Everybody who works in business is busy. There are deadlines, crises, urgent requests from on high, and email inboxes stuffed to bursting. How many times do you reply “very busy” when asked how things are going? Scheduling meetings is a diary nightmare; it’s easier to seek perfect alignment of the planets than to get eight senior people in the same room within the next month. The personal workload and efficiency challenge is particularly acute these days.
So it’s not surprising that the urgent too often outweighs the important. When the ship is burning you naturally try to put out the fire rather than check the course. It’s a natural human response to alleviate the source of immediate pain rather than invest time and effort in future comfort. However minor challenges can be treated as crises that need a firefighting approach. We seem to love a crisis and stepping heroically into the breach. Don’t get me wrong – putting yourself out to deliver something urgent is admirable, as long as we don’t lose the balance.
And what suffers? Important things. Like innovation. Like the future growth of the company. Like worrying about that new competitor whose product might just put us out of business in a few years if we don’t start to think about it now. Is the task that has today’s deadline more important than building business for the year after next? Only you know the answer for your company.
Innovation is not usually something that has to be done by 5 o’clock today. It’s a longer-term challenge. But we know that projects aren’t done in one go, they’re done step by step, and if you don’t take those steps day by day then we all know what happens – innovation projects become late.
The later stages of projects are not usually a problem. That’s because there are impending deadlines, promises to customers, sunk investment and we know we just have to hit the dates. It’s the early stages of projects that are more likely to suffer from a lack of urgency. But in terms of NPV a three months’ delay at the start of a project is the same as three months lost at the end.
So how do we find time when there isn’t any? How do we ensure innovation projects maintain momentum and importance? The answer of course is that it’s a question of balance. We can’t apply a dogmatic or draconian mandate. Only by consciously scheduling time for innovation day by day will progress be made. Only by making short term commitments on longer term projects will we shift the center of gravity towards the importance of growth.
The most efficient people I know are the ones who always seem to have time. They appear relaxed and focused, but when they have to break off the conversation it’s done clearly and politely. They’re decisive, focused and on top of their game. It’s like football – the best players always seem to have lots of time on the ball, they’re never rushed.
The companies I know that do innovation well schedule it as part of “business as usual”. They recognize that late today is late at launch. They ignore neither the urgent nor the important, because innovation is both.
Kevin McFarthing runs the Innovation Fixer consultancy, helping companies to improve the output and efficiency of their innovation, and to implement Open Innovation. He spent 17 years with Reckitt Benckiser in innovation leadership positions, and also has experience in life sciences.