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Priorities Discipline Requires Precision and Specificity

Posted by Douglas A Wick on Mon, Apr 4, 2011

How well do you get things done?  Do you get your daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly priorities completed on time?  How well do your people do at this? 

Last blog Priorities are Disciplined Choices we discussed choosing wisely, step one of building positive rituals: building on success incrementally, or biting off only what you can chew.  Priority Checklist1 resized 600

In our workshops and in the Verne Harnish’s book Mastering the Rockefeller Habits we discuss priorities by recounting the story of Charles Schwab and Ivy Lee.  Ivy Lee was a management consultant, one of the early and great teachers of the importance of priority setting.  Lee worked with some of the biggest names in industry (like Charles Schwab, president of Bethlehem Steel) around the turn of the century.  Many versions of this story exist, but the classic Ivy Lee story goes as follows. 

Charles Schwab wanted to increase his own efficiency, and the efficiency of the management team at the steel company. Ivy Lee approached Mr. Schwab, and made a proposition Charles Schwab could not refuse.  Ivy Lee: "I can increase your people's efficiency – and your sales – if you will allow me to spend fifteen minutes with each of your executives.  Charles Schwab: "How much will it cost me? “ Ivy Lee: "Nothing, unless it works. After three months, you can send me a check for whatever you feel it's worth to you.

Charles Schwab: "It's a deal. “  The following day, Ivy Lee met with Charles Schwab's top executives, spending only ten minutes with each of them.  He shared with them the following: Ivy Lee: "I want you to promise me that for the next ninety days, before leaving your office at the end of the day, you will make a list of the six most important things you have to do the next day and number them in their order of importance.“  The astonished executives asked, "That it? “ Ivy Lee replied, "That's it. Scratch off each item after finishing it, and go on to the next one on your list. If something doesn't get done, put it on the following day's list.” Each Bethlehem Steel executive agreed to follow Lee's instructions. Three months later, Schwab studied the results and was so pleased that he sent Lee a check for US$35,000.  At the time, the average worker in the US was being paid $2 per day. 

The story highlights the importance of Priorities and Focus.

The element missing from this example is the value of precision and specificity in setting priorities.  If you’re like most people you have more than one priority each day.  You have meetings and appointments with your staff and possibly community leaders.  The challenge becomes how to get your top priorities done when you have multiple priorities each day.  You can’t always stay focused on just working on #1 until it’s done.  Frequently your #1 priority takes longer than one day and needs to be broken down into several segments to finish.  How do you stay on track and remain focused on getting all your priorities done each day?

This is where precision and specificity is critical.  You need to specify what time you will do your priorities and then stick to that plan.

It’s the difference between getting things done and saying you’re going to get them done.  Without a specific time scheduled for when you will do the work you’re vulnerable to the interruptions and urgent issues that confront each of us daily.   Each day comes with its own tempest.  You need to take control of your day and determine exactly when you will do what you set out to do.

Be Excellent At Anything refers to several studies on how this critical element, precision and specificity leads to better compliance and implementation.  Would you like to improve your follow through on priorities from 29 to 91%?  We’ll review a study that achieve this result several others next blog.  

Topics: Discipline, priorities, rituals, precision and specificity

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1. Priorities: Determine your #1 Priority. Achieve measurable progress in 90 days.

2. Metrics: Develop measurable Key Performance Indicators. 

3. Meetings: Establish effective meeting rhythms. (Cadence of Accountability)  Compounding the value of your priority and metrics. 

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Certified Gazelles Coach

Doug Wick, President

Positioning Systems


The Strategic Discipline Blog focuses on midsize business owners with a ravenous appetite to improve his or her leadership skills and business results.

Our 3 disciplines include:

- Priorities
- Metrics
- Meeting Rhythms

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