Brandt On Leadership -- Moving To The Circular File

Dec. 21, 2004
Why a slowdown is the best time to simplify your business . . . and your life.

I once knew a man who believed that it was essential for his soul to give away, every few years, almost everything he owned. Like all of us, he would accumulate things -- books, records, appliances, mementos -- but unlike most of us, he understood how the things we possess invisibly weigh us down. Every so often, then, he would pack his most important things -- those he truly couldn't live without, be their worth psychic or practical -- into his Toyota minivan. Anything that didn't fit, and which, by definition, wasn't as important as the items already packed into the vehicle, he gave to friends or charity or threw away. And then he would drive, free of the clutter that inexorably eroded his freedom. Few of us would choose a life so possession- and position-free. Yet I wonder if my acquaintance was on to something. When I moved my office last year, I threw away -- no kidding -- a dumpster and a half of files. It turned out that everything I truly needed, and that wasn't already in my computer or in my head, only filled about two to three boxes of files. I still cringe at the time and effort that my assistant and I put into creating an elegant filing system for things that, once categorized, never again saw the light of day -- until their trip to the landfill. The current slowdown might be a good time to schedule a moving day for your business, even if you don't plan to change addresses. If you need a reason, think of it as a relocation to a leaner, more profitable business model. Focus on eliminating the possessions, physical and administrative, that weigh down the creativity and speed of your organization. To wit: Physical: How many files do you or your subordinates really need? Most CEOs and leaders (those most likely to have assistants) clip and file compulsively, with the vague suspicion that someday, somewhere, that memo from Finklestein in the Decatur office might prove useful as a CYA maneuver. Yet most of those memos and clippings and white papers will never again be touched by human hands. Unless, of course, the hands belong to your successor, who no doubt will question your sanity for keeping a 326-page site analysis from 1986 regarding the Fargo call center. Better to dump 80% of your potential filing now and keep your assistant focused on more important tasks, like finding a good cigar bar in Fargo or sleuthing out exactly how Finklestein got the chairman to spend a weekend in Decatur. Ask yourself these two questions about every potential piece of filing: Will you really ever need it again? More importantly, how stupid will you look five years from now (or to your successor) for having saved it? Administrative: Boy, do we CEOs and senior executives love our reports. We love the look of them, crisp rows of black numbers against stark white paper. We love the fact that we can snap our fingers and have them appear on our desks, as if by magic. Most of all, we love the illusion they conjure that we really are in control, and that we really can affect the business from our lofty, customer-free perches. Of course, to the people who create the reports for us these documents are something else entirely. A few may help them to manage our business. Others are harmless, generated by mindless computers and filed by mindless senior executives. Most, however, seem to be the equivalent of giant paper pacifiers that our subordinates stuff into our mouths to soothe our anxieties about our jobs, our competitors, and the future. Cancel 50% of all the reports you currently require and watch how much more productive your subordinates become by focusing on actually doing their jobs, instead of telling you about their jobs. Ask yourself these two questions about every report you review: Do you really want to read it? More importantly, how stupid will you look if somebody compares the worker hours that go into the report vs how much more insight you've gain as a result? John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is now editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine.

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