Focus on the Wildly Important

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“Action expresses priorities”. — Mahatma Gandhi

Why is it that some people spend a lot of time, a lot of energy, but never produce any significant results?

Meanwhile, other people have a knack for getting the right things done, building momentum, and changing their game?

What makes the difference between those that get results and those that don’t?  Or, what is the key difference between those that succeed and those that flounder or fail?

It’s focus.

This is the stuff that personal excellence is made from.

But not just any focus.  It’s a focus on the “wildly important” goals that match their top priorities.

After all, priorities are the backbone of productivity.

In the book, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, Stephen Covey shares how we can close the execution gap and vastly improve our ability to focus on and execute our top priorities.

We can do so, by making it a habit to focus on the “wildly important” versus the “merely important.”

We’re Naturally Wired for One Thing at a Time

You can probably throw one ball up and down.  What about two?   What happens when you try to juggle three?  You get the idea.

Covey writes:

“There’s a key principle that many fail to understand about focusing an organization: People are naturally wired to focus on only one thing at a time (or at best very few) with excellence.”

You Have an 80% Chance of Achieving Any Particular Goal with Excellence

As you add goals, you decrease your success.  How rapidly? With two goals, it’s 64%.  With five goals, it’s 33%.

Covey writes:

“Suppose you have an 80% chance of achieving any particular goal with excellence.  Add a second goal to that first goal, and research shows your chances of achieving both goals drop to 64 percent.  Keep adding goals and the probability of achieving them plunges steeply.  Juggle five goals at once, for example, and you only have a 33 percent chance of actually getting excellent results on all of them.  How vital it is, then, to focus diligently and intensely on only a few crucial goals.”

Distinguish Between Merely Important and Wildly Important

If you sort through the consequences of your goals, you’ll find that some goals are more critical than others.

Covey writes:

“Some objectives are clearly more critical than others.  We must learn to distinguish between that is merely ‘important’ and what is ‘wildly important.’  A ‘wildly important goal’ carries serious consequences.  Failure to achieve these goals renders all other achievements relatively inconsequential.”

Some Goals Must Be Landed Right Now

Some goals are critical path for success, right here, right now.  Keep in mind that not everything happens all at once.  That’s good, because you can’t focus on everything all at once.  Figure out what really needs to happen right now, and focus on that.

Covey writes:

“Consider the situation of the air traffic controller.  At any moment, hundreds of airplanes are in the air, and all of them are important — especially if you happen to be on one of them!  But the controller cannot focus on all of them at once.  Her job is to land them one at a time, and to do so flawlessly.  Every organization is in a similar position.  Few can afford the luxury of ‘divided attention’; some goals simply must be landed right now.”

How Do We Know Which Goals are “Wildly Important”?

Your “wildly important” goals should reflect the most impact from an economic, strategic, and stakeholder benefits perspective.
Covey write:

“So how do we know which goals are ‘wildly important’ and will best help us execute our strategic plan?  Sometimes it is immediately clear and obvious.  At other times, analysis is needed.  The Importance Screen is a valuable strategic planning tool that will help you prioritize your goals by running them through the economic, strategic, and stakeholder screens.  In other words, it will help you assess which of all the potential goals would bring the most leverage in terms of economic, strategic, and stakeholder benefits.  You may wish to use the Importance Screen when determining your top goals.”

Stakeholder, Strategic, and Economic Value Filters

By running your goals through a shareholder, strategic, and economic screen, you position a very clear “why” behind the “what” of each goal.

Covey provides some simple checks to help you filter down to your “wildly important” goals:

Stakeholder checks:

  • What are the most important things you should do to fulfill the needs of your stakeholders?
  • Increase customer loyalty?
  • Ignite the passion and energy of your people?
  • Favorably impact suppliers, vendors, business partners, and investors?

Strategic checks:

  • What is the most consequential thing we can do to advance our strategy?
  • Directly supports the organization’s mission or purpose?
  • Leverages core competencies?
  • Increases market strength?
  • Increases competitive advantage?

Economic checks:

  • Of all your potential goals, which few would bring you the most significant economic return?
  • Revenue growth?
  • Cost reduction?
  • Improved cash flow?
  • Profitability?

Do Fewer Things with Excellence Over Many Things with Mediocrity

Less is better when it comes to getting excellent results.

Covey writes:

“To achieve results with excellence, you must focus on a few wildly important goals and set aside the merely important.  Since human beings are wired to do only one thing at a time with excellence (or at best just a few), we must learn to narrow our focus.  The reality is, far too many of us try to do far too many things.  Like an air traffic controller, we need to learn to land one plane at a time — to do fewer things with excellence rather than many things with mediocrity.”

Pick 3 “Wildly Important” Goals

To practice this discipline, pick three “wildly important” goals that align to your top priorities.

Covey writes:

“To practice this discipline you must clarify your team’s top two or three ‘wildly important’ goals and carefully craft them to be in alignment with the organization’s top priorities.”

Knowing and doing are two different things.

If you want to exponentially improve your success, focus on the “wildly important” goals that match your top priorities.

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4 COMMENTS

  1. I remain mindful of these words from Steve Jobs:
    People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.

    Your words provide context & transform this cogent quote into actionable guidance. Well done!

    • Covey had such a way with words that I forget how profound his research was.

      I remember the first time I flipped to the back of one if his books. I was amazed by the sheer quantity of sources and notes. He really knew his data and his numbers.

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