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Quick-start series No 2: Distracted? How to stay on the primary task.

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

Author: David Tinker MSc. OD Consultant and Executive Coaching Supervisor.

Teams need to stay focused on the big picture at all times. If you feel like the team is drifting away from the purpose, initiate discussions towards the same.


Have you ever heard of the saying “When you’re up to your neck in alligators it’s hard to remember the primary task is to drain the swamp”. The updated version now reads “When you’re up to your neck in alligators check your device to see if there’s something needs your immediate and undivided attention”.

The problem: Distractions

Of course, the moral of the saying is that we many lose focus when there’s potentially threatening stuff going on in the life we’re living, often stress related. Neuroscientist Dr David Rock named uncertainty and loss of agency as triggers that might lead us into an automatic stress response of either fight of flight. Sometimes fighting can seem a little like blindfolded David meets Goliath, so we go into flight which can take the form of distractions. Healthy distractions give relief by helping us take a breath, slow down and gather our thoughts. Unhealthy or compulsive distractions may cause more stress in the long term; activities maySt include gambling, eating, TV binge, app cruising, drinking etc. Familiar? 😉

Teams become distracted by doing a range of activities that don’t actually contribute to the primary task – swamp draining. When this happens the task of the team leader is not to add to the challenging environment by pushing the team (image of team leader on front of boat banging drum), but to reduce levels of anxiety through listening with care, and sharing understanding of how the bigger picture looks.

The team leaders’ careful listening task means getting beyond an “I’m fine” ritual response to the “How are you?” inquiry. As awkward as it may feel naming emotions actually helps us face difficult situations. Why Labeling Emotions Matters | Psychology Today United Kingdom. If we talked about feelings associated with the presence of alligators we may well get on with draining and swamp. So, step one is to enable the team to share how they feel; step two is to then talk about the big picture as it helps provide narrative and meaning to the task at hand. We’ll come on to goals later.

Solution 1: Re-visit the big picture or narrative

We all like stories as they touch our souls and help communicate meaning. A narrative is a story of where the business has come from (Exposition), what’s happened recently (Rising action), and where it’s going given certain conditions in the environment and market (Climax). I’ve recorded a short exercise in Rethinkly where you can use the 3D virtual world landscape to create a visual of your narrative.

Solution 2: Communicate goals

Goals are there to help provide focus and are best done within the context of a narrative, so they have meaning. They should be situated only so far ahead that they make sense given levels of uncertainty – no more than 3 months. Well defined and regularly discussed goals can help bring focus and avoid distractions – only if you’re keeping up with the listening task too. In the Rethinkly exercise you can create a visual 3D version of your team goals.

By the way, the team stopped draining the swamp as environmental factors (big picture) indicated they are vital ecosystems - home to 40 percent of the world's species.


(By starting this exercise I agree to the Terms and Conditions.)

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