Six Practical Tips to Help You Stay Focused and On Track

Jim Taggart's picture

We’re living in crazy times. No one seems to have a clue what’s happening to the economy. I’ve worked as an economist for some three decades, and I’ve basically given up listening to the so-called gurus. They’re as lost and conflicted as everyone else.

There are so many unknown knowns (eg, double-dip recession? Collapse of Greece’s economy?) and unknown unknowns (future events of which we have no idea). Unemployment, inflation, effects from global warming, aging population, technology, political events, etc. are increasingly intertwined.

My suggestion is to learn what you do control, leaving the chaos to the pundits and pseudo gurus. Here are six practical tips to assist you in your daily work.

1. Maintain a Laser Focus on Your Customers
As I said, we’re living in a time of turmoil where society’s changing quickly. One thing you DO control is how you not just respond to but anticipate your customers’ and clients’ needs and wants. This means listening carefully to what they’re saying explicitly and implicitly. Look for the nuances in their verbal and non-verbal communication. In doing so you’ll be in a better position to innovate, whether it’s through improving your services or products.

Many years ago I recall watching a video of management and quality guru Tom Peters who expressed in typical Peters’ exuberant form: “Ignore your customers!”

What the heck? Had Peters lost his mind?

Not at all.

Peters point was, yes, pay close attention to what your customers are saying. However, he was urging people to also take the time to step back and explore new opportunities with which to heighten the products or services they provide. Don’t get locked into confined thinking. Surprise your customers.

2. Believe in Your Gut Instincts
We’re into data overload, to the point that we’re seeing a garbage-in, garbage-out mentality, making decisions that often prove incorrect or contradictory. This is where intuition–your gut–needs to help you more in making decisions.

A case in point is the recent financial meltdown. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that the American economy was about to slam into a wall. The “data” thrown around by financial analysts, economists, politicians, etc. were manipulated to serve the interests of specific individuals and groups. Anyone who would have taken the time to stop and reflect on what was happening and asked herself: “Is this for real? Can a bubble keep expanding indefinitely?” would have realized that it was a fool’s game.

Have confidence in your gut.

3. Watch Your Co-workers’ Backs…and They’ll Watch Yours
Unfortunately, North American management, especially in the United States, has a strong tendency to create competitive internal environments. Pitting employees against one another is seen as a way to bring out the best in people to maximize profits. I’ve seen this tactic used in Canada’s federal public service, which is rather bizarre, given that its main purpose is to serve the public. We’re not talking profits here or fending off Chinese competitors.

When the labor market’s tight (low unemployment rate, when you can tell your boss to go fly a kite, hence the “tight” moniker), internal competition is tolerated. However, when shit hits the fan and firms start jettisoning employees over starboard, the knives come out. It’s every man and woman for himself and herself. This plays further into the hands of management.

If you take a principle-centered approach to how you operate in the workplace–operating with integrity–then your first order of business is to watch your coworkers’ backs. And if you’re in a leadership position doing this is a core element of leading people. If you’re not doing this, you’re not a leader.

I got myself into shit a few times many years ago as a manager because I always backed my team. But I could also count on them to watch my back. Some of my peer managers didn’t hesitate to screw their staff. Dumb move.

Always maintain your integrity.

4. Know When to Exit an Outdated Product or Service 
There’s nothing more pathetic than watching an organization desperately cling to something that’s dying or already dead. An example that comes to mind, which may piss off some people (notably patriot Canadians), is RIM’s Blackberry. It’s not that the Blackberry is going to disappear, but given the rapid changes in wireless communications Rim is going to have to seriously change its thinking on how it’s going to compete in a sea of ubiquitous smart devices. For one, it may have to drop its own operating system for Android, which is said to account for 35-40% of RIM’s share declines.

Worse, when a company introduces a new product to bad reviews it’s essential to quickly adjust course. Sorry to pick on you, RIM, but your new Playbook sucks.

Indeed, one RIM employee recently emailed the co-CEOs to appeal to them to show “bold” leadership and to keep innovating. This email made the national news. It’s a fascinating example of an employee (probably one of RIM’s thousands of computer engineers) who desperately wants to see the company regain its previous world-class stature.

The entrails stretch to the horizon of North American companies who were too arrogant to recognize that things had to change internally if they were to stay in business. Consumers around the world, from Indonesia to Egypt to Canada to Russia, are so sophisticated and demanding that firms that don’t kill or revamp useless products or services soon find their entrails joining those of past dead companies.

Don’t be afraid to put an end to a product or service that’s in terminal decline.

5. Be Open to New Ideas, Even if at First They Seem Dumb.
When the world was a lot simpler and people were a lot more naïve, new ideas and concepts could be quickly rejected. America ruled the universe. General Motors, Chrysler and Ford could laugh at the Japanese automotive companies. Koreans as an industrial competitor? China? India?

And I’m not even touching high technology.

Arrogance breeds complacency and sloth. It’s not what drives capitalism. Western industrialized countries have been getting the message in overdoses the past decade as emerging economies eat our lunch.

Despite the hyped bullshit that continues to emanate from the corporate suites on employee empowerment, risk-taking and workplace of choice, North America’s business community for the most part still doesn’t get it. And nor does government, whose role includes setting the stage for a robust private sector.

Until those in positions of authority truly create workplaces where creativity, open thinking and risk-taking abound, America’s and Canada’s economies will continue to limp along.

If you’re in a senior leadership position, be bold, not a coward, when it comes to enabling your teams.

If you’re in a staff position, be bold as well, speaking truth to power. Show your own integrity by offering concrete ideas and options on how to help your organization improve.

Don’t sit on the sidelines.

In the words of anthropologist and leadership consultant Angeles Arrien: “Be open to outcome, not attached to it.”

6. Keep Your Ego in Check by Laughing at Yourself.
The day you think you know it all or that you know more than others is the day you’re done.

As much as it’s important to have self-confidence, there’s a fine line between this and being arrogant. (See my above comment on arrogance.)

Each of us needs to remind ourselves daily that we’re mere mortals, who even in the best of circumstances will only possess the tiniest gram of knowledge and know-how. There are so many known knowns and unknown unknowns that we humans are in reality incredibly ignorant.

When you acknowledge this, you’ll actually gain more self-confidence. Being able to say to a co-worker or subordinate that you don’t know something is liberating. In my former career, I saw far too many senior management types blow it out their asses, pretending to have feeble answers to legitimate questions from employees. The same applies to the so-called gurus, whether they’re economists, political scientists, consultants, CEOs, etc.

Take a moment to add your own practical tip to this list.

To be conscious that you are ignorant of the facts is a great step to knowledge.
– Benjamin Disraeli


Photos by J. Taggart (Cathedral Ledge, New Hampshire)