How to Solve the Biggest Project Problems With The One Thing

An Interview With Jay Papasan

The One Thing

Jay Papasan is a bestselling author that serves as vice president and executive editor at Keller Williams Realty International, the worlds largest real estate company. He is also vice president of KellerINK, co-owner of Keller Capital, and co-owner, alongside his wife Wendy, of Papasan Properties Group with Keller Williams Realty in Austin, Texas. With Gary Keller, he is co-author of, “The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results.”

Q: How would you define “The One Thing” concept?

A: It’s an elaboration of the 80/20 principle. The idea is to find your most effective lever to achieve the results you want. Ultimately, this is a process to find the most effective action to achieve your most important priority. I think a lot of people spend time thinking about Pareto’s principle (i.e. the 80/20 principle) but they fail to apply that thinking to their number one priority.

It’s important to be both efficient (i.e. is your action creating an impact?) and effective (i.e. is your action creating progress toward your most important priority?). The goal of our book, “The One Thing” is to help people to become more effective.

We help readers to achieve this focus by using the Focusing Question:

“What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

By narrowing your focus in this way, you’re able to make progress on what matters most. To go even further, you can connect your answer to the Focusing Question with your ultimate purpose in life.

It starts with identifying your number one priority and then looking for ways to apply your time and effort to that priority.

Q: How have you applied The One Thing concept with project managers?

A: When we were working on the book launch for “The One Thing,” I worked with a project manager. Our goal was to make the book into a million copy best selling book and reach the New York Times best seller list. To reach that goal, there were a lot of moving parts to manage.

I remember pulling our project manager aside and saying, “Hilary, you have so many One Things to think about… What do you think the true One Thing is for you as the project manager on this book launch?”

She thought about the question and replied, “At end of the day, it’s communication and accountability. It’s my job to track all of the moving parts on the project so that everybody knows what they need to do and when, then we’re on track.” In essence, her number one job was to communicate effectively to ensure accountability.

Q: I think you hit the nail on the head with accountability. I sometimes see mistakes in this area with task assignments. There’s a big difference between “Task A is assigned to the technical team” vs “Task A is assigned to Jane Smith, manager of the technical team.”

A: I love that! One of the ideas that I learned from Gary Keller, my co-author on the book, is the concept of a “driver.” When we have a project, we want to have ONE person who is uniquely responsible for that project. I think about it in these terms: who wakes up in the morning and thinks about this project? That’s the driver. Without that focus, it may not get done.

Specifics matter with accountability. I’ve seen this play out in the case of a car accident. I looked at a hundred people at staring at the scene of accident and nobody took action. Nothing happened to address the accident until a trained person – a firefighter – started to move. That person took accountability to help and that made all the difference.

You can’t hand a task to a group of people. You can only hand a task to a specific person. It’s a critical distinction.

Q: How would you apply “The One Thing” method to improving meeting productivity?

A: It comes down to clarity and priority. You probably have multiple agenda items to consider. In working with Gary Keller, I’ve learned that you need to number and order your agenda items in priority order. That way, you always start the meeting by applying your energy to the most important item. If you walk into a meeting with Gary and you’re unclear about the priorities, he will wait for you to clarify and organize your priorities. We start with number one and we don’t move on until it is done.

If you’re the third priority on the list, good luck! We will often spend most if not all of our meeting time on the number one priority. At the end of the day, I will only bring up lower level priorities if I felt there was a fiduciary duty to do so. By keeping focuses on the number one priority, you empower your people to execute the details and make good decisions.

Q: This is a welcome counter-point to the highly defined and rigid meeting agendas that some project managers use. By tradition, item one on the agenda might be “project status update” for instance. Instead, your approach would encourage us to ask, “for this specific week, what would be the most valuable topic or issue to cover in our 30 minute meeting?”

A: It’s a better question to ask. It’s also good to ask if going around the table for status updates adds value. In a way, that practice encourages accountability but it may not be the best use of time to do that in a meeting.

I’ve recently had some discussions with our CEO to explore what is our culture going to be around meetings and structure. Our organization has rapidly been expanding, so there’s a need for structure and purposeful. I think a lot of people are inefficient with their communication in email and meetings. Asking The Focusing Question and similar questions goes a long way to focusing the discussion.

Q: How do you encourage other people to buy into The One Thing approach as a leader and manager?

A: Earlier in my career, I managed a project where others had to contribute to the project but they were not ultimately accountable to me. To make that work, there’s some salesmanship and political skill required. I think you can always catch more flies with honey. Polite persistence goes a long way on projects.

It’s natural to think about your work with the question, “What’s the win for me?” To really achieve great results, you need to ask two more questions: what’s the win for the organization? and what’s the win for this person? The win may take different forms. For a large project, the win could be helping a person getting promoted. In other cases, the win might be, “You wouldn’t see me dropping by your desk each day asking about the project status.” We’ll have a good laugh at that point and move ahead.

It’s better to ask questions rather than issue orders. For example: what help do you need to get this task done or when should we meet next to discuss this project given the ultimate deadline we have to meet?

If you’re a leader and you want someone to adopt “The One Thing” philosophy, the first step is to ask them to read the book. Alternately, you could have a team meeting to summarize the book and walk people through the ideas. I usually sell the idea by pointing out that YOU can get more done, feel better about what you achieved and then go home and be with your family.

Q: What struggles do people have with adopting “The One Thing” method in their work?

A: Highly detail oriented people sometimes struggle with it because they want to complete each and every task. I’m guilty of this problem sometimes. As the project manager, you can bring clarity to the situation by saying, “This is the number one priority. I understand that you can’t do everything. So you can work on this number one priority. After that gets done, we’ll see what else we can get done.”

Unfortunately, some people will self-sabotage. They’ll bounce between email, Twitter and other activities. In those cases, that issue is really about them. In other cases, the fault lies with the project manager. If you assign too many tasks and fail to make the priorities clear, it can be a deadly recipe for detail oriented people.

When you’re focused on your priorities, you don’t have any regrets. When I go home, I turn my phone off and relax knowing that I achieved my priorities for the day.

Q: How do you manage the challenge of distractions in the workplace? These distractions can make it difficult to make progress on your One Thing.

A: It depends on your context. If you’re in a large office environment, I suggest looking for ways to work in a different location from time to time. For example, can you move to a small meeting room for an hour or two a day to work on your priorities. As a writer, my focus is generally on two core activities: research and writing. If I do those activities on a regular basis, new books will be produced. For most roles, there’s usually a small set of activities you need to master and work on each day to be successful at your work.

Once you know those core responsibilities, there’s two steps to make sure you get those done. First, you need to time block those activities. Second, you need to protect those time blocks. Research has found that if you set a specific plan – at Tuesday at 6am, I will exercise. Once you have that level of detail, you can put that activity on your calendar and protect that time. More details on the research studies on this strategy are noted in the book.

Protecting that time block is the next step. In a “cubicle farm” environment, it’s difficult. The best practice is to put that time block early in the morning. There’s usually that many 8am meetings in most companies so that’s a perfect time to schedule a time block to work on your number one priority.

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One thought on “How to Solve the Biggest Project Problems With The One Thing

  1. I really enjoyed reading this interview. I’m very familiar with the book The One Thing, though I’ve not read it. I love the context you’ve put it in here. As a project manager with many different areas of focus, this discussion resonated with me. Now I’m even more inspired to read Jay Papasan’s book.