Art of Managing—Sometimes You Have to Slow Down to Go Faster

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsThe Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.

Today’s management literature is filled with references to speed. If we’re following the trends, we’re all growing more “agile” and likely “lean” in the process. We’re working in “sprints” and “bursts,” and of course, we’re “teaming” whenever possible.

Other firms are “reacting aggressively” to competitor moves and one CEO I was talking with described a “blitzkrieg move” (lightning warfare) into a new market segment. Another top executive emphasized wanted his team to be more nimble in response to competitor issues.

All of this motion may be helping our waistlines, dancing moves and cardio health, but I’m not convinced that speed is always the right answer.

Sometimes you just have to slow down to go faster.

4 Key Situations Where Pausing Before Acting Makes Good Business Sense

1. Hiring Key Talent. While you might be critically short of talent in certain areas of your business, this is one area where haste will indeed make waste that you can ill afford to create. Hire slow. Get to know your candidate over time and in multiple settings. Work hard to assess mutual culture fit and involve the candidate with his/her potential team members. The opportunity cost of a poor key hire is too big to let the need for speed govern your actions.

2. Learning to Better Understand Your Customers/Prospects. Surveys, focus groups and executive customer visits are no substitute for taking the time and doing your best imitation of an anthropologist, observing customers or prospects in their natural settings. Watching individuals interact with your offerings or, better yet, trailing them for a period and cultivating a deep understanding of “a day in their life,” is a slower moving, deliberate process that has the potential to gain more insights and ah ha moments than a lifetime of online surveys.

3. Responding to Competitor Moves. While this might seem like the perfect situation to employ instantaneous response, there are many situations where a pause to better understand the move and cultivate a thoughtful, complete response may be in order. If your competitor is playing checkers, you might want to redefine the game as chess. The danger on one hand is being lulled into an unwinnable and ongoing set of tit for tat moves that destroy value for both firms. Also, a good competitor will throw strength against your weakness and if your response is from that perspective, you end up chasing your tail for a long time. Consider a broader response. Use your superior understanding of your customers to redefine your package of offerings. Kick back with something you do very well that is meaningful to your clients and let your competitor chase you. In most cases, simply matching a response is a fool’s game.

4. Restructuring the Team/Organization. This is one that some firms engage in like clockwork, and while organizational design is indeed a competitive tool, it is one to use sparingly and only based on a crystal clear strategy. Too many firms restructure first and then look for the strategy, when the right approach is to do just the opposite. Beware the temptation to simply move boxes on charts and think you are solving something. Most often, you’re not.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

I prefer adjusting my team’s cadence to the demands of a situation over an ungoverned pursuit of speed. And yes, sometimes the cadence is fast…quick cycles, sense and respond, but in the circumstances above and many others, good managers see the risks in speed and the gains from slowing to consider the next actions. This coping with speed places huge pressure on top management to clarify strategies and goals and for all members of a firm to strive to connect their work and their pace to the bigger picture. While speed is inherent in our world, sometimes it truly pays great dividends to slow down and assess the situation.

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Art of Managing—Shiny Objects and the Senior Management Team

Graphic with the words of Art of Managing and other management termsOne of the value killers found inside many organizations is the out of control pursuit of too many new initiatives. The resultant too few resources chasing too many projects, is a sure-fire way to create organizational stress as initiatives fall short, inefficiencies skyrocket and employees, stakeholders and customers grow perturbed.

In one client firm, the sure-fire path to success was to attach oneself to as many high visibility initiatives as possible, in the hope of being associated with the success of one of them. It was a political portfolio game, with most projects flailing and failing. Nonetheless, the politically charged environment and the visible path to success catalyzed a seemingly endless number of new initiatives designed to optimize the visibility and executive attachment of the idea generator without really focusing on solving critical problems.

The root cause of this undisciplined pursuit of new initiatives rests squarely on the collective shoulders of the management team. Both success and struggle are equal opportunity contributors to this situation.

Success generates the ego that tells management, “we can do no wrong,” and struggle or strategy disappointment (either the idea or the execution) generates political flailing that rationalizes the search for a quick fix.

Another team rationalized maneuvers several degrees off of a still-evolving core strategy in the name of revenue coverage. “Until we figure out the strategy, we’ve got to show growth,” was their mantra. Their lack of discipline led to to a collection of disparate initiatives that struggled for room to breathe in an environment where every idea was good and no ideas attached to revenue were turned away. They failed.

Effective management teams learn to recognize the signs of a breakdown in discipline and they redouble their efforts to promote clarity and minimize the tendency to fill ambiguity with unqualified activities.

These groups recognize the dangers of hubris born of success (Jim Collins) or the tendency to flail in search of quick answers when things go wrong. They understand that they are accountable for setting direction and ensuring that each and every choice to apply company resources must create the right kind of value. And they accept that determining just what the right kind of value truly is, is an exercise that can only be resolved through debate and deliberation.

One particularly effective management team holds themselves accountable to evaluating ideas against the filter of,  “Does it create the right kind of value?” They live by the mantra that not every dollar of revenue is created equal, and they’ve learned to separate interesting ideas from ideas that move them closer towards a desired future state (new markets or new customers). They’ve also learned to effectively and passionately make a case for new ideas and then make a decision and move forward. They credit their success to the senior executive who has worked tirelessly to depoliticize their environment and focus them on moving towards the future.

 The Bottom-Line for Now:

Whether you sit on the senior management team or you sit in the middle of the organization where the real work takes place, strive to cultivate intelligent filters for new initiatives. Anchor to key corporate goals and strategies, and always ensure that your initiatives connect to a real customer…not a customer of myth or imagination.

Ideas are wonderful and you don’t want to stifle their generation, however, not every idea deserves to turn into an initiative. Choose carefully. You need just enough to push the team or organization forward and not too many to promote distress. If the people around you are running around trying to keep the spinning plates from wobbling off of their sticks and crashing to the ground, it’s time to reassess.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Just One Thing—Cultivate Your Project Leadership Skills

Just One ThingThe “Just One Thing” Series at Management Excellence is intended to provoke ideas and actions around individually important topics. Use them in good health and great performance!

Increasingly, the work of organizations is completed in the form of projects. Strategy is executed in projects. Innovation efforts take on the form of projects. Quality improvement efforts start-out as projects. Even planning the company holiday party qualifies as a project, albeit, a particularly stressful one.

Understanding the discipline and tools of project management is now de rigueur for professionals with any intention of growing in their careers. Whether you are an individual contributor, a functional manager or an executive, it’s great to understand the issues, challenges and practices of delivering projects.

However, when I take a close look at project teams that struggle (and too many do), it’s generally not the misapplication of project management tools or practices that are at the source of the problems. Most often, it’s the absence any visible form of project leadership.

Consider: project teams are generally temporary groupings of individuals with different skill-sets but a shared interest in creating something unique. Often, these individuals have little experience in working with each other, and while they might share an interest in the outcome, it’s dangerous to assume that this group will magically or easily coalesce into a functioning unit capable of navigating all of the issues that arise on teams and with projects.

The Project Manger/Leader is responsible for guiding this team from selection and assembly through the murky woods of learning to act, decide, learn, argue, resolve, create and execute together. And for an encore, they have to coordinate the phases of the project, the use of the tools and the communication and coordination and general herding of cats necessary to move the team forward and keep the stakeholders appropriately informed.

The most successful project leaders I’ve encountered are lifetime students of human nature, relentlessly focused on engaging the hearts and minds of their team members and forming a team environment where the landmines surrounding human interaction can be safely navigated.

These individuals take the time to cultivate their leadership and coaching skills. They develop confidence in delivering tough feedback and they work hard to create visibility for and support the development of their high performing team members.

And along the way, they create remarkable value for their firms, rescuing troubled projects and safely guiding even the most challenging of these activities to success.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Remember to put the “Leadership” into your firm’s project work. If you’re a project management professional, invest in your leadership skills development and put the tools to work to strengthen your performance and your team’s performance. If the project culture in your firm is more informal, remember to bring the leadership focus when it’s your turn to plan the holiday party or plan that new market launch.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

Eliminate “I never heard that before” from Your Workplace Conversations

image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveThe Leadership Caffeine series is over 200 installments strong and is dedicated to every aspiring or experienced leader and manager seeking ideas, insights or just a jolt of energy to keep pushing forward. Thanks for being along for the journey!

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “I never heard that before,” or, its slightly more grammar challenged equivalent, “No one ever told me that before,” in response to performance feedback.

It’s sad and annoying all at the same time to hear those words. It’s annoying because it tells me that the managers charged with supporting, guiding and developing these valued individuals have shirked their responsibilities. It’s doubly annoying because the effort to deliver constructive feedback is minimal, the techniques to do so effectively fairly easy to learn and the results when done properly, priceless.

It’s sad, because the real victims are the individuals not receiving the feedback they need to grow and improve, and the firms and teams they work for and with who are indirectly penalized with suboptimal performance.

If you’re one of those managers who can stand to improve your frequency and comfort for delivering constructive (and positive) feedback, take the time to get some help. You’ll benefit and your team members will thank you.

The Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations books are excellent. Scan my feedback category, or check out the six part series which starts appropriately with:“Moving Beyond Fear and Anxiety.” And most of all, start observing and talking with your team members about the visible, business-related opportunities to improve or to do more of what’s working.

By the way, I’ve never met a high performance professional who didn’t want to receive feedback on his/her performance. A lot of feedback. Good professionals are always hungry to improve. If you run into someone who objects to it, either your approach is off or, they’re not the high quality professional you thought they were.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Paying attention to your team members is a high form of showing respect. Supporting their professional development through a variety of means, including but not limited to timely, high quality feedback, is the best way I know as a manager to show that I truly care. Take the time to master the tools and start supporting growth for your team members. You’ll grow a good deal as a leader along the way yourself.

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.

It’s Your Career: Learn to Embrace Ambiguity as Opportunity

Graphic image with the words, It's Your Career and other related professional development wordsThe “It’s Your Career” series at Management Excellence is dedicated to offering ideas and guidance on strengthening your performance and supporting your development as a professional. Use the ideas in great career health!

One of the core capabilities of successful senior leaders and individual contributors is their ability to cope with and leverage ambiguity as a tool to create.

While many of us stop or even freeze when faced with unfamiliar situations, others recognize the opportunity to leverage uncertainty as a means to showcase our problem-solving and informal leadership capabilities while solving a vexing workplace challenge.

Instead of viewing the blank page or the empty picture frame in front of you as intimidating and a reason to grind to a halt, recognize that the right reaction is to do something to place words on the page or an image in the frame.

From defining and developing new strategies to creating new roles on your team to being tasked to create a new function and supporting processes critical for the future of the business, there are many tremendous opportunities shrouded in ambiguity, where the right moves will propel you forward.

5 Key Do’s and Don’ts When Faced with Ambiguous Circumstances:

1. Do Work to Internalize the Situation as Opportunity. For some of us, the lack of a template is intimidating and even frightening. While the reaction is understandable, it’s out of sync with the expectations of those around you. Your boss and team members are looking for forward progress and actions that begin to address the inherent problem(s). If solving this were easy, someone would have already taken care of the issue. Know that you’re being measured on incremental progress, not sudden magical answers.

2. Don’t Go to Ground. Your first reaction might be to don the cloak of invisibility and hunker down in search of solving whatever riddle is in front of you. Don’t. By disappearing into silence in search of answering the dilemma on your own, everyone else around you simple notices the disappearing act. Your perception that you have to go away until you have the solution is wrong.

3. Do Actively Build a Network of Contributors. Cultivating a strong advisory or problem-solving network in the workplace is a leadership power tactic. By connecting people with different skill sets in pursuit of solving a vexing issue, you’re improving the odds of success and you’re displaying effective informal leadership skills. Looking at it from another perspective, the most powerful people in a firm are the ones who get things done by bringing diverse talents to bear to solve a problem. It’s the friendly, ethical way to enhance your power and visibility, while doing the same for others who become attached to solving the issue at hand.

4. Don’t Ignore the Need to Make Noise. Silence is not golden in this case. The quieter you are about the work and progress on the initiative, the more you reinforce a perception that nothing is happening. Develop a communication program to keep stakeholders informed of progress, lessons learned and what to expect in the near-term. Also, know that sharing information on small victories reinforces the idea that something positive is happening. Your goal is to buy time and help, and the credibility gained from cultivating an accurate perception of your forward progress is critical.

5. Do Shine the Spotlight on Those Helping You. Nothing turns people off faster than obnoxious self-promotion. On the other hand, you can build goodwill by showcasing how others are helping YOU resolve an issue or create something new. Your team members will appreciate the limelight and you will be attached to the positive progress and the willingness to promote others ahead of your interests. Consider this an investment in your own future when you need to draw upon a broader or different audience for help with the next highly ambiguous situation.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Situations ripe with ambiguity can be intimidating or at least unsettling. In reality, they are ripe with opportunity. Instead of focusing on the fear of doing something wrong, recognize that the one thing you can do that is absolutely wrong is to let fear paralyze you into inaction. Engage with others, build a problem-solving network and put those first brushstrokes down on the empty canvas.

Related Post: 5 Common Sense Ideas for Growing Your Power at Work

Don’t miss the next Leadership Caffeine-Newsletter! Register herebook cover: shows title Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development by Art Petty. Includes image of a coffee cup.

For more ideas on professional development-one sound bite at a time, check out Art’s book: Leadership Caffeine-Ideas to Energize Your Professional Development

New to leading or responsible for first time leaders on your team? Subscribe to Art’s New Leader’s e-News.

An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.