When I ask corporate clients what their biggest barrier to innovation is, they mostly say they are too busy to innovate —must be why this widely-circulated cartoon struck a chord on Linkedin. If you feel you are stuck on the busyness treadmill, how do you get creative and get moving?

Sumantra Ghoshal and Heike Bruch, authors of A Bias for Action, conducted a 10 year study of busy managers in large companies such as Sony, GE and Lufthansa, and discovered a great deal of frenzied activity is just busyness for the sake of being busy. Daily routines, superficial behaviors, poorly prioritized or unfocused tasks “act like leeches on managers’ capacities–making unproductive busyness perhaps the most critical behavioral problem in large companies.”

Only 10% of all managers spend their time in a committed, purposeful, and reflective manner. The other 90% squander their time in all sorts of ineffective matters. (Pause now, and consider the implications in your organization.)

Ghoshal and Bruch concluded that managers who take effective action rely on a combination of two traits: focus and energy. “Energy is the emotional tenacity that releases immense inner resources, allowing the hardest job to be done.” Focus is described as “concentrated attention – the ability to zero in on a goal and see the task through to completion.”

Beware the Busy Manager

The manager who acts the busiest may not be the most productive.


By using a focus-energy matrix, Ghoshal and Bruch identify four types of behaviours in managers:

  • The Distracted: 40 percent of managers are distracted by the many tasks they juggle every day. They are highly energetic but very unfocused and appear to others as frenzied, desperate and hasty. Because they don’t stop to reflect, distracted managers tend to have trouble developing strategies and adjusting their behaviors to new requirements.
  • The Procrastinators: 30 percent of managers procrastinate on doing the work that really matters to the organization because they lack both energy and focus. They likely started out being engaged and energetic but became disillusioned and disengaged by their inability to have an impact. They think they have no control over events, so they do nothing, which can ultimately debilitate their companies
  • The Disengaged: 20 percent of managers are disengaged from their work altogether. They are focused but lack energy and seem aloof, tense and apathetic. Some of these managers are simply exhausted and lack the inner resources to reenergize themselves. Others feel unable to commit to tasks that hold little meaning for them. Disengagement is often a result of organizational processes, or a dysfunctional relationship with the boss.
  • The Purposeful: Only 10 percent of managers are highly energetic and highly focused. They put in more effort than their counterparts, and achieve critical, long-term goals more often.

What makes purposeful managers so effective?

Great managers produce results not by motivating others, but by engaging their own willpower through a powerful combination of energy and focus. They have laser-sharp concentration on a goal until it is completed, and the discipline to resist distraction.”

“They are adept at husbanding energy,” say the authors, and “they are aware of the value of time, and manage it carefully.” They schedule creative thinking time, and when they respond to emails, phone calls, or visitors. They pick their goals—and their battles—with far more care than other managers do. One executive cited in the study frequently arrived at the office at 6:00 AM to ponder issues before his colleagues showed up. “In the busiest times, I slow down and take time off to reflect on what I actually want to achieve and sort what’s important from irrelevant noise,” he says, “then I focus on doing what is most important.”

Focus + Energy = purposeful action


So what can you do to improve focus and energy in your team, or organization?

Leaders can directly affect the type of behaviour exhibited in their organizations by:

  • Being clear about goals and expectations
  • Presenting people with meaningful challenges and real choices to give them a sense of control, rather than setting choices for them
  • Loosening formal procedures and purging deadening busywork
  • Creating time, space and energy for creative thinking and innovation.

On the personal level, you can improve your focus and energy, using an integrated body, mind and spirit approach:

  • Keep fit and flexible, doing physical activities you find enjoyable
  • Make time for recreation and rejuvenation  to maintain your energy
  • Develop mindfulness and self-awareness through meditation, contemplation, journal writing etc.
  • Feed your intellect and creativity with a banquet of art, culture, philosophy, literature, science, and innovation outside your industry
  • Cultivate a supportive network of friends, family and allies
  • Find personal meaning and purpose in your work
  • Be clear about your goals and what you want to accomplish
  • Schedule your time strategically, and make time for creativity and innovation


For more about developing energy and focus within managers (including yourself) and the organization, read:

 A Bias for Action: How Effective Managers Harness Their Willpower, Achieve Results, and Stop Wasting Time, by Heike Bruch and Sumantra Ghoshal,  (Boston: The Harvard Business School Press, 2004). Available at Amazon

“Beware the Busy Manager,” by Heike Bruch, Sumantra Ghoshal HBR, Feb 2002

Executive Coaching

If your job is to move business forward in innovative ways, and you (or your team) are too busy to innovate, I may be able to help. I coach leaders and managers on creativity, innovation, leadership and team development. Imagine the results you and your team will be able to produce when you’ve unlocked creativity, collaboration, and the resourcefulness to turn ideas into action, and accelerate business performance.