Mastering Your Circle of Influence

LeanBP Blog, Mastering Your Circle of Influence

“Do your job!”

If you watch football at all, you’ve heard this line before. It’s what coaches tell players when the game gets tight. No player can go out and win the game by himself. Instead, he has to focus on what he can control. He has to master his position as it fits in the scheme of things, rather than getting distracted by the score—and he must inspire others to do the same.

“Do your job” is a much catchier line than “Work within your circle of influence!” But it’s the same idea. When applying lean principles, you should master your own job and work within your circle of influence without worrying about the things you can’t control.

Let me explain.

During the second day of each of my LABP classes, there’s a palpable anxiety in the room. After a day of discussing the wastes in organizations, someone finally agrees the waste exists (and is everywhere), but says, “I’m only one person! I can’t solve this problem by myself!”

I’ve even had an Air Force general declare, “But I only have one star!”

This feeling that the problem is bigger than we are is a common occurrence not just at work, but in many aspects of our lives—family, politics, environment, sports. It often paralyzes people into believing they can do nothing, so they do nothing. Or worse, they spend all their time and energy worrying about things they can’t control—and they choke.

When you implement lean in the business office, it’s critical to focus only on the things you can control or influence.

There’s a great philosophy to ease this anxiety:  the concept of working within our circle of influence, which is the 7th habit in Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.

Imagine a set of three concentric circles. The largest circle, the circle of concern, represents all the things you can theoretically be concerned about. Inside that circle is a second circle:  things you can actually influence. The smallest circle in the center represents things over which you have total control. Focusing on things outside your circles of influence and control, but within your circle of concern, causes anxiety. By definition, any time spent outside the circle of influence is wasted effort.

Getting Comfortable with Your Circle of Control

The remedy starts with knowing and exercising your circle of control. A great start is to learn to control your breathing and your mind through meditation, and your body through healthy eating and exercise. This will help you both in life and at work.

In LABP, we help you define your circles of control and influence vs. your circle of concern in the workplace by starting the second day with a lean countermeasure—visual management. If you participate in my class, you’ll articulate and document your work mission and its attributes (customers, outputs, policies, inputs, suppliers, etc.) through the LABP Strategic Alignment and Deployment Guide.

By following this guide—it’s just four PowerPoint slides—you’ll be able to see clearly what you can control and what you can influence. And you can increase productivity and job satisfaction by immediately cutting off all effort and emotion related to anything inside your circle of concern, but outside your influence or control.

What’s the best way to focus on your circle of control? It’s kind of like fantasy football. We’ve all heard diehard fantasy managers discuss the players on their team in incredible detail. They know everything about them—their stats, draft rank, health, and how fast they ran the 40-yard dash.

Be your own fantasy football manager at work. Know your job and all its attributes inside and out. 

Then, analyzing your job through a lean lens, you’ll find many opportunities to improve. Why not spend your limited time on your process? Right away, you’ll become more in tune with what you’re doing and understand how you fit in the system. You can affect any system you’re part of and have influence over its improvement. (That’s systems thinking.)

As you implement lean countermeasures to your daily activities, your process, you’ll find opportunities to influence others. Notice I didn’t say “control” others—but when you have greater mastery of what you control, it creates a respectful influence on others to work together to find solutions. In sports, it’s the teammate who has mastered his or her position that the other players look up to, listen to, and follow.

The more you master your own job, the more people will want to collaborate with you on solutions.

How I Grew My Circle of Influence

When I was responsible for the proposal and contract process for $500M of annual revenue at Delta TechOps, there were 44 people who could veto or slow the process. Not a single one of those people worked for me, and many were of higher rank in the organization. Focusing on my circle of concern—that is, the speed of others in the process—made me feel and look helpless.

After stepping back to focus on the mission of the process, mapping it, and understanding its attributes, I discovered many ways to improve the activities within my own control. After getting out of my own way, I discovered that the legal department was a big constraint. At first, I kept working outside my circle of influence, demanding faster support or hiring more lawyers to expedite reviews. Desperate, I finally asked the lawyers, “What can I do to help you review faster?”

This triggered a meaningful dialogue.

I discussed with them what I had done to improve processes within my circle of control and showed them where they fit in the system. They pointed out that the documents from my own department had so much variation, depending on who created them, that they took a long time to review because each one was essentially a totally new document. I went back to my department and we jointly created a common language template for each product—standard work. Immediately after, legal was no longer a constraint.

All that just by working within my circle of influence.

The world is full of people who spend all their time focusing on their circle of concern instead of their circles of influence or control. They’re the ones you see frustrated and railing on social media. But I’m constantly inspired by others who focus on big issues like education, homelessness, the environment, etc., by just doing something small and local. Working within their circles of control, they influence me (and others) to follow their example. I’m constantly inspired by my clients who leave my class to go back to work and then share their stories of how working within their circle of influence provided success and job satisfaction.

The final reward is that when you focus on your circle of influence and drop effort outside it, your circle of influence actually grows. You collaborate more, you have more wins. This increases others’ perception of you—and even more important, it improves your own perception of you!

Has working within your circle of influence made a difference for you, or have you been inspired by people working within theirs? If so, please post in the comments section. I’d love to hear about it.