Jun 03

Declutter your strategy

I have recently embarked on a de-cluttering process in my home. It has been frankly astonishing the amount of detritus my children and I have accumulated. So far 50 sacks of stuff have left the house. 10% to the trash, 20% to recycling and the rest redistributed via charity shops and the ‘Giving Wall’ system we use around here (a benefit of living in a very mixed inner city area that it never takes long for everything to find new homes). The house feels lighter, happier and with a greater sense of new possibilities.

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I admit too that I had underestimated the skill of the activity. “I’m not just coming to tidy up for you” explained Sarah of Free My Space, my professional de-clutterer, somewhat ominously. “We need to change your relationship with your stuff to make this sustainable. We need to find out why you still have it so you can make a deeper shift.”

It occurs to me that a similar need for de-cluttering is being expressed by my clients when they talk about burn out, too many initiatives or the need to prioritise. So often our organization’s activities include everything we need to do today, plus all the things we needed to do last year, or ten years ago. Like long forgotten board games and outgrown clothes they fill up our mental cupboards making it hard to find the things we really do want and adding to stress levels every day. How refreshing it would be to have a cleaned up version of the corporate cupboard. One where every item is in the best possible place, grouped to enhance synergies and avoid duplication. Maybe even with a completely clear shelf ready for new projects. Sounds appealing doesn’t it?

Over the last year I have noticed an increasing amount of reference to overload in the employee dialogues  I have been involved with in a dozen or so large organizations. The exhaustion is palpable. And unsustainable. There’s only so long people can keep up that level of overwork. Even if absenteeism or resignations don’t increase immediately there is a price to pay. Creativity and innovation does not thrive in such an environment and collaboration between different parts of the organization decreases as heads go down and everyone struggles to stand still. Tempers fray, flexibility decreases, trust erodes.

Machine-Gun-Salesman-001I am often asked about prioritization in organizations. We all know how easy it is to be distracted by noisy or urgent problems, losing time to the more fundamental needs of the medium to long term. It’s all too easy to identify with the overworked overstressed manager in this well-known cartoon even though from our position of calm, wise outsider his error is so obvious.

My de-clutterer made a valuable observation “to ALWAYS declutter before trying to organize”. It can be very tempting to think the answer lies in better storage solutions – another trip to IKEA in the home or a new web-based filing system in the office – when it really is a big waste of time to organise things you’d be better off without. So start by reducing the inputs with a good clear-out of defunct strategies and vestigial procedures. Then organise the high priority things that are left for easy access and more synergy.

Maybe there needs to be a business ‘shed’ for some of the other things that are not used often but occasionally useful (it might be your Christmas decorations in the home or procedures for expanding into a new country in your organisation. The principle is the same – by moving the ‘rarely used’ to a different space, it makes it easier to find and work with the ‘often used’


Where to start?

So I took a look at the questionnaire my de-clutterer sent me before we started working together and – with her permission – have adapted it for business use. Let me know how it works for you and any suggested improvements. Or, even better, fill in the questionnaire online so we can all share our experiences – and maybe I can help with something. Anyone doing this will get a free copy of the report that comes out of this work.

Bear in mind that by de-cluttering in this context I don’t just mean stuff (though clearing out some filing cabinets and store rooms could be a useful element). I am including strategies, policies, initiatives, staff, organizational structures, governance and reporting lines, behaviours, culture… it’s all up for grabs.

  • What are the main aspects of your business that feel most overloaded? Congested? Where does de-cluttering feel most urgent?
  • Think back to a time or role when you successfully de-cluttered an aspect of your organisation. Why did it work? What was gratifying about it?
  • What are the main obstacles to de-cluttering in your organisation? How might you or your colleagues sabotage these goals? What or who will get in your way? (in yourself and in the organization as a whole)
  • Imagine you wake up tomorrow and your organization’s strategy and day to day activities are miraculously de-cluttered. What feels different? How does it feel different? What works differently?
  • What is your short term (one month) and long term (6-12 months) goal for de-cluttering your organization?
  • What are your secret weapons? What are the 3 most important strengths you personally have that will ensure this is possible?
  • What’s going to be your first step?
  • Is there anything else you want to share on the topic?


De-cluttering your business strategy could be just what you need. So many employees complain of initiative overload and the struggle to prioritise so many competing actions. Why not take a deep breath, get out the trash can and have a good clear out. Chances are the most important things will get done better, employee engagement and motivation will improve and there will be space for new and better ideas to flourish.


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