The One Thing

“The One Thing” 

There is a scene in the movie City Slickers where Mitch, played by Billy Crystal is riding on horseback in the New Mexico desert alongside the grizzled old cowboy named Curly, played by Jack Palance. The old cowboy is coaching him on the secret to living a successful life.

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] This.

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean s**t.

Mitch: But, what is the “one thing”?

Curly: That’s what you have to find out.

Yes indeed, “the one thing” is the secret to a successful life and a successful business. It requires you to figure out “the one thing” you need to do right now in order to achieve your definition of success.

Asking this question is the most powerful way I know of forcing us to prioritize, and focus on the most important task. Of course, in order to answer this question effectively you first need to set SMART Goals so that you have the proper context as you answer these two variants of the question:

“What is “the one thing” I need to get done today before I leave work?”

“What is “the one thing” I need to get done this week?”

Less is more

In order for this technique to work well, it also forces you to set fewer goals. You probably have a desire to accomplish many things, but my experience has shown time and time again that “less is more” when it comes to business execution. I recommend that your organization choose no more than 3 Strategic Projects to focus on each quarter.

It is said that Steve Jobs used to take his managers for off-site planning retreats to identify and rank the top ten strategic priorities for Apple. Members of the group competed intensely to get their ideas on the top ten list. Once they had ranked them in order of priority, Jobs would then take a marker and cross out the bottom seven. “We can only do three,” he would announce.

Business author Jim Collins echoes this sentiment, “If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any priorities”.

Less is more. It is better to do less and do it well than to take on too many things and spread yourself too thin. Your mantra for success should be: “Focus on less to achieve more

As a manager, your aim is for everyone in your team to finish each week and finish each quarter with a sense of satisfaction and achievement. You want everyone to be able to say “We nailed our Project milestones”, rather than having a whole lot of Projects still up in the air, with your people grinding away day after day, and never feeling the thrill of victory. You want the team to be able to pop the cork and celebrate their achievements at the end of every week and quarter, not feel like failures.

Even if you do carefully whittle your wish list down to 3 Strategic Projects to focus on each quarter, the secret to successful business execution is to ensure your people are taking the right action every week, to move the company’s Strategic Projects forward. Just as you want your team to “win” and celebrate achieving their Goals and Project milestones every quarter, you also want your team to “win” and celebrate achieving their “one thing” at the end of every week.

Strategic Projects 

“What is “the one thing”, the most important task that can be completed this week to move this project forward?”

Regardless of how many Tasks you have scoped out for each Project, chunk it down and make sure “the one thing” (the critical path) is agreed upon each week. And more importantly, follow up at next week’s team meeting to make sure “the one thing” got done.

Individual Goals

“What is “the one thing”, the most important task that can be completed this week to achieve my goal?”

Everyone has a huge “to do” list of things they want to get done each week, but what is “the one thing”? What is the most important thing they can do to move their area of the business forward?

Regardless of their role, everyone in the organization must know their “one thing” each week. Capture it as a Task in your management dashboard software so that it is visible to everyone, and hold people accountable to it gets checked off as “done” by the end of the week. Any other Tasks that get accomplished during the week are a bonus, but everyone must know their “one thing” and focus on getting that Task done above everything else.

In many cases, this requires being able to say “No” to anything else that comes up and protecting people from distractions. Successful business execution is not about working hard or being busy. It is about focusing on the “vital few” tasks that will make the biggest difference, each and every week, and nailing “the one thing”.

Did you complete “the one thing”?

Managers must follow up and hold people accountable for getting “the one thing” done each week. I call this weeding the garden.

When these key tasks get done, make time to praise and acknowledge people who keep these commitments. Reinforce these good behaviors. Every small win adds up to meaningful results over time.

However, if you let a person off the hook for not getting “the one thing” done last week, it lowers the performance bar for everyone else. It means that people are allowed to break their promises to the team. It sends a signal to the team, “Integrity is not important around here”.

When these tasks are not achieved because the manager does not hold their people accountable, this is a failure of management. When you are the manager your job is to get things done through others, and you only win when your team wins.

What are you going to do to make sure each person knows and completes “the one thing” this week?


Until next time…