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2017: The Year of Joyfully Backing Off

A New Year usually finds us in an additive mode. We are naturally ‘value-adders’ and seek to contribute more of it every year.  We look at the latest trends and hot new practices and commit to rolling out a stream of our inspired innovations as the calendar turns over.

But consider seeing 2017 as the year of intentionally subtracting as well. 

Legendary management guru Peter Drucker calls this approach purposeful abandonment.  The notion is that on an annual basis, an effective executive will review the major practices and programs to determine if they are still serving their original purpose.  If not, Drucker advocates proactive destruction that frees up time and attention for more relevant efforts.

What Drucker wrote years ago sounds familiar to fans of the recent bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  Bestselling author Marie Kondo challenges household pack rats to pick up every possession around the house – from socks to photo albums – and ask if this item still gives them joy.  If not, out it goes!  Likewise, Drucker would challenge us to behold our current portfolio of human capital systems and practices and ask if each part brings our organization – and more importantly our line managers – the joy of relevance and usefulness.

Unfortunately, evidence is mounting that there is less and less joy in the lives of our line managers. In a recent HBR article, i4cp contributor and human network expert Rob Cross reports that his research shows demands outside of a manager’s primary job has ballooned by more that 50%. This ‘escalating citizenship’ of new work often reaches 80% of a manager’s day, pushing real work to the evenings and weekends.  Over time, the strain leads to decreased productivity, burn-out and ultimately unwanted turnover.  At the very least, overloaded managers naturally push away our New Year additions because they are in survival mode, even if what’s new could be beneficial.

So where to start this New Year resolution to back off when you have a few great ideas to implement?  Resolve to get in the habit of asking what executive coach and author Michael Bungay Stanier considers the prime strategic question.  In his excellent short book, “The Coaching Habit”, he encourages leaders to ask:

“If you are saying ‘yes’ to this, what are you saying ‘no’ to?”

Our answer to this question provides greater clarity and commitment to what’s new.  It also reminds us of Michael Porter’s succinct definition of strategy as choosing what not to do.  In practical terms, saying ‘no’ may mean abandoning a legacy program, stepping away or pausing on a practice that has gone stale, diverting resources from one human capital practice area to double the investment in another.

So make 2017 the year of balance: for every ‘yes’ to a new initiative, there is a courageous ‘no’ by backing off something else.   Chances are you’ll be bringing a bit more joy to the lives of others this year.

Read more 2017 talent predictions by other thought leaders.

Kevin Wilde
Kevin D. Wilde is a strategic business advisor to the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) and currently serves as an executive leadership fellow at the University of Minnesota. His prior 34-year corporate career includes serving as the head of learning and talent management at General Mills. Chief Learning Officer magazine named him CLO of the Year in 2007. His most recent award-winning book is, “Coachability: The Leadership Superpower.”