First Things Only
You know, there’s a lot of truth and value in the old expression, “First Things First.” It reminds us that there are first things, things that are more important than the mountains of activities and detail that continually demand our attention. It reminds us that we should put those first things at the head of the line. And it reminds us that we have to make a point of it or this just won’t happen. It also tells us something else that’s very important – that it takes mindfulness and effort to keep those first things at the top of the list of where we spend our time and energy.
In the actual world we live in, however, first things are often not put first. Sometimes, they’re not in the middle of the list, or even on the list. At times, first things are the last things that get people’s attention. Why is this? Well, partly because first things are often hard things. They’re big and tough and difficult to get your arms around. They take attention that we don’t seem to have, collaboration that we can’t seem to develop, passion that we just can’t muster. Partly first things need a lot of focus and concentration to make something out of them, and the 21st century doesn’t leave much room for those. Partly, we haven’t even defined first things as first things. And partly, we often don’t even know where to begin.
But first things are where the game is won or lost. That’s where the 80/20 rule really works – 80% of the results from drilling down on 20% of the decisions and actions. It can even be the 90/10 or 95/5 rule, where very, very few things really make all the difference, where almost all of the results come from just one or two things done exceedingly well.
This is why, at Luman International, we say First Things Only. If it isn’t a first thing, why are we working on it? Or to say it differently, why are we working on anything else when there’s a first thing floating around that hasn’t been fully addressed?
But what really happens in organizations? I was talking with the Senior VP of HR in a Fortune 500 company, who told me that his “first thing” was to create a sense of passion and commitment, and in the process to elininate their pervasive sense of entitlement and “doing only what I have to do.” I gave him a lot of ideas about how to go about Building a Passionate Organization, something we’ve been helping leaders do for almost 29 years, something that should be on every leader’s list of First Things. When I met with this executive some weeks later, I asked him what he had been working on. His answer? “I’ve spent every waking minute since then trying to get our new physical education/fitness center completed.”
Now, health is important, and organizations that try to help their employees be healthy have a commendable concept. But could this really be a First Thing? Aren’t employees ultimately responsible for their own health? How will this contribute to building passion and commitment (it won’t, because they come from 10 Keys that have nothing to do with benefits)? In fact, isn’t this likely in an entitlement culture to build an even greater sense of entitlement?
In a way, this is more than just a performance question. First Things Only is a question of everyday ethics. Someone is paying for the time spent on second and third things, someone is paying for the first things that are going unattended. Working on second and third (and often ninth and tenth) things when first things are crying out for attention is a waste of lives and resources. It’s guaranteed to produce sub-optimal results, along with a lot of damage to a lot of human beings.
First Things Only. Anything else is…well, not that important.
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