I read with interest an essay in the Wall Street Journal by a management professor, Morten T. Hansen, arguing that the key to success in business is selectivity, i.e., figuring out which tasks were the most important to complete, doing them well, and focusing less on the rest. Workers who take this approach are not the “hardest” workers as commonly understood, usually measured by hours spent, but they are the most effective and ultimately successful. This is an application of Occam’s Razor, which generally states that when assessing two competing theories attempting to explain a problem, the simpler one is usually the right one. Applied in this context, the correct approach to completing business tasks is to simplify the steps.
Hansen relates this to his early years as a management consultant, where he toiled away late at night and on weekends and yet was outperformed by a colleague who worked a sane 8am to 6pm schedule. Of course, the same dynamic applies in the world where I spent more than half my career, large New York law firms. Many ambitious attorneys take a quantity-above-quality approach, authoring long memos, crafting long and convoluted contractual provisions and, above all, billing lots and lots of hours. There is an element of law firm culture, as we all know, that celebrates and encourages late night work and heroically high annual billable hours, but ultimately it’s hard to succeed in the long-term, 2,500 hours per year notwithstanding, if your clients think you are making matters unnecessarily complex and costly.
I’ve seen a similar dynamic outside the world of law firms. I’ve been a board member and president of two not-for-profits. While the experiences were highly rewarding, one of my unexpected frustrations was that some of the board members had an orientation toward increasing the complexity and formalization of policies and procedures that governed the organizations’ operations, in the name of “professionalizing” the board. I came to dread the words “strategic planning,” involving an attempt to map out the organization’s activities over 3-5 years, only to have it become quickly moot as a result of unpredictable events. The strategic planning types would likely characterize my do-nothing approach as reactive and lazy, but the question is: does it work, empirically, to operate by simply taking advantage of opportunities and dealing effectively with problems, as and when they arise? In Amazon’s early years, Jeff Bezos reportedly had greater ambitions for his business than being just an online bookseller, but he surely didn’t create a strategic plan upon business inception to get in the business of selling cloud computing services to other companies. Rather, the opportunity became apparent as a result of the infrastructure that the company built for its retail business, and he and his colleagues saw that and jumped on applying their efforts toward developing it.
The bottom line, and it’s borne out by Hansen’s research, is that we can achieve success by smart work – using our good judgment to identify the pressing issues and focusing like a laser on them – not by more work.