Workplace Wisdom

What to Do If Your Boss Gets Distracted by Every New Thing

This article originally appeared on hbr.org.

No matter what the strategic plan says, many of us are more attracted to something new that’s glittering on the horizon than we are to the goals that have languished on our to-do list for months. This weakness is as true for senior leaders as it is for the rank-and-file, but when a CEO or other senior executive is known for chasing shiny objects, a lot of people and projects can suffer.

When senior leaders suddenly get excited about a new idea or initiative, subordinates often worry: “Do I need to add this to my priorities? Will I still need to deliver on all my other goals too? Are there really enough resources available to get this done?” There can be high risk for employees in their leader’s fascinations: If they switch gears to run after the shiny object the leader wants right now, they might be found wanting later if previously assigned strategic goals go unmet.

In situations like these, I’ve found six techniques can help.

The employee and senior executive can agree on coded language. At one client company, I encouraged the CEO’s direct reports to cue him: “Is that a ‘blue sky’ discussion or are you thinking about it as part of the current plan?” As long as he was occasionally reminded, the senior leader could be quite scrupulous about designating his new ideas as something to be worked on now or something to be held for the next round of planning. The important thing was for his staff to take action promptly and consistently by verifying with the CEO whether this was a directive for now, or a recommendation to include in future planning cycles. This way, the staff was able to reduce the initial round of stressful worry and reactivity trying to execute on every idea he mentioned.

Develop a ready reference tool that becomes a standard part of the discussion of all new initiatives. It can be a formal document, a PowerPoint presentation, even a photo of a whiteboard sketch that maps out all existing commitments. It should comprise an array of all current initiatives and resourcing at a very high level, accompanied by a standard list of questions. These questions should assess practicality and effectiveness: Where will we draw the budget from? Do we have the necessary talent and expertise in house? Who will lead the new effort? Bring the reference tool with you to meetings (having it on your phone is great for this) and refer to it explicitly when you check on priorities: Ask where the shiny object fits, both as an accomplishment – how does it move the group and the business forward? – and also in terms of how it consumes organizational resources.

Start all meetings with an anchoring statement that sets context. It can be as simple as, “Today we’re going to cover the Blue, Green, and Red initiatives. Any great ideas we have for anything else will be recorded and taken up in the appropriate staff/strategy/development meetings.” Make sure at least one attendee is responsible for recording, and at least one will be vigilant for digressions.

Stay in close touch with your leaders. There are managers who are attracted to so many different initiatives that they actually forget what they’ve asked employees to work on. It’s awfully demoralizing to complete a project, and have your boss express surprise that you’ve done it at all. So don’t let too much time pass between check-ins. Make it a point to review your project list in your one-to-ones or via periodic emails between meetings. If you ask explicitly for your leader’s revisions or feedback, you’re always keeping them on notice and demonstrating your responsiveness.

Agree to begin the research or development phase. Sometimes the most practical thing is to spend a small amount of development time to get to the proposal or prototype stage. Then you can show where the initiative does and doesn’t fit the current plan and commitments, and ask for concrete feedback as in the ready reference tool above. Because you’ve done the initial exploration, you can add questions like: If we wanted to pursue this, should it be outsourced? Is it on brand? Will it strengthen our customer relationships or attract new customers?

Encourage the leader to be part of the team. Many leaders recognize that they’re susceptible to Shiny Object Syndrome, and are willing to partner with staff in self-monitoring. Whatever has become a new interest for them can be treated as a group effort. Staff representatives can attend conferences or other educational gatherings with their leader, or can become part of an ongoing study group that explores topics of interest. This trusted cadre can be tasked with providing early reactions to the concepts or specifics that are particularly appealing to the leader, and can foster a more integrated and organic process of idea development and refinement.

It’s mostly beneficial when senior leaders are eager to explore new avenues and make improvements to everything from products to organizational structures. The challenge is to avoid wild goose chases and meet current commitments while evaluating which new ideas should be pursued. By using some of these techniques, you’ll be able to enrich the overall pool of initiatives without disrupting operations and accountability unnecessarily.

Photo credit: Nico Piotto/Getty Images

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