A prism, according to Merriam-Webster.com, is defined as a transparent body that is bounded in part by two nonparallel plane faces and is used to refract or disperse a beam of light. A prism disperses a single beam of white light into the distinct color streams that form the light. It is a thing of wonder and beauty; but at its core, a prism lacks heat. It lacks energy. It is pretty, but it has no real power.
Lasers, on the other hand, amplify light. They emit a single wavelength of color, determined by the amount of energy released during the amplification process. Lasers are focused. They create heat and energy. They are concentrated sources of light that have power.
The fundamental difference between a prism and a laser is representative of two very different leadership styles; understanding the difference between them can be advantageous in determining future success.
The Prism Problem
Prism leaders tend to be the type of people who do a lot of different things. They have many balls in the air and projects in the works. They find great excitement and reward in starting new projects and initiatives. Much like actual prisms are attractive to us because of their beauty, prism leaders are attractive to us because we marvel at how much they can do in the same number of hours in the day that we all have. Often, people on the outside are captivated by prism leaders because as a society, we tend to put a lot of value on people who do a lot of things and we often create a narrative that they are more successful than those who don’t.
In fact, most research on the topic shows that the more initiatives a person or a company takes on, the less successful they tend to be. Prism leaders are often busy doing things, but actually are often not getting things done. Their energy is dispersed into too many project streams, which might look great from afar, but they lose their energy and their power to get over the finish line. This lack of focus and continual state of project startups from a business leader can leave teams fatigued and overwhelmed. While launching new initiatives can be thrilling, having too many and not getting to really see any of them to completion can be detrimental to long-term success. The pace set by many prism leaders is not sustainable by others working on the myriad initiatives and can ultimately inhibit a company’s growth. While a stunning spectacle to those on the outside, prism leaders make the mistake of equating being busy to energy when, in fact, the glorification of having too many initiatives often depletes the energy and excitement within a company.
In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, “Too Many Projects” (https://hbr.org/2018/09/too-many-projects), authors Rose Hollister and Michael Watkins address the subject of initiative overload. Initiative overload is the idea that executive leaders continue to layer on new initiatives without killing old ones that either have been unsuccessful or have simply run their course. While Hollister and Watkins do not specifically identify prism leadership as a root cause of this problem, it is easy to see how the two can be related. Prism leaders often are so focused on the volume of initiatives as their own success metric that this can quickly lead to initiative overload in the business, as the day-to-day executable tasks for each of those initiatives trickle down into the organization. Without the focus and the energy behind initiatives, prism leaders create an environment that looks good from the outside; however, the everyday experience of those who work on those initiatives is far from rewarding. Companies and employees thrive in environments where there is concentrated energy toward strategic initiatives; they thrive with laser leaders at the helm.
Laser leaders are focused and rely heavily on strategic decision-making processes to determine the right initiatives for their teams. The simplicity of their initiative load means that they can put more energy into them. Like a laser, they are concentrated on singular goals and the initiatives that shape the company’s direction are determined by the energy that is released as those goals are amplified in the business. While it may appear to outsiders that they are doing less because the volume of initiatives is less, the fact is that laser leaders get more done. Laser leaders are less concerned with being busy as a success metric; rather, they focus on making sure the energy and activity of their team is aligned toward the goals at hand.
Only the Essentials
It is not uncommon for business leaders to feel that they oscillate between being a prism leader and being a laser leader. Sometimes leaders believe that comfort lies in trying out multiple initiatives to see what sticks and allow that to drive the go-forward strategy, rather than setting the strategy first and testing initiatives. The latter approach tends to be more difficult for prism leaders because it is hard to let go of initiatives that inform the narrative that being busy is the same thing as being successful.
According to Hollister and Watkins, not being able to let go of initiatives is at the heart of initiative overload in companies. Consequently, the simple answer to addressing initiative overload is to learn to let go of initiatives and have a process in place to determine when its time to sunset them. Laser leaders tend to be very skilled at this effort because they naturally do this on a consistent basis; they are constantly evaluating initiatives as they relate to strategic goals and simply stop doing the things that don’t support those goals any longer.
As Hollister and Watkins point out, overcoming initiative overload means leaders must be disciplined and strong-willed to make decisions on what to keep doing, or more importantly, what to stop doing. In their Harvard Business Review article, they outline six steps that leaders can take to help fight initiative overload:
1. Determine if your company has a problem. Take an inventory from all departments of what initiatives their teams are working on.
2. Assess the initiatives. Document what business need the initiative serves, how much it costs, how many people or other resources it takes to make it happen, and what the impact to the business is.
3. Prioritize the initiatives. This does not mean that each department prioritizes their own activities; it means that top-level leadership discusses all of the initiatives on the table and decides what to keep and what can go.
4. Plan for initiative sunset. After determining which initiatives should be kept, leadership should assign an end date to them. As the sunset date approaches, leadership can discuss whether the initiatives are making an impact on the business and should be extended. If the answer is no, the sunset plan is already in place.
5. Conduct annual reviews. In the years that follow, it should become standard procedure that all initiatives — legacy or new — reapply for budget and resource allocations alongside a business case. Many companies have initiatives that they do year after year based on obligation or some other intangible reason that should end because the business case no longer exists to support them. An annual review will help eliminate such initiatives.
6. Communicate to the organization. Ending initiatives can sometimes make employees feel uncomfortable, especially if one’s professional identity within an organization has been closely tied to one. It is important to explain why initiatives are ending and why focusing on the right ones are important to the long-term success of the business.
Every business is made up of a mix of laser leaders and prism leaders, so balancing these competing leadership approaches can be tricky. Ultimately, leaders who bring the most focus, the most energy and the will to cut initiatives when needed will rise to the top and build successful teams along the way