Sharpen the Saw

I said in my last Pearl of 2010 that I was going to take off the first week in January to “sharpen the saw” as Stephen Covey recommends in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

He talks about a man spending all day struggling to fell trees with a blunt saw. When asked why he doesn’t sharpen the saw, he says “I don’t have time for that.”

Sound familiar?

Covey advocates taking some time out to rethink what we do, to refresh and to exercise. And to come back sharper, stronger and more focused. Ready for 2011.

We’ll, I did it, properly for the first time ever. In 22 years of business.

What did I do in my four days of saw sharpening?

I reviewed my business performance in 2010. Fully and honestly. Where my business came from. How I won it. Whether the business I won played to my strengths. Were the customers really in my target market segment? Did they truly value what I did? Did the commissioning managers engage with me, or did they just want me to “sort that lot out”?

And the really fabulous customers…did I give them as much as I could have? Could I have loved them even more?

I then planned for 2011. To go back to my values and to derive a strategy based on them. With planning better than ever before. And fewer, better, performance measures. With goals that are challenging but achievable. To decide what to do and, critically, to decide what not to do.

And I exercised. Almost every day (since mid December). In the fresh air, in the snow, in the rain. Fabulously head-clearing.

Was all this worthwhile? A resounding “yes” to that.

So, what did I get out of this outrageously indulgent activity over the last week?

1. I know what worked for me in 2010, and what didn’t. And I have resolved to do more of what worked and, of course, to stop doing what didn’t work. And this involves key relationship management…I have many more business relationships than those that are truly key.

2. I know some of my customers are great for my business and some less so. This is a perennial issue in smaller organisations (and big ones, but often more debilitating in the former). But it’s my fault, and I will fix it. Better definition of target market segment is the answer, coupled with a default “no” to those outside it, rather than a default “yes”. To those inside it – give them ever more love and attention.

3. I have an excellent plan for 2011 to significantly grow my business and I feel that it is achievable. This will require some real changes. Of course it will. Scary? A bit. But it is wildly motivational. Wildly!

4. I have really experimented in 2010 with delegating which for me means outsourcing – if I can get someone to do all the stuff that is not immediately and directly linked to me delivering my plan, then get them to do it. This has been a success in 2010 and I shall continue to do it.

5. After four days with only a pad, a pen and some books, and little or no activity with anything involving a screen, no matter how sexy (the screen, that is), I am astonished, anew, at the power of spending uninterrupted time on the important stuff. And doing this stuff first, rather than “clearing the decks” of the trivia, which is the same as prioritising the small stuff over the big stuff. Now that really is bizarre.

6. The default position of just getting on with things and having the same year as last year is a powerful force that most succumb to and I certainly have many times. This force is with me, but will be defeated!

7. I do too much. Have been doing this for years. I get involved in things because they might make money or are interesting or new. But they do not accord with my values. Which means I don’t follow through effectively, they turn into chores and I end up having to back out…

Hence my 2011 strategy derived from my values and a zero-tolerance approach to all other business activity.

8. Waiting another year (or, shamefully, much longer…) to sharpen again the saw is not an option.

I’ll wait 13 weeks. Once a quarter to sharpen the saw…it’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity. And it’s already in the diary.

9. Keeping a journal is a great idea. Not a diary. But a journal of regular reflections on personal performance and a place to assess new directions and opportunities…on an ongoing basis to fill the gaps between dedicated saw-sharpening time.

10. I’ve always been a “learner” – educating myself, for fun and profit. But sometimes learning goes on the back burner. And “on-the-job” learning is a poor surrogate for the real thing. No more – I have now formalised learning into a high-payoff activity, to take pride-of-place in my diary alongside the other high-payoff activities.

So…I got all of this out of four days (less than 2% of my working year). Possibly the greatest investment with the highest return I will make this year, I suspect.

Happy New Year to you. I wish you your best ever year.

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3 Responses to Sharpen the Saw

  1. Eilidh Milnes January 10, 2011 at 6:44 am #

    Ditto, here’s to a great 2011. Keep up the exercise of both your body and your brain.
    To your success Mark,

  2. Anthony Madume January 10, 2011 at 11:31 am #

    Hi Mark,

    Happy New Year!

    Many thanks for your very interesting and informative piece as usual. There was a lot to learn from it and utilise in 2011 going forward. I’m delighted to learn that you had a very good time – a worthwhile break, to sharpen your saw. Good for you Mark. Hopefully, we shall all benefit from the/your sharpened saw.

    On my part, I was slightly unwell during the festive period, but I soon recovered. Thank God. The Christmas period was always a very relaxing and reflective time for me to spend valuable time with my family. Yes, it was indeed a worthwhile break too..

    Like yourself, I’ll learn to say ‘No’ in 2011 when I just can’t be very effective or at my best.

    Be inspired and Inspire Others,

    Anthony Madume
    Founder & Enterprise Leader.


  3. Jimmy E Dadrewalla January 18, 2011 at 1:49 pm #

    Dear Mark

    A good awakening article to refocus on priorities.



    European Finance Director
    United Phosphorus Ltd

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