realized our mistake. Our real world, day-to-day requirements and unplanned situations demanded immediate attention and took precedence over our plan to tackle every job jar task. Our team was frustrated as we came up short on milestone after milestone. I realized I had failed to do my job as a leader since I had not made the hard choices about priorities. The most critical strategy choice a leader makes is truly what NOT to do. Anyone can fill a job jar with to-dos that include every possible need or desire. A well-organized team needs to make good choices to have a better chance of emptying their jar.

While organizational strategies start by laying out goals, you don’t have an actual strategy until you prioritize your limited resources (people, time, money) to meet the goals. Organizations can start strategy planning as if they have unconstrained resources, but the leader must prioritize as organizations are always resource limited.

Ask yourself as you build your strategy, is this project important enough to set aside people, time, and resources to get it done? Will we stick to needs versus choices when day-to-day tasks and unforeseen crises pop up? Your choices will define the risk you accept to get your projects done. As a leader, you need to make the decisions about not only what you should do and the harder choice about what you should not do. And yes, you will have to feed some projects more than others and deal with the fallout should there be any internal consternation.

As a leader, I found the most difficult choices came in finding the right balance between challenging and overtasking our whole team. We needed to overcome the day-to-day grind that left our team with little time to undertake the innovative projects we needed to get better.

Our wing realized our mistake and stepped back at mid-year to make the hard choices that matched our limited resources to the right priorities. Our mid-year correction set aside nearly half the 39 projects, and we got the most important ones done for the rest of the year.

Our second-year planning was much more realistic. We balanced our resources and needs from the start. We made better risk choices and stuck to our strategy for the whole year. Unlike that comic strip family, we got our most important work done while fixing life’s broken appliances, watching the big game (Go Bucs! Go Falcons! Go Hogs!) and taking that long walk—and you can too.



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