“Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.” — Booker T. Washington, inventor.
“Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.” Henry Ford, pioneering American automaker.
In my upcoming book Execution IS the Strategy (Berrett-Koehler, March 2014), I emphasize the fact that, for all intents and purposes, leaders can no longer legislate strategic execution or plan too far into the future. Rigid strategies quickly become stale in the current business arena, and binding our front-line team members to them may result in consistent failure.
A more effective solution? Empower individuals to take ownership of their jobs, so they can use whatever strategy works best in the moment to execute effectively and productively. In fact, leaders often don’t know the best way to achieve a goal. They rely on their team members to tell them how. Today’s leader acts as a collaborative facilitator, asking questions and determining what obstacles are in the way of success. They scout ahead and smooth the way for the team, so everyone can succeed more easily.
As prizewinning economist Robert M. Townsend puts it, “One of the most important tasks of a manager is to eliminate his people’s excuses for failure.” While not well-known to the general public, Townsend’s name is instantly recognizable in economics circles for his development work in India and Thailand, where he has displayed an innovative talent for combining theory and data and putting solutions into action. His thought leadership has made life easier for potentially millions of people, by removing barriers to economic development and microfinancing efforts.
A Broad Initiative
Similarly, leaders remove barriers to productivity:
1. Eliminate time wasters. Time wasters include anything that slows team workflow, making it less productive. Here are just a few things you can do to fight them:
- Remove distractions, by doing things like asking for quiet hallway conversations, and offering quiet rooms for those under deadlines or need privacy to focus.
- MBWA. Manage by walking around, visiting people, and asking them what would help them be more efficient.
- Clarify priorities. When you assign a task to a team member, make it clear where it fits on the to-do list.
- Establish an interruption-free period. Set up a time during the week, for example on Friday morning, when everyone commits to core working hours: no meetings, drop-in visits, or phone calls.
- Allow “Do Not Disturb” Setting. Make it culturally acceptable to set your IM or Skype status on DND if faced with an important deadline.
2. Limit meetings. Meetings are a necessary part of leadership and take up more of your time the higher you advance, since decisions are made. That said, most meetings waste time and last longer than they should. When it’s your meeting, stick like glue to the agenda, hold people to their allotted times, ensure decisions are made, and end on schedule. Invite only those whose presence is required. Indicate who is “optional” and send the minutes afterward (decisions made and actions assigned).
3. Delegate low-value tasks. Stop wasting money by having your highly paid employees perform housekeeping tasks like making coffee and fixing the printer. I knew a CEO of an association who was still scheduling his own meetings, typing up and distributing minutes to the board, and arranging his own travel. When you take the per-hour equivalent of someone making $150K+ each year, this becomes a very expensive activity. It’s much more cost effective to hire someone for these tasks, not try to save a buck by doing it yourself—time that you should be spending on game-changing activities.
4. Grant higher levels of authority. Workflow should never slow down or, heaven forbid, grind to a halt just because you have to give the okay to every little thing. If they are stuck in the water, where are you causing the logjam? Allow your people broad discretion to own their jobs and let them take action in a non-punitive environment, so they can make the best decision and get on with it. Communicate that you trust them to do their jobs and ask you only if they have questions. Sometimes it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, especially if you’re never around.
5. Provide crucial equipment. Obviously, your team members need the basics to get their jobs done: up-to-date computers, reasonable online access, office supplies, and ergonomic furniture. However, the workflow process will flow more smoothly if you avoid well-meaning cost-saving and security initiatives like making everyone on a floor share a printer, or refusing to let workers bring their own devices to work. Better yet, ask them what they need and buy it for them. If someone requests a smartphone to deal with work email in the cab to the airport and at home, supply it, rather than saying, “Sorry, you’re not the right level.” Don’t hamstring yourself because you’re cheap or worried about hackers. While you do need to take costs and security into account, weigh all the factors and spend the money if Return on Investment makes it viable.
6. Intercept the red tape. Whenever possible, especially when other departments or vendors are involved, deal with the bureaucracy or politics yourself so your people won’t have to. Where you can’t, argue toward a streamlining of bureaucratic requirements so you won’t have to deal with so many workflow bottlenecks.
In any organization, there will be scores of obstacles gouging potholes in your team’s path or plopping boulders in their way. They may be bureaucratic, technological, procedural, or simple artifacts of old ways of thinking. Maybe it was acceptable to let your team thread their way through that minefield in the old days, but you can no longer spare the time. It’s up to you to fire up the procedural machine and put the hammer down, filling in the gaps and pushing those boulders out of the way, so your team can follow with ease.
Think of yourself as Daniel Boone with a bulldozer. Now that’s trailblazing.