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A bridge too far …

February 24, 2011

During World War II, the Allied forces attempted to seize control of several bridges to secure what they thought would be their final advance into Germany in 1944. During this operation, called Operation Market Garden, the Allies ran into deeper resistance than they had expected at Arnhem and failed to capture a key bridge, ending their hopes of ending the war that year. The events of the operation were captured in the movie “A Bridge Too Far”.

What does this have to do with business and leadership? Simple. We’re going through change and as we go through change there are many temptations to go too far. This may stretch our resources and cause us to come up short, ultimately delaying our ability to make the changes we want to make.

Going too far generally starts with good intentions. Everyone is excited about change. As a leader, I am passionate about wanting to see our people and our organization succeed. I am proud of what they are accomplishing and energized about the possibilities we can create. However, it’s that very energy that can cause us to proceed too fast and get too far out in front, eventually leading to burnout and disenchantment.

I was pretty sure I wouldn’t fall prey to this. I did my homework on change management. I read many books and articles and took change management training. I studied the successes and failures of others. I then developed a sharp plan to very specifically attack the challenges we had. I saw things happening in a paced environment over the next three to five years. I was focused. I was clear. I was purposeful. I boiled our strategic priorities down to three, a number I love to focus on at all times. And even with all of that, just a couple of days ago I looked down at the list of initiatives meant to support those three strategic priorities and found myself starting at a two pages of items. We had gone too far and now we were exposed.

I’m acting fast. By the end of this week I will have pared that list down. I will re-emphasize our quick wins. I will defer some initiatives. I will ensure everyone on the team is focused on no more than three things at a time, in some cases having a singular focus. I will get back in front of people and communicate to them our strategic priorities. I will emphasize we need to be focused and sharp, starting with me. I will demonstrate my commitment to that principle, and to them, by talking about the things we will not do as much as the things we will do.

I can do this because my one project through this change is the change. It’s the one thing I have said I am accountable for. At the top of the list through the change is looking after our people. They have waited a long time for these changes to be made. They know the value the changes can mean to our company and to them. I won’t cheat them of victory just because we’re anxious to taste it. It’s a long season. We’re only just starting. If we burn out now we won’t have enough energy left when the playoffs come; when it really matters.

To ensure I remain focused I will remind myself that too much is too much. Our list will always be too long however our priorities will be just so. However, to live up to that we must have priorities and not a big list of things to do. The list is always too long. The priorities just so. I fell down by letting us temporarily wonder beyond our most immediate priorities. I let people start nailing things to the wall without consideration for how cluttered that would soon look. As more was added, more needed to be taken down.

I am starting with working with every one of our senior leaders to ensure they have a small number of priorities. My best tool in all of that is to ask them what they would do if they could do only thing this year.  They hate that. They always begin by telling me they couldn’t possibly do one thing. I always remind them they have no choice in this exercise. They must only do one thing. Eventually they choose one. And that’s when they realize what their single biggest priority is. I then ask when they can get that one thing done by. Now we have the semblance of a plan coming together. We then move to the next item, rarely going beyonds three.

Why three you ask? Three is a powerful number. It has a nice natural rhythm to it. Three things are easy to remember and easy to write down. Almost everyone can remember three things, fewer can remember four and no one can remember ten. Three things look good on a list. It’s enough things to get done but not too many to do. Three sides form a triangle. Triangles are great shapes. The base is wide enough to be firm and sturdy, representing stability, with the two sides rising to a sharp point, signifying progression.

The interesting part of this process is how much more quickly I recognize opportunities for change in myself and my approach and how much more readily I accept the need to change. In previous roles I would have pushed through, failing to even recognize or accept there was a problem. I would have been angry people couldn’t keep up. I would have blamed them for not being able to see the big picture and accuse them of trying to slow us – me – down. I would have focused only on my energy and not that of others. I would have stubbornly persisted, keeping my head down and my feet going. I would have compounded the error.

I am also pleased I passed an important test. I easily could have become emotionally invested in the big list of things. After all, many of those things I put there. I want to accomplish them. However, it is more important to accomplish the right things and not just many things. I easily let things go because I remained focus on my singular task. I emotionally invested in the right thing – creating a world class team – and not the wrong things. I am pleased with that because it is another sign of my development. It tells me I am ready for even bigger and tougher challenges. I am passing this test. I can pass others.

The results I am seeing in myself are a great reminder of the need to pace change. Several years ago I decided to more purposefully change. I quickly made change but not all of the change I needed to make. The personal changes I am working on now are only possible because of the building blocks I carefully put in place years ago. I couldn’t imagine back then doing some of the things I am doing now. It would have seemed overwhelming, and if so, might never have happened. Slow down to speed up. My coach tells me that often. I detested it when she first said it. I honour it now.

A bridge too far? Well, it remains apt. The bridge is too far, however I can learn from Operation Market Garden, and leave that bridge for another day. I can see it. I may even be able to taste it. But it will sit there until we’re ready. Anything more or less than that may result in defeat.

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