I’ve worked with some great operators over the last 20 years. And there seems to be a common thread amongst them.
It comes down to how they’re able to think across three different time frames. Importantly, how they’re able to perfectly balance the time they spend in each of these time frames.
Inversely, bad operators tend to spend their time almost exclusively in just one of these time frames. Either that, or they don’t balance the time they spend in each one very well.
The three time frames are:
This is what’s right in front of you. It’s your immediate goal and priorities. Usually it’s about 4-8 weeks in front of you.
2. One step ahead
This is the logical phase or set of priorities that come after what’s right in front of you. It’s what you’ll need to start working on, once you’ve nailed what’s immediately in front of you.
3. The end goal
This is what you’re ultimately working towards. It’s what success looks like over the long term.
Great operators tend to perfectly balance the time they spend in each of these three time frames.
They start by thinking about the end goal. They get clear on what they’re trying to achieve over the long term. This means that they can push forward with a clear purpose and direction. Not doing this, is almost the definition of being unstrategic.
But, they don’t get too caught up trying to lock down the end goal in fine detail. They know it will change as they work towards it. They do enough, to have a clear sense for where to head – and then they step back from it.
After that, they spend most of their time in the now. They get on with their immediate goals and priorities. The things that need to be done this week, and next week. They start building momentum.
Here is the tricky part. They have to get stuff done, but in parallel to that, they also need to have an eye on what comes next (one step ahead). They will do preparation work, so that they can seamlessly transition into the next logical goal or phase of work. When this isn’t done, you risk completing what’s in front of you, but then being unprepared for what comes next. This causes you to lose time and momentum.
Last of all, they take a step back from time to time, to think about the end goal. They think about what they’ve learned from completing what’s in front of them – and from planning for the next logical goal or phase of work. The end goal is re-shaped if necessary. What they don’t do, is get too stuck thinking about the end goal. They get back to what’s in front of them.
As you can see, it’s a tricky balance to keep these three time frames in your head.
You probably need to spend 70% of your time working on what’s in front of you (now). In parallel to that, you’re probably spending 20% of your time planning for the next logical goal or phase of work (one step ahead). And then roughly 10% of your time is spent taking a step back and thinking about where you’re heading (the end goal).
This is what good execution looks like. Great operators will naturally think like this. They don’t miss a beat.
What you’ll also notice, is that great leaders and managers do this with their teams. They develop a vision for the team to work towards. They help them focus on what’s in front of them, but also encourage them to plan for what’s around the corner.
Common Operating Mistakes
Problems arise when people spend their time almost exclusively in one of the time frames. Either that, or they don’t balance the time they spend in each one very well.
For example, let’s look at spending your time almost exclusively in one of the time frames. Let’s say, all you think about is the now. Sure, it will look like you’re getting stuff done – but in reality, it’s a random effort. You’ll lack a clear direction, and will often get surprised by things that are one step ahead. Rarely does this result in impactful or transformative work.
Another good example is spending too much time thinking about the end goal. It becomes paralysing, and you never really get into execution mode.
The other mistake, is not balancing the time you spend in each one very well. For example, you might start to work on the now, but then become too distracted by worrying about what comes next. Or you worry too much about what the end goal should perfectly look like. This also becomes paralysing and gets in the way of execution.
A recent example
To help give some context, here’s a recent example of having to think like this.
I joined Bossa Studios earlier this year. One of the things on my radar was recruitment.
We were doing some things well, but we were also doing a bunch of things not so well. Overall, we weren’t in a great place.
First up, we had to spend some time thinking about what the end goal looked like. Where did we need to ultimately get to?
We needed to work towards a strategic, and approved hiring plan. We needed a people and talent team who had the capability and capacity to source and hire great candidates. And we needed a robust hiring process, from beginning to end.
That was enough for me. It was clear what the end goal was.
Then we had to switch to the now. We knew the foundation would be having a strategic, and approved hiring plan. This would drive all of our work. So, we got to work on building this with the senior leadership team.
It took about 6-8 weeks, but we finally got there. We had in front of us a strategic, and approved hiring plan (many of the roles are live here). We also established an approval process for any new hires. This would keep the hiring plan tight.
In parallel to this work, we had to have our eyes on what would come next (one step ahead). We knew that once the hiring plan was in place, we would need to execute against it – and pretty quickly. We didn’t have the team or process to be able to do that well enough.
So, whilst we were building the hiring plan, we overhauled our recruitment process. We also started to build out the people and talent team. We made two very strong hires. A permanent senior people manager, and a fixed term recruiter.
If we were 100% focused on the hiring plan, we’d have been screwed at the end of it. We would have a nice hiring plan in front of us, but no chance of being able to execute it.
Now, I’d love to say we seamlessly transitioned into executing on the hiring plan. Things rarely go that perfect 😉
Whilst we made two very strong hires in the people and talent team, they aren’t due to start until August. So, we’ve been incredibly stretched for the last 4-6 weeks executing on the hiring plan the best we can. It’s messy in places, but we’re keeping our head above water and I’m proud of that. Luckily, we’re not far from those two key hires joining us, and things settling down.
We already have our eye on what’s next too. It’s great we have a hiring plan, and soon a team capable of executing it. But, now we need to focus on significantly strengthening our candidate pipeline. We’ve done some prep work for this already, but need to double down on it over the coming months.
As you can see, it’s a constant balancing act of the three time frames. You have to mostly focus on what’s in front of you, but also spend some time planning for what’s around the corner. And from time to time, you have to take a step back and think about the end goal.
When you do that, the results tend to flow.
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