If you look at any bad boss in a movie or—from Bill Lumbergh to Michael Scott—you’ll find they almost all have one thing in common: they’re masters of the useless project. They send you to get things that don’t need getting, invite you to meetings where nothing happens, and obsess over details that have nothing to do with the bigger picture. Then they ask you to come in on the weekend to finish up the stuff you should have been doing all along.
While bad bosses make for good comedy, useless projects are more insidious than they seem on TV. Brands today are buffeted by demands that they do this or that. Open any business magazine, and you’ll find the five things you must do on Snapchat, the new content management system every company must have, or the data practices that deliver the vital insights you need.
Follow every bit of advice, and it results in a lot of busywork. Sometimes that takes the form of pet projects with no real value. Other times, it gives you a big to-do list, where project after project gets done without knowing why. Over time, these kinds of activities also build their own momentum. If you set up processes, they can become self-feeding entities that are hard to stop. Eventually the “5 Things You Must Do on Twitter Today” morphs into the “5 Things You’re Doing on Twitter and No One Knows Why.”
So, how do we keep ourselves from doing things that don’t matter? Obviously, that’s not going to be easy if you work for Michael Scott, master of the meeting about nothing. But if you have some say in the matter, strategic focus should be your friend. Here’s how to proceed:
Take a look before you leap. If your company sees a potential opportunity, do some due diligence up front. Make sure you quantify (or at least justify) the opportunity before launching an initiative.
Know what success looks like. Strategy means defining success. That doesn’t always have to be a financial outcome, as many important activities don’t have a strict tie to increasing revenue and profit. You could imagine, for example, a strategy that involves gaining a young audience that you’ll convert a few years in the future. The important thing is to make sure you know why you’re doing what you’re doing and what outcome you want.
Devise metrics for success. You set metrical targets for any project regardless of its purpose. For example, it’s common in digital marketing to do learning projects, where you get on a new platform to get some experience and find out whether it makes sense for your business. In that case, define the metrics that reflect the number of times you post, how many people get involved, or even survey your team on a scale of 1-10 as to how much they’ve learned.
Prioritize. This is the most important step. You should prioritize and understand everything you do, so that you are choosing (actively or passively) to not do something else. This is especially valuable in an environment with limited resources and almost infinite opportunities. The key is to make sure you’re doing the right things and forgetting about things of lesser value.
Remember you don’t have to do everything. When everyone in your industry is running in one direction, it’s human nature to want to follow. This is business peer pressure, and you have to resist it. Companies that don’t jump on everything risk being left behind, but if you don’t see a way that an initiative will make a positive impact on your business, avoid it.
Of course, sometimes what seems like busywork really isn’t. If managers fail to properly communicate the strategy behind an initiative, it may seem pointless to the people doing it. That will also make them less committed to getting it right. But usually busywork is exactly what it seems. And if you have too much of it going on, it’s a good idea to stop and ask why.