Leaders Must Create More Capacity, But How?

Wise leaders apply their best thinking to the most important things. This is, of course, easier said than done because of the sheer volume of things that leaders are asked or required to think about. Because we are finite and flawed, we have a limited amount of mental capacity. For a leader, there are always hundreds of tasks, problems, and opportunities that could be swimming around in the mind at any given time. So how can a leader create mental capacity?

In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande says that all problems can be divided into these three categories:

  • Simple problems: A simple problem is one that can be solved by following a recipe. Baking a cake, for example, is simple. You just follow the recipe.
  • Complicated problems: A complicated problem is really a series of simple problems. It’s a bunch of simple problems connected. Sending a rocket into space is complicated, but a recipe can be developed and replicated.
  • Complex problems: A complex problem is one that cannot be exactly replicated or repeated. Parenting a child, for example, is complex. Just because you have raised one does not mean you can raise the next one the same way. Each child is unique.

Of these three types of problems, where do you apply your best thinking? Where should you apply most of your mental energy and capacity? Clearly the complex is what needs our best thinking, our most focused mental energy.

To create more capacity for the complex, wise leaders seek to systemize and operationalize the simple and complicated problems. The simple and complicated are not less important; they are absolutely essential in leadership. But they can be operationalized and systemized so that organizational energy is focused on execution and not continually recreating and forming steps.

If you find you are constantly solving simple and complicated problems, work to develop processes and checklists. A checklist for simple problems can help you create more capacity for the complex ones. Atul Gawande would simply say, “Build checklists to get the dumb stuff out of the way, so you can focus on the hard stuff.”