Make a to-stop list

13 February, 2017

A professional spring-cleaning helps you declutter and simplify

Now that we are a few weeks into the start of the year, this would be a good time to take a pause and assess how you are doing on your list of resolutions for the year.

I’m sure you have made plenty of to-do lists in your life—probably at the start of this year too—but have you ever made a to-stop list? This might sound a bit strange to you, but read on…

In the words of Peter Drucker, management expert, “We spend a lot of time teaching leaders what to do. We don’t spend enough time teaching leaders what to stop. Half the leaders that I have met don’t need to learn what to do. They need to learn what to stop.”

Some of you may recall that your 360 degree feedback has a start-stop-continue section. However, how many of you take the “stop” section seriously and have worked on tangible actions from that feedback?

So, my message this week is on why you need to consider creating a to-stop list.

Around the globe, corporate culture is based on action, on affirmation and the power of “yes, I can”. If you do something new or build something from scratch, you will no doubt be appreciated and rewarded by your colleagues and the organisation. On the other hand, when was the last time you remember someone being recognised for curbing negative behaviours, simplifying bloated processes, or avoiding critical mistakes? Rarely are gold stars given out for such accomplishments. As Marshall Goldsmith explains in his article, Stop in the Name of Leadership, this imbalance is understandable:

‘There are good reasons for this, largely allied to the positive tone and fast-forward momentum organizations try to maintain. Everything in an organization is designed to demonstrate a commitment to positive action – and couched in terms of “doing something.”’

However, continually adding new things without trimming the existing excess leads to ever-growing complexity, which in turn gives rise to confusion and inefficiency—be it the individual, the team, or the organisation. Which is why we all need periods of simplification and clean-up.

Think of it as an annual spring-cleaning tradition, wherein—instead of buying new things and bringing them into your already-overcrowded home—you take the time to sort through everything and get rid of all the items that are gathering dust in the closets or cluttering up your living space. Once this exercise is complete, the house will feel newly spacious and your perspective too will undergo a shift. Having taken stock of all your possessions, you might change your mind about what you need to buy next—or you may even decide to keep things exactly the way they are.

Just like an annual spring-cleaning makes a house look and feel so much more organised and pleasing, so can a periodic focus on stopping help us create clarity, enhance effectiveness, and maximise impact in the workspace. You can harness the power of pruning to become a better manager and build a stronger team.

Here are some suggestions to get you started:

1. Change begins with “me”

Before you set out to tackle your team or the wider organisation, start with yourself. As a leader, you need to limit personal practices that are counterproductive or are no longer working well. Over the years, your professional self becomes an amalgamation of habits and rituals—many of which were probably introduced by you in the quest for self-improvement and success. Keep in mind that just because something worked well in the past doesn’t mean it’s still relevant.

For instance, perhaps as an up-and-coming youngster at work, you displayed a near-obsessive attention to detail, which served you well and earned you the enviable reputation of a perfectionist. As a leader, though, pouring over everyone else’s work to find tiny errors isn’t praiseworthy; rather, it makes you a micromanager who cannot trust your colleagues to get the job done. This is a good example of the sort of behaviour that has outlived its usefulness—dropping it will enable you to use your time in a more productive manner as well as build better relationships with your team members and peers. You may also have picked up other habits unconsciously, for example, resisting any sort of change or dismissing opinions that are different from your own. Strive for greater self-awareness about negative traits such as these so that you can work on eliminating them.

2. Back to basics

In CEOs and Presidential Candidates: Can You Learn What to Stop Doing?, Joel Peterson draws a comparison between governments and corporations, explaining that leaders in both scenarios often make the same mistakes: doing too much, failing to prioritise, constantly launching new initiatives and introducing new solutions—all without taking the time to simultaneously simplify matters and eliminate programs that aren’t working. The result is a staggering level of complexity, making the organisation unwieldy and inefficient.

‘One of the great lessons of business turnarounds is to cut back to the core, to get out of “hobbies,” and to stop doing dumb things…. The best way for an organization to do this is to figure out what’s at the core: What are the essential goods and services it delivers? And how to do so in the most efficient manner? One way to begin the turnaround process is zero-based budgeting – starting over with a clean sheet of paper, thereby “sunsetting” many programs that have outlived their usefulness. This exercise always creates a different budget, a different set of priorities than simply building from last year’s flawed budget.’

This is a great approach to kickstart your clean-up initiative. What are your primary job responsibilities? What are the key objectives of your team? What constitutes the heart of your work? What do you absolutely need to do in order to accomplish these key goals? These questions demand time and effort, so make sure to set aside a clear chunk of uninterrupted time for them. If you’re focusing on the team, involve them in the discussion. Along with creating ownership, this process will also provide insight into the different perspectives people may have about “the core”—and will enable everyone to get on the same page.

Once you have a clear idea of your priorities and essential actions, you can look at the rest of your tasks and processes from this new vantage point. Are they really necessary, or are they simply draining valuable time and energy? Or are they actively getting in the way of achieving your objectives? The answers will reveal the potential contenders for your to-stop list.

3. Leadership no-no’s

In his excellent article, Five things every leader should stop doing, John Manning highlights behaviours that should have no place in a leader’s life. If you identify with any of these, make sure to add them to your personal to-stop list:

  • Stop focusing on the “Trivial Many.”Disciplined leaders make it a habit to ignore or delegate their “Trivial Many” activities and, instead, focus on the “Vital Few.” How can you determine your Vital Few? Use the Pareto Principle, or the “80/20 Rule,” as a guide for choosing the 20 percent — the most vital activities that will drive 80 percent of your results and success.
  • Stop overusing the “I” word. Your duty as a leader is to share recognition and put the spotlight more on the team and less on yourself. Start loading up your language with “we” versus “I” (again, 80/20) and you’ll create a more inclusive, empowered culture.
  • Stop trying to be right all the time.Realize that you don’t always have to be right to demonstrate your competence…. What’s more, self-assured, strong leaders will happily change their position if they recognize another person has brought something better to the table. They feel liberated from thinking they must always have the perfect answer to every problem and can better focus on their vital leadership tasks.
  • Stop playing favorites. You’re going to like certain people more than others. It’s human nature. But in leadership, don’t give preferential treatment to an employee just because you really click with that person. Nothing will get your team’s attention faster and erode morale quicker than playing favorites.
  • Stop being the answer guru. It’s not your job to provide most of the solutions for your people. In fact, you’ll make more progress toward goals if you turn over problem solving to employees…. This is a proven strategy for effective problem-solving, one that, again, will allow you to better focus on your vital job: leading.

I hope that some of the ideas mentioned above inspire you to come up with your own to-stop list to eliminate the unnecessary. Remember that along with your personal to-stop list, it would be useful to make your team to-stop list. And if you have any feedback on our organisation to-stop list, it would be great to get your suggestions.

I look forward to your thoughts,



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