By Chris Gandy
All of us involved in any sport that had a ball in it can remember being told from day dot by a parent or a patient coach – “keep your eye on the ball”. Pretty sound advice which is highly useful in a whole range of life endeavors – but oh so hard to consistently do, as those of us who have taken the odd air swing can attest.
The enemies to “keeping our eye on the ball” are distractions – and they are everywhere. In fact, you probably won’t even make it to the end of this post without being distracted.
According to Nicholas Carr in his book, “The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains”, at least one distraction pops up every 2 – 3 minutes. And the problem is growing as distractions multiply exponentially in our increasingly connected world.
To make matters worse, these distractions aren’t benign irritations – they come at a cost:
“Distractions are costly: A temporary shift in attention from one task to another – stopping to answer an e-mail or take a phone call, for instance – increases the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25%, a phenomenon known as “switching time”. It’s far more efficient to fully focus for 90 to 120 minutes, take a true break, and then fully focus on the next activity.” Tony Schwartz, Manage your energy, not your time – Harvard Business Review.
Little wonder the issue of distractions is now a major focus of road safety experts!
In the not for profit world the effect of distractions can be similarly devastating. For every not for profit board and senior leadership team, the ball that should be the sole focus of their attention is the organisation’s mission. When attention is diverted to other secondary matters – and they abound – the mission suffers and the organisation’s whole reason to exist is compromised.
So in the midst of a blizzard of distractions in life how does an organisation keep its eye firmly focused on the ball? Here are three suggestions:
Leadership – From a personal perspective we have a clear choice of throwing our arms in the air and giving into distractions or show some real leadership and do something about them. If you choose the latter, I can recommend Dean Harrington’s approach on this:
“We hear a lot about focusing on the right things, about focusing on details, about having “To Do” lists, and often these are the characteristics that people associate with good leadership…A better definition for leadership needs to include a list of things not to do, a list of things I’m not going to focus on, a list of things I refuse to be distracted by”.
Culture – Develop an organisational culture which asks “Will this action enhance our Mission” before making a decision. This helps the group transcend distractions and focus on why they are there.
Ritual – Human nature is such that we all need our eyes jogged back onto the ball. Religions are masters of this by having regular days of observance. In Australia, Return Serviceman’s Clubs do this fantastically well by dimming the lights and reciting the Ode at 9.00 pm each evening. Every club patron is daily reminded why the organisation exists. I have seen other organisations commence every Board or management meeting with a short client case study.
What are you and your organisation doing to stop distractions damaging your mission?
About Chris: Chris Gandy is the founder and director of Cause and Effective – a provider of contingent resourcing and leadership search services to cause-based organisations.