Do you and your team get bogged down with “noise” that you are compelled to respond to but results in missed targets or opportunities? It’s one thing to be distracted from time to time, but another to continuously struggle to maintain focus on the most important, highest priority strategies, goals and metrics.
We already know that structure is required for change (The Essential Role of Structure — and Why We Hate It), and that if you want to change something you have to change something. But where to start? With what kind of structure? What does that even mean?
Here are five steps to reduce noise and improve focus on the things that matter most:
Step One: Clarify
Sometimes activities that feel like noise may not be completely in the noise category — and some things that don’t feel like noise may well fit in that box. The first step is to figure out what activities you and your team are doing that actually are noise.
This is our first structure opportunity. Think of this like the activity of writing down your food when you are trying to eat a certain way. There are quite a few tools you could use for this: tracking time on a calendar page, hour by hour boards, or simply writing down daily activities and time durations on blank page could be helpful.
When you have some data to work with, the Eisenhower Matrix can be really helpful. One of my clients chose to use sticky notes for this. For just one day, each team member wrote each activity, along with some other helpful information, on a sticky note — one note per activity. The following day, they reviewed their notes as a team and placed them in the appropriate categories in the Eisenhower matrix, designating those activities as Not-Important/Not-Urgent, Important/Not-Urgent, Not-Important/Urgent or Important/Urgent.
Step Two: Measure
Once you know which is which, measure the actual time spent on noise. It may be less than you think. Your team may be using the noise as an excuse to avoid some of the more difficult tasks on their plates. If you find that is the case, celebrate! It is a coaching opportunity for you and a sign of needed growth for your team.
If there is a lot of noise getting in the way of your team’s success, determine if you can delegate or eliminate those tasks. This may take some time and some work, perhaps even some negotiation with other work groups. Maybe there is a process that needs improvement or shoring up. Noise tasks often result from lack of adherence to processes or procedures, specifically omitted or incorrect information on forms, skipping of steps, or disregard for important details.
Step 3: Decide
Whatever you found in your measurement, you now need to decide what you will do with that information. You have a few options:
1 - Do nothing. This is always an option. And it is an option often chosen because changing things feels too hard, too risky, too time consuming, or simply because it feels like the effort would be futile. If you choose this option, you must also then choose to never complain about it again. You are accepting the status quo — so accept it, fully, without remorse.
2 - Choose something to change. There are a ton of options for what to change and how to change them. The trick is to figure out what will have the most impact for you and your team. There may be just one thing you need to focus on — or more than one.
3. End something. It is also possible that a practice simply has to end. So rather than making a shift in how you handle a particular task, the task simply comes off the list.
Step 4: Plan
If you chose to change or end something, you’ll want to make a plan for action. As part of that plan, find or create a structure to help you stick to your plan. The trick with your structure is to make it both simple and effective. Too complex or cumbersome and you won’t use it, and if you’re not using it, you won’t see results. Perhaps it is a check list, or an “unusual incident” board that you use like a parking lot — gathering similar nuisance tasks together until there are enough to make doing them a task, rather than a distraction. It could be a basket system for gathering certain kinds of tasks, a color code system for various team members, or even a change in file folder colors for hot items.
Make your structure simple, easily understood, and visible. Consider creating a measurement to track the effectiveness of your structure to achieve the change you seek.
Step 5: Execute
As you work with your structure, don’t be afraid to tweak it or change it if needed. That said, do not abandon it unless you can prove, with measurement, that the problem has been completely solved. If you end use of the structure too soon you will slide back into old habits and find yourself facing the same noisy problem as before.
Be forewarned: It will not take long for people to insist they no longer need the structure. We are wired to resist structure as part of the process of change, preferring to believe we have the will-power and intelligence to just figure it out and make the change.
Question: What changes have you made using structure as a tool for success? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.