You Don’t Need to Solve for 100%

Posted 10.02.2012

There’s a pattern I’m seeing lately.  Leaders are getting overwhelmed with the complexity of their jobs and throwing up their hands in despair.  As Daniel Kahneman explains in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, the human brain only has so much capacity for complex problem solving in any given moment before it shuts down.

As I talk with leaders, I hear a lot of stories about overwhelm and the perception that there’s not much that can be done about it.

Recently, for example, I found myself in a conversation with a management team that was feeling overwhelmed by all of the stuff that’s been added to their plate without anything coming off.

Earlier that same day, I was talking with an executive who recognized that he needs to take more regular time to step back and define what he’s really trying to do but couldn’t imagine how he was going to fit that into his schedule.

In a presentation to the Conference Board last month, I shared conclusions from analyzing the data from over 1,800 manager and executive self assessments on leadership behaviors that are important for success at the next level. (You can take the self assessment here.)  My basic headline was that most leaders are so busy doing stuff that they can’t see what needs to be done.

Sound like anyone you know (or seen in the mirror lately)?  It does to me and applies to me.

Here’s the conclusion I’ve come to  – you can’t solve for 100%.  The good news is you usually don’t need to solve for 100%.

Think about it.  Many of the problems we face as leaders today are so complex that it’s a waste of time to come up with a perfect solution at the front end anyway.  By the time you get to the 100th step in your pre-determined problem solving sequence, the situation has changed and the later steps no longer apply.

So, if you’re not solving for 100%, what do you do instead?  Try solving for the next few steps or as much as you can reasonably get.   It’s rare in life that you go from zero to 100 in a short amount of time.  Progress is incremental.  What would a 5 or 10 percent improvement this week look like?  Take that and work with it.  Then go for another 5 to 10 percent improvement next week that will build on what you accomplished this week.  After a few weeks of that you’ll be closer to the 100% picture.

Where to start?  How about starting with the goal of taking five minutes at the beginning of the day and again at the middle of the day to breathe, clear your head and ask, “What am I really trying to accomplish over the next few hours?”

What have you learned about overvoming overwhelm?  What tactics and strategies work for you?