I have a patch on my travel tote that reads, “Not my monkey.” It is shortened version of the classic expression “Not my monkey, not my circus.” That patch represents a hard-learnt lesson in understanding that some things are not my problem. In the context of leadership, knowing your responsibilities—and their boundaries—is even more essential.
Many years ago, we were working with a senior leader at a major bank on a project plan to reframe their mature, high-net-worth banking business. Just as we were getting started, we got the dreaded “pens down” email. The team had been refocused on using Pokemon Go to drive traffic to branches. In hindsight, which project would have driven more long-term value: the strategic plan, or the reactionary pivot?
You are constantly being asked to respond to changes in the world that were not on your roadmap. It takes a lot of effort to determine the boundaries of your work on a case-by-case basis. Using a framework shortens the time needed to respond and allows you to evaluate even more opportunities.
Here are some simple questions to ask yourself when trying to figure out if something is “your monkey:”
1. Does this relate to our purpose?
In fairness, this is a bit of a trick question. Does your company have a corporate purpose? Does it have a useful one? If your purpose is “we make widgets,” then the lens for which you respond to change is pretty narrow. If your purpose is enabling the world’s dreamers to build better tools, then the lens is wider.
Start by answering “yes” or “no” to this question—and be strict. The more initiatives you take on, the more you dilute your purpose and strategic direction. The goal is to ensure that every member of your team is aligned on what your company does, who it does and what value you are trying to create. Widening your focus can create confusion and misalignment.
2. Can I deploy my current capabilities and expertise?
There’s a productivity approach called the “five-minute rule,” which states that, if a task takes less time to execute than it does to write down or track, then you should simply complete it.
Consider how quickly you could respond to an external demand. If you or your team has the capacity to act right away, then responding has a low risk.
Conversely, if a response requires investment or new resources and knowledge, the barrier to entry is that much higher. Responding might move an important-but-not-urgent task to a future quarter, which leads into the next question.
3. What do we lose by going second?
There are very few problems in business with a true first-mover advantage. Watching and learning from another’s response is incredibly important. Avis beat Hertz by seeing that customers cared most about customer experience. Google beat Yahoo by learning that customers wanted more accurate search results and fewer curated lists. Many others have experienced the second-mover advantage. There is so much you can learn from the market response to a competitor’s efforts.
There’s an exception here, though: if your purpose is connected to an issue of social importance—if you’re being called to stand up for what is right—then you might need to be the first to act.
4. What do we want to learn from this?
This question shouldn’t be hard to answer. If you can make this answer quantifiable (as opposed to purely qualitative), even better.
If you are struggling to articulate a response, then it’s likely that you’re wanting to respond because of the perception that everyone else is or will be responding, and you don’t want to be left behind.
The idea behind answering this question is to avoid “Fear of Missing Out” (FOMO)—the anxiety that comes from thinking you might regret missing an opportunity on which others capitalize. But you can’t make strategic, intentional decisions from a place of fear, and you shouldn’t be driven to respond like a lemming.
5. What do we want to achieve from this?
If you’ve answered “yes” to the first two questions, and if you’ve determined that you need first-mover advantage, and you know you’re not responding out of FOMO anxiety, then you’re putting yourself in a position in which you’re increasingly likely to act.
Honesty and capability for self-reflection in business are key indicators of success. Sometimes the real reason why you might want to pursue something new is simple boredom, which is a valid impulse. One of the reasons we work is for self-fulfillment. The pursuit of novelty is natural and can be invigorating. It is important, though, to recognize that impulse, understand it and pursue accordingly. Thinking something is a good idea is not sufficient. Having a clearly and easily shared motivation and understanding for devoting resources to something new is essential.
6. What am I giving up by pursuing this?
There are only a limited number of hours in a day and capital on a balance sheet. Doing one thing always means you are not doing something else. If you list what exploring one opportunity precludes you from doing, you’ll have painted a fuller picture of the implications of your choices.
If you need some help thinking through a challenge, get in touch and we can talk about it.