Accelerating into 2015 with 3 Critical Questions©

It’s Thanksgiving time, which means it’s also the time we think about assessing 2014 and planning for 2015. People and organizations (and perhaps you) are contemplating how the current year went and what to do in the coming year. Around this time every year, strategy sessions are planned, retreats are held, review sessions are facilitated and goals are set, all designed to help companies and people do or be better in the next year. Unfortunately, many of these processes ultimately prove to be ineffective. Two of the primary reasons: 1. we are looking at the wrong things; and 2. the process is overly complicated. When things are too complex, execution suffers.

I am “The Question Guy,” which means that, rather than solely assess and review, I instead suggest that we use questions–specifically, 3 Critical Questions–to examine the past year in a different way and to discover helpful ways to do things differently in 2015. These 3 questions (and the answers thereto) will have a profound impact on your processes and the effectiveness of your outcomes in 2015, both personally and professionally.

The three questions are simple, but impactful:

  1. What should I stop doing?
  2. What should I start doing?
  3. What should I do more of?

The answers to these three questions will give you or your firm great clarity in terms of planning for new ways of being, doing and acting in 2015.

What Should You Stop Doing?

This may seem like a simple and straightforward question, but very few people actually ask it. The question is impactful because it involves a black-and-white assessment of things that should not just change, but should stop completely. Steve Jobs is famous for saying that much of Apple’s success was not in picking the right things, but in saying “no” to many of the wrong things. While many people and firms are pretty good at figuring out that they should stop things are not working (or that are literally failing), the more important assessment is what things are “sort of” working that you should stop doing. This assessment view is based upon knowing that we lose out on opportunities to pursue things that are working better–more productive, more profitable or more effective–because we are doing too many things that are just okay. Admittedly, it is difficult to stop doing things that are okay, because they don’t stink, but this is one of the biggest opportunities for any person or organization to improve.

Whether it relates to a business strategy, a marketing initiative or your personal life, mediocrity has its own momentum which often makes it difficult to stop. Thus, the decisions to stop doing or pursuing things that are mediocre can be some of the most difficult decisions. These are the ‘tweeners–those things, situations or activities that are neither great nor horrible. Imagine having your foot on both sides of a line and trying to straddle it. This is the land of indecision, but that translates into the land of great opportunity. When we choose to stop one thing, it frees us up to pursue another thing. Whether we are considering resources in terms of time and money, the distraction factor or some other criteria, decisive “nos” or “stops” create opportunities for us in other areas.

Hopefully, you and your firm are quick to stop the things that simply don’t work. If not, then you need to get better at reviewing, assessing and deciding–and quickly! If you are like most firms, though, your greatest opportunity is to get better at stopping the things that are okay, so-so, or mediocre. What will you stop doing in 2015?

What Should You Start Doing?

I find that this question is often the most interesting and fun. This is the land of creativity, new ideas and innovation. This is the land of big visions and big dreams. This is also the land of great distractions and the place where you can easily lose your focus. Many of us are drawn to new ideas, especially big ideas (or big hairy audacious goals), which gets our blood boiling with excitement for the new adventure. While these big ideas and visions are critical for firms and in your own life, sometimes they can easily distract you from what should be your better course of action.

For example, certain people and firms should not start doing anything new or add anything to their plate in 2015. If you’re already doing many of the right things but not yet doing them well, effectively or consistently, then your new initiative should be focused on improving the ways you execute what you are already doing. New and big ideas can be like the distracting shiny balls to a business owner or a creative mind, and they can just as easily take you off course as get you moving in the right or better direction.

This question also invites you to exercise your discernment in not choosing too many things and in choosing things based upon a purposeful and values-driven process. Too often, we make decisions about what we will start doing based primarily on what resources are available. This approach is a missed opportunity. The assessment of resources available to support new things should come after you have determined which things you want to start doing.

One of the impediments to effective brainstorming is filtering ideas too early in the process. The development of new ideas, whether completely new or variations on things we are already doing, should be an unfiltered and unfettered process designed to accumulate many and diverse ideas. One terrific question to ask ourselves about the ideas, even before we check in about resources, is to see to what degree the ideas overlap or are potentially leveraged.

Great leaders know that leveraging your efforts is a great way to create acceleration within a firm and to overcome potential resource limitations. For example, if you have two ideas that are fairly unrelated, then they will each require their own resources, whatever those resources are. However, if two ideas or new ways of doing things overlap, then they will be sharing resources that are allocated to these ideas, thereby creating leverage.

Nido Qubein, a well-known entrepreneur, speaker and President of High Point University, is somehow able to navigate a list of commitments and a schedule that would tire most of us. He is engaged in so many different things that it is difficult to imagine how he even begins to manage them. This summer, I heard Nido speak, and he explained that he never does anything that doesn’t touch at least two or three aspects of his life. He only does things that involve opportunities to leverage his time by promoting or supporting various things that he is involved with. This allows him to effectively create time, and thereby resources, because his investment of resources supports multiple objectives. This is a critical filtering process that every leader should employ when deciding what to start doing.

Another critical filter is alignment. The question that goes with this filter is as follows: Does this course of action align with my other initiatives, values or strategies? For example, I was personally committed to focusing on my professional speaking business in 2014. As a result, I committed to various activities that all aligned with the speaking business. This included a new speaker-focused website, a new demo video, involvement in speaking organizations and writing a book. It was also the basis for my decision to agree to join the board of the Ohio Chapter of the National Speakers Association. Frankly, my time is very limited and would not support me getting involved at a board level for another organization. However, since that board involvement is fully aligned with a key focus in my business, I decided that it was a good choice of something to start doing. You should apply the exact same analysis to everything you consider starting anew in 2015, both personally and professionally.

What Should You Do More Of?

There is no right or wrong or perfect balance, but most of us tend to focus our attention on what we do not do well. We invest significant resources in improving the things that we are not good at, sometimes without assessing whether that is actually a good investment of those resources. In many cases, you should instead be looking at ways to outsource or delegate  or hand-off the things that you do not do well, and instead invest in and sharpen the saw for the things that you already do well. This is exactly the mindset that goes with the question of what should you do more of. Since it is easier to see the things that are not working or not working well, we often miss the opportunity to enhance and further accelerate the things that we are already doing well.

Yes, we see and know that we are doing things well, but we may only know that our outcomes are positive. Only when we know what we are actually doing and recognize the actions that support our positive results can we commit to doing more of them.

Obviously, in order to accurately assess and answer this question, we need to do a good job of measuring and tracking the actions that we perform in support of outcomes. For example, if your fees or profits increase in 2014, it’s not terribly helpful to say, “Let’s do more of that in 2015!” That’s more of a hope than a strategy. In order to have an actionable strategy, we need to know what things we did well to create those positive outcomes, and from this we can commit to doing more of the things that are creating those good results. If you don’t know what you did to be successful, you can’t do more of it.

Believe it or not, the other challenge is that many people never think about doing more of the things that are already creating positive outcomes. We see the good results and don’t give them any attention because they are already working. What is most important, though, is to be diligent and focused on exactly what you are doing to create the results that you desire and then determine exactly what to do more of.

These 3 questions will change how you see your firm, your teams and your life. More important, the answers to these 3 questions will give you the roadmap to enhanced execution, better outcomes and greater impact. Are you prepared to do things differently … to think differently … to filter differently … to decide differently? Well, are you?

Now is YOUR time to clearly and honestly assess your personal and professional performance in 2014 and to then make purposeful changes as you head into 2015. If you really want to change things for the better in 2015, then I also suggest you add one more element to your process: seek and listen to input from other people–your firm team members, your fellow lawyers, your friends, your children, your spouse or partner, and your family. Believe it or not, we all have blind spots and the people around us in our lives will have amazing insights on all three of these magical questions. Happy questioning!

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