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Eating the Elephant Step by Step

By Kelly Pray

We, as leaders, have a lot on our plates. Responsibilities to manage employees, coach and mentor staff, influence strategy, execute on projects and just simply get the job done all tend to pile up on the plate of leadership. When feeling overwhelmed with what’s on the menu for everything I’m hoping to achieve, certain responsibilities stand out as the ‘elephants’ on the plate. These responsibilities are the projects that seem too challenging, too complex or just not as exciting as the rest of it. These responsibilities, or ‘elephants’ may grow or shrink depending on the context and your competing priorities at the time. These elephants could be as large as a technology system upgrade or more ambiguous such as working more effectively with an employee. Regardless of the size, these elephants are not going away on their own. So, how can you get something as daunting as an elephant off your plate? One bite at a time.

Step 1: DECIDE WHERE TO START

The first step to eating the elephant is to decide where to start. Which elephant should you tackle first? What are the large buckets of responsibilities that you have, and ultimately what are you trying to achieve? Last month we touched on the Eisenhower matrix, and how to best prioritize what’s on your plate. With this tool, choose to focus on the top left quadrant of “Do.” For those of you that need a reminder, the Eisenhower Decision Matrix helps leaders define what is the most important and urgent of tasks on the plate.

Once grounded in the most important elephant of the day, it’s time to break it down into bite-sized pieces.

Step 2: PLAN OUT THE PIECES

Elephants represent an overarching goal or strategy that we take on in our day-to-day leadership. Using the examples from above, how do we plan out the pieces of a project as complex as a technology upgrade?

One approach to planning out large-scale goals is to set smaller, bite-sized goals to get you towards where you want to go. Taoist philosopher Lao-Tzu so aptly said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Take on the technology upgrade, the thousand-mile journey, and identify what a single step could look like. An easy framework to use in setting these bite-sized goals is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely (SMART).

  • SPECIFIC – Choose something that clearly articulates a step in the right direction. Ask yourself, what exactly do I want to accomplish? What is a step that I can take to get me there? It’s much easier to work toward a specific goal (example: schedule a meeting to have a difficult conversation with an employee) than it is to work toward a vague one (work more effectively with an employee).
  • MEASURABLE – How am I going to measure success on this goal? Using the example above, scheduling a meeting within the next two weeks to have a difficult conversation with an employee is less daunting than focusing on the elephant that is working more effectively with someone you may have a hard time working with.
  • ACHIEVABLE – Can this get done within a shot timeframe? Is this a reasonable “bite” for me to take on? Do I have to cut this goal up into smaller pieces? Scheduling a meeting within the next two weeks is most likely a more achievable goal than partnering effectively within the year.
  • RELEVANT – Does this goal fall under the “Do” category of my Eisenhower Matrix? That is to say, is this the right time and right priority on my plate right now? Does working effectively with this person in the next two weeks take priority over the other items on my plate? If this person is a critical stakeholder or partner in an upcoming project, the answer is most likely yes.
  • TIMELY – When am I holding myself accountable to taking this bite/achieving this goal? By scheduling this meeting within the next two weeks, there is a specific, time-bound goal to be accountable to.

Step 3: TAKE THE FIRST BITE

Now that you’ve set your bite-sized goal, figure out a way to hold yourself accountable to taking your first bite. My approach is to tap an accountability buddy who will help motivate me to keep at it. Enlist support of others to manage, mentor or coach you through eating the elephant.

Step 4: REINFORCE THE PROCESS

As you start to chip away at the elephant (or elephants) on your plate, be sure to recognize and reward yourself for your momentum along the way. Do this in a way that is most appropriate for you – maybe it’s a coffee from your favorite café or indulging in an activity that brings you joy. Acknowledge that you are making progress on your elephant and utilize that momentum to take the next bite.

Often when faced with challenges or large projects, we like to look for the shiny object – the next model, approach or technology to help us launch into a better mode of operating. I’m here to remind you to dust off the old toolbox and reground yourself in one of the best ways to approach these challenges – one simple step at a time.

Kelly Pray is the enterprise change management lead at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

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