In tough and uncertain times, many of us look for leaders to point the way. We hope someone in the organization can offer clarity and direction.

In response, many leaders feel the need to create and communicate next steps, a new plan, the key priorities. But this impulse for clear direction can actually undermine your progress. “Do not assume just because you have provided clear direction that anything is going to happen,” says CCL’s Bill Pasmore. “It’s the people, not the plan.”

If you’re like most executives, you’ve got plans — strategies, tactics, priorities — and you’re ready for action. But what about your people? Are your people aligned to your vision? Is your culture prepared to accept change, embrace your goals and execute collaboratively? Without effective leadership to drive direction, alignment and commitment, plans grind to a halt.

Pasmore likes to tell the story of the CEO of a large defense contractor who was a good strategist and a clear communicator of plans and priorities. As a result, the senior team knew what needed to be accomplished, and they developed objectives for their departments.

“The CEO had been reiterating priorities for months, so imagine his surprise to hear that at the level below his direct reports, there was confusion about the company’s priorities. They insisted that too many things were important. In fact, everything was important,” says Pasmore. “When they looked to their bosses to arbitrate, everything seemed important to the members of the senior team as well. They, in turn, kept asking the CEO to tell them what to do first, second and third. How did this happen?”

As plans and ideas get put into action, they take on a life of their own. “The teams started working on their objectives, but often they needed help from the other departments to get their work done,” explains Pasmore. “But those objectives weren’t on the priority list for the other departments. People did their best to help their colleagues, but they didn’t have the time and resources to do all that everyone was asking them to do. And, since the senior team members knew all of the CEO’s priorities, they found it impossible to say no.”

The problem was that the CEO believed that giving clear direction would empower people to do their jobs and foster ownership of the outcomes. In fact, giving clear direction often creates less ownership, according to Pasmore. If the top provides absolute clarity, others will continue to look to the top for clarity. If answers, direction and plans are handed down, the people who do the work won’t be able to adjust, accommodate and collaborate.

“The top can’t direct all of the things that emerge and have to be dealt with for the change to happen. Much of this work is spontaneous, unplanned, interdependent and emergent,” he says. “Trying to manage it at the top slows it down or brings it to a halt altogether.”

To prevent overload and non-alignment during execution, try these suggestions from Pasmore:

  • Insist on feedback loops from the bottom up, or you’ll never know what’s going on. Strategy execution isn’t a top-down process. Find ways to consistently understand the reality throughout the system. And don’t shoot the messenger; placing blame will kill upward feedback.
  • If the project is really important, spend the time and money to get all the key players together in the same room (or on the same videoconference) to iron out priorities every two to three months for the first year, and as needed thereafter. Take note: “key players” include those below the senior team who know firsthand what is actually happening in the work.
  • When planning the project, agree on observable measures of progress and timetables rather than just setting priorities. For example: “Sales, research and manufacturing will have signed off on the design for the new product by the end of Q4.” This helps everyone understand when work is on track (or not).
  • Build a “cooperation cost” into your planning. Add between 25 and 100 percent (depending on project complexity) to project costs and timelines to allow for emergent cooperative work as people learn what needs to get done. Be realistic; if the added costs make the project untenable, do not proceed on the assumption that cooperation won’t be necessary.

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