Leading Question: Are You a Barrier Buster?

I was interviewing a leadership team member to prepare for an offsite planning retreat. I asked about the biggest challenges facing their team. She wearily said it was their unfocused frantic pace of activity.  “We have lots of projects, goals, and priorities. We’re constantly making lists and setting action plans. But we seldom see anything through to completion before some urgent new priority is pushed at us. Our leader’s thinking seems to be ‘random brain impulse.’ He’s like a nervous water bug that flits from one half-baked strategy to another.”

Sound familiar? When you and your team add new projects, objectives, or to-do activities, do you prune older projects, objectives, or activities to make room?


Are You Addicted to Addition?

Most leaders are addicted to adding more. When something goes wrong, or results are falling, frenzied leaders pile on new objectives, projects, rules, and policies. Only the most disciplined, strategic leaders prune, trim, and kill older projects, processes, or activities.

In their Harvard Business Review article, “Rid Your Organization of Obstacles That Infuriate Everyone,” Stanford professors Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao report on their study of this more, more, more problem. They call it “addition sickness; the unnecessary rules, procedures, communication tools, and roles that seem to inexorably grow, stifling productivity and creativity.”

I think it’s deeper and more pernicious than sickness. It’s an addiction. It sprouts from the same roots as the crazy-busy speed habits victimizing many leaders. Symptoms include being managed by e-mail, meeting mismanagement, and many other signs of busyness addictions.

Sutton and Rao point to “three forces that fuel these behaviors. First, we humans default to asking, ‘What can I add here?’ and not ‘What can I get rid of?’ …Second, organizations often reward leaders for additions; Kudos, cash, perks, and titles are heaped on those who implement new technologies, launch initiatives, or build bigger fiefdoms. In contrast, people with the wisdom and discipline to avoid adding unnecessary stuff are rarely noticed or rewarded. …Third, leaders often have a limited grasp of their ‘cone of friction’ — how their actions and decisions burden others.”


Breaking Through the Dumbest Things You Do

Kerry, the leader of a large utility realized that improving their organization’s service levels started with him and his leadership team. He took to heart some of the extensive research showing how poorly served frontline servers usually pass along. Their service levels soar or sink according to the care, concern, and service they’re experiencing from their managers and the organization’s systems and processes.

In rethinking the link between leadership/culture and customer service Kerry realized their leadership team needed to dramatically improve how they served the servers. He began a series of small group meetings throughout the organization. The meetings asked servers and support staff, “what’s the dumbest thing we do around here?”

At first participants were reluctant to say much. Once they realized Kerry was serious and looking to fix the problems, not the blame, they poured out plenty of problems. These barriers reduced their effectiveness, wasted time, and frustrated customers. Kerry saw that many were systems, policies, and processes designed to serve management.

A facilitator helped to group the input into clusters. These issues were sorted into what the group could control, couldn’t control, or could influence. The direct control and influence clusters were ranked for the top five issues needing the most attention. These were systematically collected from all groups and drawn together into the five biggest themes or problem areas. Kerry’s team put together project teams to quickly tackle the issues and regularly report to everyone on progress.

Strategies were discussed for allowing some venting of the “can’t control” issues (like weather, political directions, economy, etc.) and then deenergizing those frustrations by no longer wallowing in or “awfulizing” them.

Eighteen months later, customer service levels were up, employee engagement increased, and retention dropped. Kerry reflected on his key insight from their leadership shift, “Most of the people who work here do have passion and purpose for the work they do. It’s about respecting that, facilitating their desire to do good work, and removing obstacles from their path that frustrate their efforts.”


Give Them a Break: Ways to Bust Barriers

No one of us is as smart as all of us. Here are a few ways leaders can tap into the organization’s knowledge, experience, and partner with everyone involved in implementation:

  • Work with your internal partners to develop an annual Listen-Feedback-Action process. This often starts with surveys and/or third-party interviews or focus groups. The facilitators then prepare a summary report. Take the report to everyone in the organization for feedback, clarification, priority-setting, and action planning. Once these sessions are completed, identify broad organizational issues, and set action plans for implementing those changes. Regularly report back to everyone on progress and adjust.
  • Keep units small and decentralized. This promotes unity, commitment, and independence. People can move quicker and more readily see the results of their actions.
  • Use the Customer Service Chain in building a culture of serving the servers. Its core message is “if you’re not serving customers directly, you need to serve someone who is.”
  • Keep pruning and simplifying systems and streamlining processes. Ask frontline service providers what systems and processes would better help them serve your customers. Get their involvement in prioritizing the areas to be changed and improved.
  • Use focus groups (a cross-section of frontline staff) to test new management directions before making grand announcements to everyone. Even if you press on against the advice of the focus groups, you’ll have deeper insight into how to face the issues the new direction may raise.


Are You Helping or Hindering?

“I am from head office, and I am here to help you” is black humor in many organizations. People are cynical because they’ve seen how that “help” builds walls and gets in the way of doing their work. Too often systems, processes, and managers hinder more than help people get their work done.

Do you have a bunch of nitpicking rules that add up to “we don’t trust you?” Are people frustrated about being walled in while being exhorted to do more? How do you know? What are you doing to identify and remove the barriers and obstacles??

The post Leading Question: Are You a Barrier Buster? appeared first on The Clemmer Group.

For over three decades, Jim Clemmer’s keynote presentations, workshops, management team retreats, seven bestselling books, articles, and blog have helped hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. The Clemmer Group is the Canadian strategic partner of Zenger Folkman, an award-winning firm best known for its unique evidence-driven, strengths-based system for developing extraordinary leaders and demonstrating the performance impact they have on organizations. Check out www.clemmergroup.com for upcoming webinars and workshops.

Website: http://www.clemmergroup.com

Leave a Reply