At least once a day I hear someone talk about the importance of balance. Balance is the elusive state of having two or more things in the right proportion or the right emphasis, amount, or weight. CEO’s talk about balancing revenue, cost, and customer satisfaction. Managers talk about balancing the tough messages that create accountability with empathetic messages that promote engagement. Pretty much everybody talks about balancing work with the rest of life.

But does balance work? Is it useful? Well, sometimes.

Where attention to balance is really helpful is over the long term. Over a quarter, or a year, or a cycle, a business absolutely needs to get revenue, cost, and customer satisfaction in balance. Those that don’t tend to spiral into oblivion. Long-term balance is also important for managers who face the dilemma of balancing strong performance and accountability messages with the right amount of understanding, slack, and compassion. Over the long haul, they need to be in balance. Same with your life. It’s important to be able to look at your life and feel confident that you’ve apportioned your energy in a way that reflects what you value.

Let me repeat, over the mid- to long-term, I believe that balance is important and a useful construct.

But balance has become such a common refrain for dealing with our complex world that I think it’s lost its value as a day-to-day decision making goal. When I watch people trying to create balance in the moment, I more often see people trying to do everything and in so doing accomplishing nothing. When we try to balance everything all the time, we’re diluting the potency of our efforts.

In the short-term, I’ve discarded the concept of balance and replaced it with the idea of toggling. Rather than trying to figure out how I balance everything that matters all at once, I focus on selecting the one or two things that matter most in the current situation.

In the sacred business triangle of revenue, cost, and customer satisfaction, there is a time and place where each is paramount. When acquiring a new client, I’m much more focused on delighting them and demonstrating the value of our services and much less concerned with how much money we bring in or how much we spend delivering the work. But we can’t stay in that mode too long without strangling the business. Once the customer appreciates the value we bring, the focus can shift to pricing the work to reflect the value (toggle to revenue).

As a leader, you need to help your team know when to focus on one thing and when to shift to another. There is a time for cost trump and to knowingly make sacrifices to rein in spending…when is it? On which projects, for which customers? There is a time to grow unfettered adding new accounts, costs be damned. How will your managers recognize those moments? The leader who is unwilling to toggle between these different drivers and insists on being balanced at all times will fritter away precious opportunities.

As a manager, being balanced or “measured” at all times is equally ineffective. Over the course of a relationship, you want to be seen as the right mix of tough and love. In any given moment, trying to balance both can send mixed signals. There is a time to be tough; unapologetically tough. (But as Vince Molinaro delineates, a good manager is never rough.) I’ve seen many managers try to moderate their message, to titrate accountability with understanding and the result is insufficient to create the right amount of distress required to get someone to sit up and take notice. Similarly, there are moments when accountability is just not what matters. When someone is anxiety-riddled or at wit’s end, you might need to toggle to unwaveringly empathetic, with not even a dose of accountability for the time being.

I think the same is true of life balance. When one of my friends sheepishly admitted that his son had bargained for a trip to the park by offering “Daddy, you can bring your laptop with you!” it was clear to both of us that balancing work and parenthood at the same time was causing him to do a terrible job of both.

There are times when you should completely tip the balance of work and home. Don’t leave both windows open on your screen, close and exit one and focus intently on the other. If you’re the controller, the first week of the quarter is not going to be the time to be the parent volunteer on the class fieldtrip. But when you do go on the field trip, take the vacation day and leave the phone at home. Don’t balance, toggle.

That’s probably the perfect segue to tell you that I’m about to toggle away from work. And I’m not talking about an afternoon without the smartphone. Craig and I are shutting down 3COze for a month and taking our girls to Europe. This is a mega toggle. The first time we’ve done more than 10 days’ vacation in a long, long time. There will be no balance in August, just pure, unadulterated family time. I’m trying to get a few posts done before I go so you’ll have some food for thought for the next few weeks, but don’t worry, if it’s not written before we leave, it’s not getting written until we’re back. Until then, have a great August.

Further Reading

How to Increase Accountability

Avoiding Work-Life Collisions: A Lesson from the BBC’s Professor Dad

Being on the Wrong Side of a Trade-Off

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