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Taking business a task at a time, and other useful ideas

“Chess Not Checkers: Elevate Your Leadership Game” by Mark Miller (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, $22.95).

In startups, the owner plays the business version of checkers (i.e. jumping from activity to activity). As the business grows, the owner must think more strategically about where she/he can add value while leveraging employees’ talents to get things done — that’s chess.

In Miller’s business parable, you’ll follow Blake Brown’s rise to grandmaster CEO of a small, growing, but troubled company.

Here are some highlights: The leader’s job starts by figuring out, “How can we help this team grow?” Miller’s answer: Make sure goals align with purpose. Focus on providing information your staff needs to make decisions and solve problems. Develop leaders in the ranks by creating development plans for employees — if they’re not growing, your business can’t grow. Knowing employees as individuals helps that development process because there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to understanding individual motivation and dreams.

“Act as one.” Two-way, no-spectators communication on what matters most fosters alignment — especially when planning. Because processes must evolve as the firm grows, it also recognizes that individual and team “creativity can be a source of competitive advantage.” Knowledge-sharing builds we-all-care buy-in and minimizes silos.

“Win the heart” by making sure employees are in the right job. When given the opportunity to do what they do best, employees stay engaged and grow into their development plans. To that end, assigning outcomes (i.e. adding value) rather than tasks (i.e. extracting value,) shows a leader’s confidence and trust while the employee learns responsibility, accountability and s-t-r-e-t-c-h.

“Excel at execution.” You have to measure what matters most by developing an execution scorecard (i.e. define success). Miller believes that the score on goal achievement should be shared with the entire team. High scores build confidence because they show the team gets the job done. Low scores don’t mean calling individuals out; rather, they raise team awareness of execution gaps, and obtain team input on ways to attack the gaps.

Great quote: “It looks to me like the business has been overmanaged and underled.”

“Singletasking – Get More Done One Thing at a Time” by Devora Zack (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, $16.95).

We all know the perils of distracted driving (e.g. texting, not using hands-free devices, fiddling with navigation and entertainment knobs, etc.) because they take the driver’s attention away from the most important task – driving. Yet, we persist in multitasking at work, which distracts us from our most important task — getting the job done.

Task-switching more accurately describes what happens in our brains than multitasking. We develop Scattered Brain Syndrome (SBS), which inhibits the ability to concentrate. SBS destroys productivity because it takes only a few tenths of a second to lose focus and at least 30 seconds to recapture it. It causes brain damage, too. Research shows it lowers IQ and shrinks the area of the brain responsible for cognitive and emotional control.

Zack advocates task immersion as the solution. It’s all about choices. You can choose not to be interrupted. This doesn’t mean that you follow each task to completion. It means that you allot uninterrupted time to a task before switching to another. The key to task immersion: Learn to say “No” to yourself and others. Send calls to voice mail; don’t answer when emails ping. Instead, set aside specific times each day to deal with voice mail and email. These become task time-blocks.

When it comes to others, say, “I can’t right now. I’ve got time … ” Postponement helps you work with others by letting you to give full attention to their topic.

Block out some time to rest your brain, too. When you’ve completed a task time-block, a short walk will recharge your energy.

Remember: “Your mind can’t be in two places at once.”

Jim Pawlak is a nationally syndicated reviewer of business books.

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