One of the basic tactics you learn as a young military officer is to “picket and bypass.” This refers to the fact that as you advance against the enemy, you can encounter small pockets of resistance and obstacles that are meant to slow your advance or distract you from your main purpose. The order to picket and bypass means that you leave a small element to keep a watch on the enemy (picket) and then bypass them to continue with the main mission. This, of course, assumes that you have the room to manoeuvre around the enemy.

Whenever I’m working on a project, whether one of my own or for a client, I find that obstacles and resistance tend to crop up. It is easy to become distracted by these hindrances to progress. At a minimum they can be minor irritants, but they can also be a major distraction to your progress, and even occasionally to the success of your project.

For instance, I was working on strategy project with a client. As we started to work on implementing his strategic plan, several obstacles started to surface. These were mainly ownership issues with partners and questions of apportionment of costs for initiatives involving the main company and some of its subsidiaries. Most of these issues were not showstoppers, but merely minor irritants. It was easy to stay focused on the overall objective while setting them aside. On the other hand, other issues appeared to be more important, and even critical to the successful implementation of the strategy. What allowed us to distinguish between the minor irritants and the critical obstacles? In a nutshell, it was whether or not the particular issue could derail successful implementation or progress of the strategy.

Asking whether the issue can derail the project or not is the main method to determine its criticality. However, sometimes you can’t really estimate the relative importance of the resistance or obstacle until you’ve actually tried to resolve it or eliminate it. This is why it is critical that you and your team periodically review your focus of effort so you’re not going down rabbit holes when you should instead be staying on the main game trails.

Here are some questions you can ask that will assist in determining whether an obstacle is substantial or just a potential distraction:

•What could happen if we don’t address this issue? What could happen if we do address it?
•Are the potential effects major or minor? Could the effects stop us from reaching our objectives now or in the future? How probable are these effects?
•Can resolution of this issue be delayed or do we need to address it immediately? Could they circle around and take us unawares?
•Are these issues about the nature of the objectives or merely about the means to achieve them, especially about resources?
•What is the effect of focusing on these issues? Is this preventing us from addressing something more important or putting effort into higher payoff activities? In other words, is this the best use of limited leadership and managerial resources, given everything that needs to be done?

Once you’ve determined whether an obstacle or hindrance is only minor or can be delayed, you can’t just ignore it. You may have to take preventive action or develop contingency plans to address it should it become more critical over time or if the situation changes. This is why you don’t just bypass the obstacle or issue, but also picket it. This means you keep an eye on it, ready to act on a change of situation or to mitigate its effects until such time as you can put more focus and effort into resolving it.

Sometimes, obstacles and issues can disappear as the project advances. The person you thought would be against the project eventually comes around, or you realize that that wasn’t the problem you thought it would be after all. We all have a limited amount of energy and attention we can use to focus on achieving a successful project or implementing a new strategy, process, or approach. We need to keep our resources for the truly important so that we aren’t caught off guard when problems and obstacles arise, or that we don’t go chasing rabbits when we should be stalking the real big game instead. That’s why “picket and bypass” must be part of the repertoire of every leader and manager.

© Alcera Consulting Inc. 2011. We encourage the sharing of this information and forwarding of this email with attribution. All other rights reserved.

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