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When (doing) less is more

There is an analogy for being too busy that references the act of juggling balls: You are successfully juggling five balls, but when you try to add just one more, you end up dropping them all. What if you flipped this around and instead of doing a good job of juggling five balls, you purposely dropped one and then did a great job of juggling four balls? There is something satisfying about taking your time in order to do some things right. It’s easy to picture this from a task standpoint, but what about from a strategic standpoint? LBM Journal recently wrote about a company that downsized its facility and focused on one primary type of customer, while walking away from another customer type that they had traditionally served. The result was increased sales and increased profits.

At my company, we had traditionally served smaller, rural markets for 128 years, and while these stores represented just under half of our locations, they only accounted for 15% of our revenue. More importantly, these locations represented a completely different kind of business model than the rest of our locations. Our bigger locations were designed to sell construction materials to builders, while the rural locations tried to sell everything to everyone. It didn’t help that in many of these small rural towns, building opportunities were becoming more and more scarce. So, we made the decision to exit these markets, but rather than doing it over time as each store slowed down, we decided to do it all at once so we could concentrate at being really good at “juggling the balls” that were our remaining stores. It has only been six months, but already we can see the clarity and freedom that we unleashed for ourselves, allowing us to focus on our primary business of selling builders.

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One can use the same analogy when you look at the responsibilities that you as a leader in your business choose to retain, delegate, or assume. How many times have you said to yourself that you will just do something yourself because it is easier? Is it easier for the company that you do the task or assume the responsibility, or is it easier on you? Worse yet, is it easier because it props up your ego and makes you feel indispensable? How many jobs or duties do you hold that someone else in your organization can do as well or better than the way you currently are doing it? What are the things that you do better than anyone else in your organization? If you could “drop one ball” and focus on those duties, would your company be more successful and profitable? Ask yourself, “What is the highest and best use of my time?” Chances are, it is not counting out the register drawer or shoveling snow away from the front door.

The balls you should be juggling are the ones other people can’t do and that help you be successful in your role and make your company successful. I try to tell my up-and-coming managers that the best thing they can do is train their people so well they work themselves out of a job. If that happens, I commit to them that there will be something better for them—hopefully, within our company, but it may come from the outside. They have to be comfortable letting go of some of the balls they are juggling, so they can take on new challenges to juggle.

The last temptation we need to address is our willingness to assume juggling balls that we previously gave up because we know how to do it, and it will just be easier or save money. There was a reason you gave those balls to other people to juggle. Hopefully, it was because you knew they would do a better job at it. Now something happens, and the easy button is for you to just add that ball to all the ones you are currently juggling. The problem is, you may end up dropping them all, even though you know you can juggle any of them in a smaller quantity.

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As I write this, I realize I need to practice what I preach. Due to some shifting responsibilities, I recently assumed the management of the salespeople at one of my stores. It isn’t forever, and it made more sense (code for “hitting the easy button”) if I just assumed the duties for now. Yet, as I look at all the balls I am juggling, I realize that something will have to give in order for me to incorporate this additional ball into my repertoire. I also know that, given all the other balls I am juggling, I will not be able to juggle this additional ball very well. So, I better take my own advice and find someone to throw this ball to sooner rather than later, or I could end up dropping all of the balls I am juggling.

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