“Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.” — Colin Powell, former four-star general and U.S. Secretary of State.
In recent years, I’ve observed the increasing popularity of “management by exception” in business. This concept basically boils down to leaders making decisions and assessing performance based on significant deviations from a project’s goals, while otherwise ignoring its daily execution. Leaders who practice it don’t want to be bothered unless something goes seriously wrong. But there’s a difference being agile and being disengaged.
Given the nature of business today, this comes as no surprise. First of all, fewer managers juggling more projects means they can spend less time on traditional management, even as they face demands for higher productivity. New technology has helped soften the blow somewhat, but the stress has nonetheless increased…and sometimes, leaders respond by distancing themselves from their projects.
“management by exception” in business. This concept basically boils down to leaders making decisions and assessing performance based on significant deviations from a project’s goals, while otherwise ignoring its daily execution. Leaders who practice it don’t want to be bothered unless something goes seriously wrong. But there’s a difference being agile and being disengaged.
The management by exception concept dates from at least 1940, though until recently, most leaders rejected it as untenable. But now that the business environment has morphed so radically, it’s back with a slightly new name, “exception management.” Proponents of this old-wine-in-new-bottles approach tout it as a simple means of making business processes more efficient. Maybe so, but it reduces leadership to little more than firefighting and crisis management, two of the least productive activities any leader can undertake.
Admittedly, we all manage by exception at times, but it should never be your primary approach. Rather than pursue the shallow strategy of simple reaction, make your strategy proactive and DEEP. Here are a few ways you can do so.
1. Delegate, don’t abdicate. True leaders don’t just dump work on someone and go away. Yes, trust your team members and let them determine your strategy going forward—but also take responsibility for and continuously oversee your projects. Speaking of which:
2. Evaluate progress regularly. Project oversight remains critical, no matter what. If a project involves one or two people, email or an occasional call may be fine. If it involves a large group, convene weekly or monthly meetings. Meet just long enough to (a) make sure the team hasn’t been climbing the wrong mountain, and (b) learn about any issues that might, in time, grow into full-blown problems. That way, you and your posse can head ’em off at the pass.
3. Ensure quality from the beginning. If you decide to maintain a largely hands-off approach so you can focus on other tasks, your team members need to know precisely how to do their jobs. Provide them with the necessary procedures, make your goals crystal-clear, and give them the training they need. Hire the very best people you can afford, those who slot as neatly as possible into your team structure.
Realize that the team you construct for each project will serve as the “mold” that shapes the final product, and do your best to match the people to the job. Moreover, as you build the team, make your commitment to quality obvious to the people who comprise it. As surely as spring follows winter, your attitude will influence them—whether you mean for it to or not.
4. Plan ahead. Instead of waiting for something to blow up and then just reacting, prepare consistent contingency plans for everything you can think of. This needn’t take too long, especially if plans can cover more than one occurrence, or if you can adapt existing contingency plans from other projects. Now, you can’t plan for everything: I rather doubt the people of Chelyabinsk, Russia expected to have the largest meteor in 100 years explode over their city in February 2013. Yet although its effects injured over 1,200 people, the city didn’t give in to panic, and local emergency services seem to have handled everything quite well. Why? Because they already had decent contingency plans in place, even for unexpected events.
Just Do Your Job
Good managers still manage. They oversee their projects from a big-picture level, after selecting skilled, experienced people to handle the fine details. Even when pressed by time and unreasonable expectations, they don’t abandon projects to their teams, intervening only when things start to fall apart. No, good managers think DEEP, setting up their teams to succeed from the very beginning.