Publicity April 2016

The devil is in the detail

The leadership Japan series

The saying, “The devil is in the detail”, reflects ancient wisdom about taking careful notice of small things. The quite amusing reflection on this saying is that it was created centuries ago, when we can imagine life was substantially less complex than it is today.

Email surges, flat surfaces groaning under the weight of paper, meetings back to back from dawn to dusk, and ring tones, beeps and assorted intrusions from digital devices we carry 24 hours a day—this is the modern life. How easy it is for us to become overwhelmed by all the detail and, in the process, unknowingly unleash a number of devils.

The usual answer to these types of dilemmas is to work on our time management, especially prioritisation and that other partner in crime—delegation.

Surprisingly, many of the executives I train or coach do not sufficiently plan their days. They do not have written down lists of what should occupy their valuable time, in order of priority, and be executed starting with the task of highest importance.

They are commencing their days hammering away on whatever random emails landed in their inbox overnight. They troop off to a barrage of meetings and then race back to attack the newer emails, which slipped through during their absence or which could not be dealt with, surreptitiously, on their device during the meeting.

Stop kidding yourself; your time is all you have—and time is life. Pause for a moment and let that statement sink in slowly. Set goals, so you have a direction. Set a vision so that you have a philosophy about why you are doing it all. Boil both down to tasks to be completed on a daily basis, arranged in a pecking order from most to least important, and only start with the number one priority.

We can’t do everything each day, but we can do the most important thing. Be adaptable to change the order, as the day unfolds, but stick with the self-designated tasks. Move unfinished tasks to the next day’s list and, again, start with the application of priorities, as they will vary from day to day. Do this every day and life becomes a lot more productive and the feeling of being in control starts to enter your soul.

The other bear trap for executives is delegation, which is usually poorly understood and even more poorly executed. Delegation is a misnomer for many executives, because the correct word is dumping, not delegation.

This means shovelling the “whatever” off your desk on to some poor unsuspecting soul’s work pile. It means no supervision until the date of completion, when the teeth gnashing, hand wringing and ear steaming come into evidence, as you discover either it is not ready or, even worse, ready but the wrong thing.

Delegation needs two key steps to be actually worthy of being referred to as delegation. It needs a communication piece with the delegate, where the purpose of the delegation is explained as being there to help that person’s career, by exposing them to the type of tasks they will need to do to rise through the ranks.

The other discipline is checking on progress. There is a delicate balance to ensure checking doesn’t slip into micromanaging, but nevertheless there must be checking. The obvious A to B route for any project sometimes takes a detour in the hands of our subordinates, who decide that A to Q makes more sense to them. We need to pick that up early so we don’t see the task wander off piste.

This is all good in theory. Annoyingly, our busy life interferes with the checking component and we easily stray into the territory of dumping. Later, we often find projects or tasks have gone awry and serious effort needs to be devoted to recovery.

Creating templates for follow-up can help. Rather than relying on memory (an increasingly unreliable ally as we get busier), we have a series of templates for meetings. The template nominates what needs to be addressed in the conversation, so that nothing gets missed.

Subordinates get consistency of management and realise the boss is not dropping the ball, so no shortcuts or deviations will be slipping though unnoticed. We usually only need to make the templates once. Keep them handy and life gets better very quickly.