No Concept of Priorities

(From the project Dialogues with Julian Moody: On Life, Business, Sustainability, and Other Things by Julian Moody and Brandy Walker)

BW: In your long career, you observed that many managers had difficulty with planning, especially with what you call here-and-now planning.

JM: I usually worked with the president, senior vice presidents, and executive vice presidents of all functional areas. I’m mentioning all these positions because they represent people—they were usually men in my time—who in many, many cases were very competent in their field, and had advanced education in their field, and they were extremely competent in many ways, but I think one of the key areas very few of them had any skills in was planning. Now some of them might have learned about, what they’ve called strategic planning in the past ten or twenty years, which is where they are looking at five years ahead or ten years ahead. But where they seemed to lack the most skills was in short term planning, what I call here-and-now planning. I’ve seen boards and top people go away for three days and do some outstanding long-term planning. They’ll lay out their goals for the next three years. They’ll talk about priorities, all kinds of good stuff. But if I’m sitting with the president, and he’s talking about it and I say, “That’s a good start. What are you going to do this week to start moving towards those goals?” Invariably, he would say, “I’m talking about goals that are a year away, three years away.” And I would say, “If they’re real goals, you need to start working on them now.” And they had great difficulty understanding the difference between planning and focusing on what I call here-and-now planning. Here-and-now planning means today, tomorrow, this week, this month. And it’s got to focus on the how of it. I don’t think I found very many executives that really knew how to map out plans for a given project, as an example. Many didn’t know how to plan short term, which could be six months, three months, one month, one week. It was very interesting that they were thinking ahead for a year or three years or more. They would have all kinds of plans, but nothing ever happened. They had no real specificity or application to their day-to-day work. I think also related to this is another very common problem. People will say they are going to do something and you check back with them a week or so later and they haven’t done anything. For some, this was just a case of them not following through on what they said they were going to do, but for others, this was connected to a lack of ability to prioritize or plan. And I found this to be more common than not. So what I found was a lack of an ability to do basic fundamental planning on a here-and-now level. I’m thinking now of a company who was in the process of growing. It was probably about a thousand employees, and their sales were pretty good. And they were ambitious in terms of increasing their sales over the coming year by quite a large percentage. And they had goals that they set, and sort of general plans they had. But when I asked the president to give me a clear picture of what kind of things they were planning this month in order to achieve the things they wanted to achieve by the end of the year, he couldn’t do it. And when I asked him, “What are you going to do this week?” Again, he couldn’t do it. He seemed baffled and bewildered by the question. That whole area I would say is quite a void. And now that was not true of people who were highly trained technically. So if you were dealing with an engineering executive, you might find that he was highly skilled in analyzing and planning out the engineering. This is a part of the discipline of engineering. So I think in the case of technical areas, planning seems to come more naturally since you’re dealing more with the concrete, say building bridges.

BW: Is here-and-now planning something that you learned in your military experience? Or did it just come naturally for you because of your background and personality?

JM: Both. I learned it in the military and it was also very natural for me. For example, in World War II, our overall strategy, when we were fighting our way across France, starting from Utah Beach, was to get across the border of Germany. On November 11th, we launched a major attack to start a battle that would take us over the border of Germany. And it was a battle that we knew would take ten to twenty days and we figured that there would be a big loss of men. The overall strategy of getting over the border is bigger and broader and over a longer period of time. Now to do that, the sergeant of each squad needed to be doing here-and-now planning so that every soldier, at the appropriate time, was prepared and doing what he was supposed to be doing. For example, when we were moved up to the right flank of the Battle of the Bulge, we left at, I think, at two in the morning, in the pouring rain, but around about nine or ten o’clock in the evening when the orders came down, immediately the sergeant was issuing orders to the eight of us to get our emergency rations, get our emergency ammunition, to be checking all of our equipment, and so on, so that when we moved out—and our battalion had five hundred and sixty-five men—we were highly organized and efficient, and it was because the evening before, we were all good at—I wouldn’t say we all were—but the sergeants were, at here-and-now planning.

BW: So the basic, practical aspects of what you learned in the war helped with understanding here-and-now planning for organizations.

JM: Yes, a battalion is essentially an organization. As I said, we had five hundred and sixty-five men in our battalion. I worked for banks and other organizations that had around five hundred employees. I think I also learned a lot from my life experience. We talked about what I called “survival living” in the Great Depression, which is definitely pragmatic, immediate. I also owned a business and worked with small businesses at the beginning of my consulting career, so that’s a good, practical foundation.

BW: Since you’ve observed that many presidents and executives are so bad at it, this begs the question—why are people so bad at here-and-now planning?

JM: I would say in some cases, it’s a lack of certain education and experience, or a lack of certain areas of critical thinking, or in some cases people are so over educated they have lost common sense. It depends a lot on the person and situation. I could generalize and say that maybe this is one of our great lacks in our educational system from the elementary days all the way through college—education in that kind of creative planning that’s also very pragmatic. What I’m talking about doesn’t seem to exist in most of our education, even today. Some might argue that it isn’t possible to educate in this area. And maybe they’re right. In the topic “Managers Not Grounded in Reality,” we talked about how a lot of top executives and managers, they have advanced degrees, a lot of training in relatively abstract areas such as finance and marketing, but little or no ground-level, day-to-day real world experience in the area or product or manufacturing process the company specializes in. So in this case, a poor ability in here-and-now planning is very likely related to a lack of real world experience. Real world experience is just that—something you generally don’t find in a classroom or book.

BW: Even if someone has real world experience, what are some obstacles to here-and-now planning?

JM: I would say one of the big obstacles to good here-and-now planning is that many people have no concept of priorities. Once again we’re generalizing. There are executives and leaders who are very good at prioritizing. But we could say that maybe the majority of people, or many people don’t have any understanding of how to go about selecting priorities. I think it’s maybe a part of our culture, or maybe it’s our educational system, or other things—what exactly, I’m not sure, but this is just what I’ve observed—that people at almost all levels, particularly at the higher levels in business, are always trying to do too much. They do not know or they never learned how to select priorities. If you talk to a president, he’d say, “Yeah, I’ve had an awful week. I’ve had about twenty or twenty-five things that I had to cope with.” Then I would spend time with him and begin to question, “Out of the twenty-five things you coped with during the week and were very reactive, which of these were absolutely essential?” And he would say, “What do you mean essential?” I would say, “Well, it’s a matter of priorities. Were all these twenty-five high priority?” And I have found that many people don’t understand the concept of priorities. Looking at ten things or fifteen things or twenty or five. Makes no difference. They don’t know how to select those things which are more important, essential, and let others go. As a result, many business people are in a constant state of feeling overwhelmed, overworked.

BW: To clarify, the twenty-five things he had to deal with, make decisions about, those were from the everyday running of the business, correct?

JM: Right. Let’s say, the president or the executive or manager, they would come up with a list of everything that had to be done or addressed. Essentially a business version of a big to-do list. So they have this list and it’s ordered more often in terms of when the issue or problem first came up versus what is priority. Many people think or feel whatever comes up first has to be dealt with first. Or they order according to some other inefficient, emotionally reactive strategy, for example, they don’t want to upset certain people. Whereas what is really important in thinking in terms of priorities is for the person, if he’s got a list of twenty-six important things to do, is to say, “Which of these twenty-six things are absolutely essential and have to be done today or this week?” Picking out the essential day to day is much more effective than having them numbered chronological priorities. Or they will manage to come up with a good prioritized list, but just rigidly stick with that same list day after day, not realizing it needs to be evaluated and sorted all the time. To be effective, you need to be always sorting and deciding by what’s most important. Priorities may change from day to day, depending on what happens.

BW: So you’re saying that many presidents and executives don’t know what is essential?

JM: Let me say that people in organizations, whether they’re presidents or executives, people with MBAs or without, struggle with priorities. I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they have not been trained in how to manage priorities, but it could be other reasons.

BW: It sounds like what you’re saying is that they have no problem knowing what needs to be done, the issue seems to be that they have a problem letting some things go?

JM: One big problem is that they don’t delegate enough. A lot of stuff they’ll have on their list will be things that need to be delegated.

BW: So they’re unwilling to relinquish control?

JM: Well, that could be true, or it could be that they don’t know. Some are not trained that way. A big problem in organizations is delegation. Many of the executives try to do everything themselves. They don’t make use of their people in a way that’s productive or effective.

BW: Why is that?

JM: There’s a whole bunch of reasons. It depends on the person that you’re working with. It might be a person who wants tight order. Some top people have a very high need for control. They may want to micromanage everything. Some have huge egos and want their hand in everything. Some people are full of fear—they think if they don’t do it, it won’t get done. Some people just never learned how. And these days, many people have so many expectations and demands placed on them and they just don’t know how to say no. I could go on and on and on. I could talk for hours to answer that question since it was unique to each individual I worked with. These are just general areas. Overviews.

BW: So there’s no confusion, how do you distinguish between here-and-now planning with the advice that you sometimes give? You’ve told me and other people you’ve coached, “Don’t think more than a month ahead.”

JM: When I say, “Don’t think more than a month ahead,” especially in a business context, I mean more in the sense of trying to anticipate and address everything or worrying about everything that may or may not happen in the future. In here-and-now planning, you’ve specified a long-term goal, objective, or strategy, so now what are the concrete steps that are going to be taken right now, today, this week, this month in order to reach the goal or objective.

BW: You’ve made it clear that there are various reasons why someone may have trouble with priorities. Would you say that having no concept of priorities could be rooted in the lack of priorities in the broader sense of values, ethics, or vision? We touched on this in the topic “Greed.” For example, in many contexts, there are executives who insist on salary increases, bonuses, and vacations while the company itself is in danger of going bankrupt and having to lay off employees—that’s an example of warped priorities.

JM: Absolutely. That’s certainly an example of having no concept of priorities at all in the bigger sense of vision, values, ethics. And perhaps no concept of priorities in the mundane sense may be in full or in part, depending on the individual, rooted in having no concept of priorities in the bigger sense. We talked about ego, greed, self-interest, and being concerned with self gain and being a star versus what is best for the company, the other employees, and the overall good.

BW: Being self-serving versus having an attitude of servitude, that’s certainly going to have a bearing on how a person is going to select and decide what is priority on a day-to-day level.

JM: That’s true. The problem is that, in the first place, many people aren’t even aware that they need to prioritize.

BW: They don’t even know.

JM: No. They’re basically reactive. Many presidents and executives are reactive day in and day out. That’s their primary mode of operation. They react without taking time out to really think and reflect. The president, or anyone making important decisions, needs to set aside time to reflect, think clearly, and prioritize. You can’t even know your values, or if you are grounded in values and principles unless you take time out to be alone and reflect on all this. To have any kind of awareness of what’s important and essential requires reflection, but we live in a culture of constant doing and busyness. There is little to no reflection.

BW: We idolize productivity, so unless we’re constantly doing something, we feel like we’re not being productive. People feel guilty when they rest or do nothing.

JM: But are we truly productive? To be productive requires being able to prioritize. To prioritize effectively requires stopping all activity and refraining from reacting to everything, doing nothing essentially, and getting away from distractions, which is extremely difficult for most people to do. Many don’t seem to have the ability to keep still or even spend time alone. They’re completely unaware of a need for reflection and self-examination. They want to remain in a constant state of busyness, doing, and reacting.

BW: So there’s an irony. Doing nothing, at least for a period of time, allows you to be more effective and productive in the long run.

JM: Right. That’s a good way to put it. But that’s hard for many people, especially these days, to grasp. Nowadays, you’re almost not allowed to do nothing. People are constantly scheduling their time and their kid’s time with nonstop activity. And with cell phones and all these electronic devices we surround ourselves with, it gets even more challenging. If someone can’t stop activity or reflect or be alone, then they are going to have great difficulty with prioritizing. It will be difficult for that person to have any concept of priorities. And this is more important than most people realize. Over the years I’ve coached many people, and particularly with older people, a certain regret seems to come up often. This sense of many years wasted of living day to day with no thought. A sense of much busyness and a life lived based on reaction, expectations of others, habit, and routine, with little to no reflection, introspection, self-examination, and prioritizing. They regret making decisions with no time out for reflection and self-examination. They report a feeling or a sense of waste, a sense of a lot of time and energy wasted.