Back in 2008, when I began my career as an organizational consultant, one of my first clients was a small, community bank.  My role in the organization was focused on conducting a culture survey and making recommendations for strategic initiatives that would positively impact the culture. While I was doing this work, the executive team hired a financial consulting firm to help them with their overall strategic planning process.  That did not go as well as they would have hoped and they soon turned to us to help guide them through the planning.

We spent a couple of days behind closed doors hammering out the initiatives they agreed were important.  We guided the team in setting enough “priorities” that would keep them busy for…literally years.  My lack of experience was evident at that time by my not pushing back and encouraging them to select one or two initiatives that they could find success with. Though this leadership team accomplished more than I ever thought possible, they still always felt they never accomplished enough on their strategic list.  It was a learning experience for me to not take the “spray and pray” approach, but instead to utilize the power of focusing on what is most important and leveraging all resources against it.

Our Brains Love Simplicity
Have you ever entered a restaurant or retail store and become overwhelmed?  If the store happens to be disorganized or the restaurant has too many items on the menu our brains essentially go into shutdown mode.  Why is that?  Our brains find it challenging when having to choose between too many options with no construct to help us decide which option is best.

The influential psychologist, Barry Schwarz, in his TED Talk about the paradox of choice demonstrates how an increasing number of choices paralyzes us, leaves us more disappointed with the choices we make, and elevates our expectations until no choice is satisfying.  In keeping with the restaurant analogy…you are much more likely to be satisfied that you made the right choice when leaving an “In and Out Burger” (Gosh, I love the Double-Double burger with cheese) vs. after you’ve placed your order at the “Cheesecake Factory” (I think I made a mistake ordering the Godiva chocolate cheesecake now that I look through the list of 36 available).  Our brain does not like so many choices.

It takes a lot of energy to choose tasks!  One of the reasons that Steve Jobs wore a black turtleneck every day was so his energy would not be depleted on such a mundane decision. Simply having the opportunity to do a task (like reading the email that just popped up on your phone), even when you’ve chosen to do another, presents a distracting opportunity that drains your limited reserve of mental energy.  To overcome this, we need to be certain the task we’ve chosen to work on is the best use of that limited energy.

Relevance In Our Current Environment
In the last year, we have all experienced dramatic changes that have thrown off our daily routines and moved the goalposts on many of the things we measured ourselves against.  The easy things have become more complicated and some of the big things feel, and are, out of our control.  Many of the leaders I work with have acknowledged that they are operating on defense much of the time.  So at a time when you are starting to kick back into the new year and corral the energy of your team, creating a well-defined goal that is temporary and can be prioritized as the most important right now is critical to putting you back on offense!

Rallying around a single theme, the most important thing you can be doing, a “Rallying Cry” if you will, especially in moments of dramatic change, does more than aid progress on a single objective — it sets a sequence of events in motion that will significantly impact your team performance:

  1. It makes us more effective at choosing where to focus by reducing uncertainty and the stress of choice overload.
  2. It provides clarity, helping us to recognize progress instead of allowing our attention to be dominated by the unchecked items on our to-do list.
  3. It sets the stage for greater success through a chain reaction of small wins (shown to have a substantial effect on motivation, happiness, and productivity), oriented in one direction, which catalyzes momentum towards big changes.
“This concept of having a rallying cry and defining objectives is a simple one, and therein lies its power. It provides us with a manageable list of relevant issues that we can get our hands and minds around over an extended period of time. And just as importantly, it gives us permission to ignore other issues that would otherwise compete for our attention.” — Patrick Lencioni

The Rallying Cry from leadership guru, Patrick Lencioni is exactly the philosophy that we, as a team, adopted when the pandemic hit in March of 2020.  Our Rallying Cry was “Support our Stakeholders – Whatever It Takes”.  It was magical in getting through those first few difficult months. Our team continues to set a Rallying Cry every few months to focus on at the beginning of our Monday morning team meeting while rating how we are tracking against it.  We truly believe if everything is important, nothing is important.

A Singular Focus
Now, this takes discipline!  Of course, there are other things happening in the organization, but when push comes to shove, the Rallying Cry will take precedence.  To get you started, there are four elements necessary for an effective Rallying Cry:

  1. You can only pick one. This is the choice to elevate just one priority, aka one theme, above the rest. Once you’ve decided on this theme, you need to decide on three to five things that will need to be done in order to accomplish your goal. These are your defining objectives.
  2. It’s qualitative. It’s important the thematic goal isn’t framed by one measurable target. You should be able to track progress towards the goal in many different ways, and the best thematic goals are bigger than a single metric. Ideally, your goal can be achieved with a variety of strategies.
  3. It’s temporary. Set a target for how long it will last. The time frame should be a few months…people need to be able to see the finish line.  You should have a cadence set up with your team to check in on progress towards that goal and keep it front and center in everything you do.
  4. It requires certainty. You have to be sure that this can remain the most important thing, right now for your given time period. For an individual, it must be compelling enough not to second guess it. For an organization, it must be agreed upon by the entire leadership team. It requires absolute commitment.

As an additional resource, I am including a link below to Patrick Lencioni’s podcast in which he and his consultants discuss their experiences using the Rallying Cry.  This is one of the top-ranked resources in our 2-year leadership program so I know you will get a lot of value from it.  Tell us what your experience is in setting up your Rallying Cry and let us know if we can do anything to help you in your leadership journey!