When is the Right Time to Start a Big People Project?

“Now isn’t the right time.”  As a leadership development consultant, I’ve heard that phrase more than you can imagine.  I help organizations of all sizes to implement a process to continually develop their people.  That’s no small undertaking.  It’s not surprising that business leaders are a little hesitant about jumping headlong into a project that involves their whole senior management team and lasts for about a year.  So when is the right time to start a big people project?  Here are three things to consider.

1) “Put First Things First.” – Stephen Covey

Putting first things first is perhaps the most important principle of time management.  Of all the priorities clamoring for the attention of business leaders, what should come first?  If you’ve read any of my work or heard me speak, you’ll already know that the most successful companies put people first.  Based upon that general principle, Stephen Covey provided an excellent time management tool to help individuals and organizations identify what they should be spending their time on in order to reach their most important goals. 

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.”

– Johann Goethe.

Covey’s Time Management Matrix helps people clearly evaluate how they are using their most valuable non-renewable resource: time.  Are you spending most of your time in Quadrant 1, fighting fires all day long?  How much time are you spending in Quadrant 2, working on strategic, but not urgent, activities that could reduce the number of fires you need to fight?   

As important it is for individuals to perform this exercise, it is even more crucial for organizations to evaluate in which quadrant they are expending most of their energy, then proactively adjust their priorities to spend more time in Quadrant 2. Without this proactive adjustment of priorities, strategic, but not urgent, priorities will always be at the mercy of urgent daily activities, and they simply won’t get done.  This is the path to mediocracy that most organizations are on.

Once individuals and organizations have identified what Quadrant 2 activities they need to spend more time on, the question becomes “How can I fit it all in?  Again, Covey provides an invaluable analogy that is 100% applicable in real life.

If you haven’t seen this exercise played out, I’d encourage you to watch this classic Covey video, Big Rocks

The only way to fit in everything you must do (Quadrant 1) and everything you know you should do (Quadrant 2) is to put the big rocks in first.  (In the image above, the jar on the right contains everything the jar on the left does).  This means putting the important things in the calendar and planning the less important things around them. 

As this exercise demonstrates, the less important things will fit around the important things.  And even if they don’t, one way or another, Quadrant 1 activities will get done to the degree that they need to get done.

2) If Not Now, When? 

There are legitimate reasons to delay a big people project.  One legitimate reason is if the organization is already implementing another “Big Rock” project.  People only have so much capacity.  That’s fine.

What is not fine, however, is simply saying “no” to something this important without committing to a specific time to do it.  If something is important, if it is critical to achieving your long-term goals, then it is important enough to put in your calendar right now

Commitment without action is not commitment, it’s an intention.  And intentions never brought anyone closer to achieving their goals.

[bctt tweet=”Commitment without action is not commitment, it’s an intention.  And intentions never brought anyone closer to achieving their goals.” username=”availleadership”]

3) There Will Never Be A Good Time

Our choice about when to implement a big rock project is not a question about finding the right time.  It’s a question of finding a less bad time.

It’s a scary thing… looking at a calendar throughout a coming year and declaring when the company will implement a big rock project.  The reality is that none of us has a crystal ball to know when something is going to come out of left field and demand our attention.  This means we have two choices:

  1. Don’t put any big rock projects in the calendar so you can remain “responsive to emerging priorities” (read: “continue to fly by the seat of our pants”).
  2. Design your future by putting first things first and letting all other priorities fit around your big priorities. 

Remember, the jar holds medium-sized rocks too. When you’re fitting the medium-sized rocks around the big rocks, the big rocks may need to be adjusted slightly.  The key features of big rocks are that they

  • are placed in the jar first,
  • are harder to move than smaller rocks,
  • aren’t coming out. 

This doesn’t mean that big rocks can’t be shifted slightly.  It just means that big rocks are shifted the least. 

The Time Is Now

Companies and individuals that put first things first and commit to a time to tackle important but not urgent priorities are the ones that consistently outperform everyone else.

Whether you’re feeling the effects of a tight labour market or not, the time to invest in leadership and talent development is now.  Don’t wait until you have a talent crisis before you decide to make leadership and talent development a top strategic priority!


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