In honor of National Clean Off Your Desk Day, I want to introduce an annual cleanup tradition from Japan that can inspire actions that will drive success, fulfillment, and results for leaders. Observed each year in Japan by people of all ages, ōsōji means “big cleanup”. This year-end tradition involves decluttering and deep cleaning one’s home from top to bottom, but it’s about much more getting rid of old clothes and washing windows. It’s a sacred ritual that symbolizes the purification of one’s space, body, mind, and spirit to support a fresh start for the New Year.
But what does that have to do with success and fulfillment as a leader?
All successful leaders know the value of working with their teams to clarify their vision and priorities, optimize strategies, set goals, and create plans and budgets that will allow them to realize the vision. But leaders who are healthy and fulfilled, as well as successful, do something else before they even begin their annual planning work. Before they decide what to put on their plate for the coming year, they spend time thinking about what to take off. They take time to do a “big cleanup” of their beliefs, assumptions, strategies, goals, priorities and projects as part of clearing the clutter from their business.
Most leaders like to think they’re very logical and strategic when it comes to their decisions, actions and priorities, but science tells us otherwise. All people (this includes all leaders) fall prey to cognitive bias – unconscious errors in thinking that arise from problems related to memory, attention, and other mental mistakes. Cognitive bias in all its forms has a positive purpose – to minimize the time and energy required to process and act on all the information we are constantly bombarded with. This means we make assumptions as a rule, not as the exception because it saves us time and energy – at least in the short term.
Over time, one assumption builds upon another and what may once have been leading edge is now woefully out of touch with what is needed to thrive in our current business or personal environments. Organizations accumulate products, services, policies, processes, and physical stuff that takes up physical, mental, and financial space whose original purpose for being created no longer exists. Ultimately this means that everyone ends up with too much on their plates, too few resources for too many projects, and a lot less impact than they have the potential to make.
But the most effective – and trusted – leaders do something different. They take the time to do a clear-eyed clean out of everything they’re doing and thinking to determine what they need to let go of. They review their projects, products, services, people, policies, principles, and mindset to determine what is no longer serving them or the business. This frees up wasted time and energy that can be used to help themselves, their people, and their business to thrive with greater ease in the coming year.
Here are three areas where letting go can improve wellbeing, focus, energy and results:
1) Let Go of Assumptions
If you’ve ever been asked why something is the way it is and found yourself answering, “We’ve just always done it that way,” you’ve found an assumption that’s a potential source of wasted energy and resources. Leaders who intentionally slow down and question their assumptions on a regular basis are more likely to avoid the financial and energy costs that result from various forms of cognitive bias.
It’s akin to zero-based budgeting, the practice of requiring all expenses to be justified for a new year starting from zero (i.e. on their own merits) versus starting with a previous budget and adjusting from there. Elon Musk refers to this as “First Principles Thinking” and credits it with much of his success. This type of thinking clears out the metaphorical cobwebs of your thinking by questioning whether the assumptions upon which current beliefs, strategies, projects, and practices are based are not only still relevant to what you’re trying to achieve, but whether they are the most effective path to get there.
2) Let Go of Projects & Products
Most leaders are familiar with the concept of the Pareto Principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) that states that 80% of a business’s results come from 20% of its efforts. Likewise, 80% of its frustrations can come from 20% of its projects, policies, people, or products. It’s not always easy to spot which aspects of our business fit into the 20% that are most responsible for driving either success or frustration. These questions will help:
- Which products and projects get the most return on the resources invested in them? Which are we most proud of and/or excited by? If we were to exponentially increase the resources invested in these products or projects, what impact would this have on our business?
- Which products and projects have felt like a struggle? How long have they felt like this? Why do we continue offering these products or pursuing these projects? What would happen if we discontinued the product or project?
- What are the things that have been on my list forever that weigh on my mind but keep getting put to the bottom of the list? Is there a reason that they need to get done or can I just delete them from my list? If they are a priority, who has the time and skill to complete it?
3) Let Go of Grudges (or People)
Every leader we’ve worked with has people frustrations. Whether you have a lot of people frustrations or just a few, you know that even though they may not take up a lot of your time, they can take up a huge amount of your mental and emotional energy. This is because our brains gravitate towards problems so that we can solve them. This results in two key behaviours that are an inefficient use of leader time, energy, and resources: 1) spending more time with your poor performers than you do with your peak performers, and 2) Wasting mental and emotional energy by complaining about and/or being angry at team members who aren’t performing as you want them to.
Use the following questions to recalibrate your thinking on where to invest your time and energy with your people.
- Who are the people that have the most positive impact on our business? What do they do or how do they think/act that creates this positive impact? How much time do I invest in supporting them? What might happen if I invested more time? How well resourced are they? What might happen if I gave them more resources?
- Who are the people that have the most negative impact on our business? Have I invested time to identify and address the root cause of the issues with these people? Is investing more effort likely to create different results? What is the cost to myself, the team and the business of keeping this person on the team?
- How much of the frustration I experience from these people are related to them simply having a different style and strengths than I do? How much of the frustration am I creating by assuming that they are lazy, don’t care, or are deliberately resisting my authority? What if I were to change my “story” to instead assume that they are keen to improve, but that I need to have a deeper understanding of what is blocking their performance? What if I stopped being frustrated by what these people aren’t doing well and focused instead on what they are doing well? What insights might that give me about how to make better use of their time and strengths to add value to the business?
Acting on the insights that come out of these questions can obviously be uncomfortable. It might involve cancelling “pet” projects, firing staff that don’t fit with your culture or reworking outdated processes that take people out of their comfort zones, but the payoffs in energy, focus, wellbeing, peace of mind and impact will ultimately be worth it.