One Problem at a Time: Lessons from the Shadow Divers

We all know that setting priorities is essential for the growth of any company.  As leaders, we determine these priorities based on financial targets, operational changes, or a broader vision.

The challenge many business leaders face is in truly committing to those priorities once you’ve set them.  We’ve all been there – you get to the office with a clear picture of what your priorities are for the day, but someone stops you with a question on the way to your desk, and before you know it you’re late for your lunch meeting, and haven’t accomplished anything you intended to.

One of my new favorite books is called Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II.  This true story chronicles the lives of deep wreck divers who stumble across a lost World War II German U-boat.  Deep wreck diving is a completely different activity than the scuba diving you did over summer vacation, and these divers routinely encounter treacherous currents, hallucinations, equipment problems, and other challenges that your Level 1 SCUBA certification definitely does not teach you.

As in many sports and in life in general, true emergencies often result when multiple “that should never have happened” situations occur at the same time.  The HVAC tech should have detected that radon leak but didn’t, and you should have had fresh batteries in the radon detector but forgot.  Or, we should not have skipped the background check on a new hire but did anyway to “fast track” the hire, and he should never have had access to that folder on our server anyway.  Or in case of the shadow divers, you shouldn’t have stayed down just a few extra minutes beyond the reserve threshold of your oxygen tanks, and your suit should not have gotten snagged on that twisted piece of metal, and you should not have lost visual contact with your partner.  But, all those things happened.  And now you’re in trouble.

One of the foundational principles of these shadow divers is that, when you get into trouble, trying to solve all your problems at the same time is a quick recipe for disaster.  As one of the divers states in the story, “Completely solve your first problem before you even THINK about your second problem.”

We could all learn a lesson in priority management from shadow divers.

While business leaders aren’t usually facing life or death situations, the principle still applies.  Put the top priorities at the top of the list, and fully commit to them until they’re finished.  Failing to do so often results in lots of activity that doesn’t actually lead to anything significant being accomplished.

Here are a few ways to help you stay on track with your goals: 

Decide on the handful of top priorities for your company.  This should be simple, but most of us struggle with thinking that we can get much more done than we actually can, or with thinking that the project that looks the most energizing at the moment is also the one that most needs to be done.

Tie your actions directly to those top priorities.  Everything you do – and I mean everything – should be driving a KPI or a top priority.  One of my clients likes to set goals and then double-check them with what we call a “So That.”  You have a goal to launch the new website?  Great, but the website itself isn’t the true objective.  When we do a “So That” we instead say something like “launch the new web site So That we are better positioned to accurately track our conversion rates.”

Take on one problem at a time.  Like the shadow divers, don’t try to work on several critical projects simultaneously.  Attempting to do so often leads to confusion, fatigue, and a loss of focus.  Now, there’s some reality here that we need to face:  busy leaders usually don’t have the luxury of truly working on one single thing for an extended period of time until it’s complete.  However, working on a single thing for as long of a time period as you can before switching to another thing will help make you much more efficient.  There’s a lot of math that fellow aficionados of Lean, the Theory of Constraints, and Six Sigma would geek out on, but I’ll spare you the equations.  Suffice it to say that I promise you will be more effective working on one problem in the morning and a different problem in the afternoon than if you are switching back and forth between them throughout the day.

Granted, sometimes priorities need to shift, but this should definitely be the exception, not the rule.  The most important thing to remember is that your business will become stronger as you tackle a single issue in front of you before moving on to something else.  You may not discover a lost German U-boat, but both your business and your leadership will be stronger!

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