It’s Not About the Plan

Business Corporate Management Planning Team ConceptAt the risk of causing shudders among many a leader and consultant, I am not a big believer in strategic plans. In our organization, we use a strategic framework. That might sound like semantics to some, but I don’t see it that way and here is why: One dictates step-by-step actions (how), the other guides decision-making in a specific direction (where). And in today’s fluid, fast-changing environments, pre-ordained actions (how) may be rendered outdated, inappropriate or impossible before the ink is even dry on the plan — regardless of how long one spent creating it in the first place.

Dwight Eisenhower once noted that, “In preparing for battle, I have always found plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” I couldn’t agree more. I am a huge proponent of the strategic planning process, just not the definitive plans that often result. Why? Because over-reliance on a specific process can leave those charged with carrying it out unclear on how to proceed when things don’t go according to the plan . . . and things rarely go exactly according to the plan. (What is that saying . . . Man plans and God laughs?)

Is it critical to know the end goal? Absolutely. Is it helpful to have considered a range of possible scenarios? Yep. Is it important to understand the organization’s priorities? Most definitely. In my experience, however, organizations act their way forward rather than plan their way forward. Individuals within the organization make moment-by-moment decisions regarding the path, the actions, that have the greatest likelihood of moving the organization toward the clearly identified end goal. How can one know two years out, or sometimes even two months out, the best decision given a myriad of ever-changing external variables? And yet, if a specific set of expected actions is outlined in an approved multi-year strategic plan (presumably to which staff are being held accountable), how many people will follow the plan rather than exercising their good judgment?

It is not about the plan. It is about understanding what the organization is trying to accomplish, the assets it brings to the table, the barriers it is likely to encounter, and staff members who have both the context and competencies to make decisions that move the organization closer to its ultimate goal. Smart, well-informed leaders monitoring the situation and making adjustments in the moment will do far more to help an organization succeed than the best thinking from a year ago.

Strategic success is about preparation and priorities. It is not about the plan.

Architects and Builders

Architect and builder discussing at construction site.If you have ever built a house, you may have noticed that the architect and the builder are usually not the same person. While it is true that occasionally these two roles are carried out by a single individual, in most cases people specialize in . . . naturally gravitate toward . . . one set of skills or the other. The same is true of leaders. Steve Graves calls these two types of leaders entrepreneurial and enterprise leaders.

Entrepreneurial leaders are your innovators, your start-up specialists, your architects. These leaders are always asking “what if” and “what about”. They are passionate, have a sense of urgency, are continually searching for new opportunities and challenging the status quo. According to Graves, “Entrepreneurial leaders disrupt, motivate, pivot, run fast, and break things.” Every organization needs entrepreneurial leaders.

Enterprise leaders, your builders, figure out how to make the idea on paper actually happen. They focus their energy on coordinating systems, processes, and people for maximum impact. They plan for and respond to the complex realities of a project and determine how to construct something that is sustainable over time. They tend to be more measured and methodical, sticking with something until every detail is addressed. Every organization needs enterprise leaders.

Although architects and builders may not always see eye to eye, if you are going to construct something that has a lasting impact, you need both sets of skills — in varying amounts at different stages of the building process. The creative tension between the two perspectives provides the opportunity for better results than either could achieve alone. Like so much of leadership, it is all about the balance — leaning a bit more in one direction at a particular point in time, and then shifting back toward the other end of the continuum as circumstances change.

The trick is to make sure you have individuals with both sets of skills on your “construction team.” If you naturally skew toward one end of the continuum (and as a result tend to place more value on that set of skills), it is easy to surround yourself with like-minded people. That might make for a smoother process, but not likely a better result. It is the range of perspectives that come from both entrepreneurial and enterprise leaders that yield the greatest impact.

Whether you are trying to build a house or a solid future for your organization, you need both architects and builders on the team.

Gold Medal Leadership

bigstock--Gold MedalLike so many throughout the world, I have been watching the Winter Olympics and having discussions with my family about the kind of dedication it takes to spend your life working toward a goal that is dependent on a single performance. If you come up short, you have to wait four years for another shot at the prize. Upset stomach, headache, annoyance over some situation, nerves out of control … doesn’t matter … one shot … one chance to bring your very best (well okay, maybe you get three runs in some sports, but still only one day to make your mark.) If your leadership was judged based on your performance on a single day, would you approach the effort differently?

If the leadership gold medal was on the line, would you …

  • Bring your full focus to the task at hand, ignoring the ping of emails, thoughts of looming deadlines, conversations going on around you, or other random distractions?
  • Take extra care in monitoring the external conditions and making adjustments as necessary?
  • Replay the ultimate goal in your head so specifically that you know exactly what success looks and feels like?
  • Step forward boldly, confident in your abilities and your preparation for this moment?

Of course, the only way to make sure that you could do all of those things under pressure — at the moment of truth — is to practice them . . . day in and day out . . . until they become second nature. Sure, there will be days when you fall flat on your face, when you misjudge the environment around you, and when you get distracted from your goal. So you practice some more, improve your skills, and stretch for the next goal. Even gold medalists who continue to compete practice on a daily basis. They don’t get to sit on their laurels just because they had great success on a particular day — the gold medal performance from the last Olympics may not be enough to come out on top today because the bar is continually being raised.

Leadership is not a static skill that you either have or don’t have. It is a continual, competitive journey, and you never know which day is the day that you will be called to go for the gold on behalf of your organization. Of course practice, commitment, and hard work are no guarantee that you will achieve every goal, but without them, it is a pretty safe bet that you and your organization will come up short when you have the opportunity to go for the gold.

Embrace The Cold

Woman with big mug of hot drink during cold day.

I was recently talking to a friend about the fact that one of my sons will be working in Rochester, MN for a second summer and how much he likes the community, and then I added, “of course he hasn’t been there in the winter.” My friend replied that the difference is, in Rochester, they embrace the cold. It’s true . . . in looking at promotional materials for the city, it is almost as if they eagerly anticipate winter for all activities that are unique to that time of year. Huh . . . interesting concept . . . instead of bemoaning their circumstances, which they really can’t change anyway, they embrace the opportunities available to them as a result.

A lot of us could learn a lesson to two from our friends in Rochester, and I’m sure many other northern cities. If you can’t change it, sometimes your best option is to embrace the cold. Think about it, does all the bemoaning of your unfortunate circumstances, the fanaticizing about a preferred situation, really make you feel any better? In my experience, if anything, this type of wallowing only makes you feel worse. And if you’re a leader, aren’t you charged with finding a path out of difficult situations? You may have a lot of company if you choose to burrow in and bellyache, but your job isn’t to rally the troops with another chorus of “ain’t it awful,” your job is to lead.

When you make a choice to embrace the cold, to look for the opportunities in the current circumstances, it’s a bit like putting on sunglasses to cut the blinding glare of the snow. Suddenly, you are able to see things you otherwise would have missed. Maybe you have the opportunity to collaborate in ways that would not happen in different circumstances. Or perhaps there is now an openness to totally reimagine a program or service, which wouldn’t have been pursued in warmer times. You know, the Chinese word for crisis is made up of two characters, one means danger and the other means opportunity. Pull in, or reach out — the “crisis” of a winter chill offers both options.

Cold weather is when we need leaders the most. Our followers are more easily motivated on warm sunny days, but when the temperature drops, it is our job to help them see the possibilities in skiing and sledding, the beauty in snow-covered vistas . . . and of course hot chocolate! Would anyone even have invented hot chocolate without a bit of a chill in the air? Your team is looking to you to see if they should hunker down or put on their parka and venture out.

My advice? Bundle up, grab a thermos of hot chocolate, and embrace the cold!

–This post was originally published in February of 2016.

The Squeaks and Squawks of Success

Boy playing trumpet with classmates covering earsThe world is constantly changing. Logically, as leaders, we know we need to ensure our organizations are always changing too. Practically, however, once we find a successful path, there are also a host of reasons to stay on course. Efficiency, effectiveness, solid results . . . it’s working . . . right up until it isn’t. The irony is, the more successful an organization is on one path, the harder it can be to change to another . . . unless squeaks and squawks have been built into the system.

If you have ever had a child learn to play an instrument, you know that squeaks and squawks are part of the process. Young musicians are enthusiastic, they know where they want to get to . . . but their technique needs a bit of practice, trial and error, and refinement. They have to start with “Hot Crossed Buns” before they can master the concerto. You can’t hold them to the same precise standards of performance you have for someone who has been playing for years or you will squash their spirit and undermine their potential.

As a leader, you have to continually refine the concerto of your current success, while also encouraging the squeaks and squawks of the next big thing. Squeaks and squawks aren’t efficient. They don’t follow a well-laid path. At times they sound a bit hopeless. They take patience and practice . . . and they are the path to your future. The challenge is, in our lean, metric-driven, instant results world, we expect a level of performance — right now — that would judge our budding musician as a failure.

We cannot apply the same expectations we have for the professional musician — our fully developed, successful product or service line — to the work in progress that may be our next big thing. And we can’t be so afraid of hitting a wrong note, that we that we discourage even trying. Developing something new is all about hitting a few wrong notes on the way to learning the right tune.

Successful leaders have to work from two different scores — apply two different strategies — at the same time. Refine, improve, align and expect a high level of achievement from your skilled performers — your current core programs and services — and play that song as long as you can. Just don’t neglect to nurture the notes of your future success . . . squawks and all.

New Eyes for a New Year — Part Three

2683_5078_largeIn the past two weeks, we have looked at the “what” and “where” of your leadership vision. In this final installment of “New Eyes for a New Year” it’s time to do a quick screening of the “how” of your vision. Consider it your depth-perception test . . . you know, that part of your eye exam where you look through 3-D glasses and identify which part of the picture stands out the most . . .

 

Your “depth perception” as a leader determines how you see what lies before you. Our biases, experiences and predispositions can make some aspects of the landscape stand out more than others. That is why two people can look at the same situation/challenge/opportunity and see very different things. Do you focus on definitive black and white observations, or shades of gray? Are you looking for similarities to build on or differences to distinguish? Do you expect to see a specific outcome, or are you open to being surprised?

Perhaps most importantly, do you believe/consider valid/judge as reasonable only what you “see” through your own unique perspective, or are you open to considering someone else’s point of view . . . to see the landscape before you with new eyes? Yes, as the leader, it is ultimately your responsibility to cast the vision and set the direction. The question is, do you want to make that decision based only on your own depth perception, or would your organization be better served by you viewing the situation based on the input from a range of people who might see things a bit differently? People who see the big picture and those who focus on the small details. People who strive to make good things happen and those committed to keeping bad things from happening. And yes, even that “disrupter” who can always be counted on see the world a bit differently than everyone else on your staff. In effect . . . would you rather make a decision based on a single piece of information (your own personal depth perception), or on a full range of data that a variety of perspectives can provide?

What you see as “real” in any particular situation may be based, at least in part, on your own depth perception. If you want to see the opportunities before you with new eyes in the New Year, how you go about doing that can make all the difference. Maybe it’s time to take out the 3-D glasses and check your focus.

 

Photo credit: Bernell Corporation

New Eyes for a New Year — Part Two

Snellen Eye Chart Test Box in front of brick wall. 3d RenderingLast week, we started the “New Eyes for a New Year” leadership vision test by assessing what business you are in — which impacts how you and your team see the world. Once you have clarity on the “what,” the next logical question is “where.” Where are you and your team headed in the coming year? This is an area where I think, for many leaders and their teams, the vision remains a bit fuzzy. Oh, we all think we can clearly see where we are going . . . that is until it is time to really read the letters on the wall.

For example . . . imagine you and your team are sitting on a mountaintop in Colorado discussing your vision. For a host of thoroughly researched reasons, after listening to the industry “experts” and looking closely at the landscape throughout the country, you determine that Illinois is the destination you are working toward. Ummm . . . okay . . . would that be Chicago (third largest city in the US), Loraine (a town of 300 on the Western border of the state) or Marion (the southern-most town with a chain hotel)? Because while “Illinois” might seem like a specific enough target to keep your organization moving in the same direction, without a clearer vision your team might ultimately be moving in different directions. Your people are all in Illinois, yes, but that “clear vision” is a state that is 390 miles long and 210 miles wide so the ultimate destination could take many forms.

Translate that example to your organization. Is your vision for the future specific enough that your organization will remain aligned in its efforts throughout the journey? Is your focus clear enough that everyone sees the same fine print at the bottom of the chart? Yes, you want to maintain enough flexibility to respond to emerging information. That is different from part of your team working their hardest to move in one direction, which is slightly different than other team members understood the direction to be and so, in fact, your team ends up pulling the organization in multiple directions.

How do you fix that type of “fuzzy vision?” Quit using the biggest letter at the top of the chart — the broadest possible vision — to guide your action. To check your sight, the Optometrist starts by asking you to identify the smallest letters you can see clearly at the bottom of the chart. Thinking your organization has a clear vision if everyone can identify the big E at the top of the chart is the same as telling your people to go to Illinois and thinking they will all end up at the same spot.

Want new eyes for a new year? Sometimes it takes a stronger, clearer lens to see the fine print.

A Year of Growth

2018 calendar altered copyAs 2018 approaches, there is the typical talk of new opportunities, exciting plans, fresh starts . . . and yet, if you are a leader, in the coming year you will also encounter disappointments, efforts that didn’t go as planned, and projects with outcomes that fall short of the intended goal. And how you approach those situations, far more than the easy wins, will determine the impact of your leadership, in 2018 and beyond.

Do you see setbacks as “failures” or as part of the journey toward success? When things don’t go as planned, do you retreat to safer ground or ask “what can we learn from this?” Is hard work and growth rewarded in your organization, or does it take a clear win to be recognized?

Carol Dweck identifies these different perspectives as a fixed mindset (simply the way things are . . . he is smart, talented, a slacker etc.) or a growth mindset (skills/knowledge can be cultivated with passion, training, and perseverance). “Wins” are the source of validation for those with a fixed mindset. The bar is success or failure. If you are a fixed mindset leader you are more likely to go for the sure thing, the guaranteed success, the immediate win to “prove” your skill as a leader. Your team will follow suit, recognizing that experimenting or challenging what “is” is risky, and only sure things are rewarded.

Compare that perspective to a growth mindset leader, who sees setbacks as a motivator to work harder, believing that “failure” isn’t final but rather a chance to learn and develop on the way to a long-term goal. Growth mindset leaders need an innate sense of confidence because there is an impatient pressure in our instant-everything world for immediate success, guaranteed results, and continuous wins. If you always have to succeed, the chances of trying something new — something important, but where you don’t yet have all the answers — decrease dramatically.

Everyone has a mix of both growth and fixed mindsets, and one may appear more prominent in certain areas of our lives — i.e. I am terrible at sports (fixed mindset) but I can develop my strategic abilities (growth mindset). As a leader, however, if you want to develop your people and achieve stretch goals, cultivating and rewarding learning and development — a growth mindset — offers the best chance of long-term success.

As you look toward a new year I wish you leadership success, yes, but also enough bumps in the road to keep you striving, and stretching toward the very best for your organization. Here’s hoping 2018 will be a year of growth.

Making Room

Available Room Sign On Board

As Christmas approaches, regardless of your faith tradition, there are many leadership lessons to be learned from the birth of the Christ child. One that stands out to me at this particular moment in time is the concept of making room.

Jesus was an illegitimate child born to lowly foreigners who were seemingly ill-equipped to care for their child. To say they would be considered an “at risk” family was probably an understatement. And yet, from such humble beginnings came one of the greatest leaders of all time. Can you make room in your concept of who is “leadership material” to open the door to an unlikely candidate who brings something totally new to the table?

Much of the buzz about the Christ child was coming from people who really didn’t grasp the big picture, you know, uneducated shepherds. Granted, there were those wise men, but they were from another country and really didn’t understand King Herod’s strategic goals. Surely if he reasoned with them, they would understand the need to get things back on course . . . Easy to see the flaws in Herod’s approach in hindsight, but can you make room amid your well-laid plans to pivot when an unexpected distraction (um, opportunity) presents itself?

Logical, rational thinking would not have supported the conclusion that people throughout the world would still be talking about this seemingly random, inconsequential (well except for the star thing, but certainly that could be explained away) occurrence more than 2000 years later . . . and yet they are. Can you make room in your performance-based, metric-centric, fact-driven lens to pay attention to passion and potential, to look past probability to see possibility?

It is much easier to say no to making room. Truly, the Inn Keeper had no more space available — at least not what one would typically think of as space that could be used for lodging. Making room often requires a leader to look at things a bit differently than most people would see as typical or reasonable or necessary. Making room requires getting people to change their ways, at times having uncomfortable conversations, and not being certain of exactly how things will turn out.

At its core, making room is a decision of the heart . . . based on values, and mission, and an aspirational vision of the kind of place you want your organization to be. Making room takes courage, and faith in what could be, regardless of how unlikely something might appear at the outset. Making room is really what leadership is all about.

My hope for you this holiday season, and into the New Year, is that you take a moment to pause, look around, and consider where you should be challenging yourself and your organization . . . by making room.

Putting Logic in a Box

Wooden box on the dark stone tableSometimes, you have to put logic in a box.

Those I work with have heard me say this on many an occasion. Whether it is an externally imposed bureaucratic rule that makes no sense from a practical standpoint or a crazy-sounding idea about how an organization can dramatically increase its impact, there are times when relying on a logical assessment only leads to frustration and/or limits forward progress.

If it is an illogical externally imposed rule, trying to use logic to explain it to others is akin to one of those wind-up toys that continue to run into the wall again and again and again. Is that really the best use of your energy? As long as the rule is simply illogical and frustrating, (i.e. not irreparably harmful) then the best course of action may be to simply to acknowledge to your staff, “You’re right. It makes no sense from where we are sitting. And it is a step we have to take to accomplish our ultimate goal.” And then move on. Sure, you can try to change the external regulation if you are compelled to do so. You simply need to ask if that is the best use of your time or that of one of your staff members. Sometimes the answer will be yes. But if the answer is no, then quit banging into the wall. Put logic in a box, pivot right or left and move on.

Then there are those crazy-sounding ideas. Love those. The problem with logic in these situations is that imposing it too early and too rigidly in the process is like throwing a bucket of cold water on kindling that is just starting to take off. You can logically plan your way to incremental improvements. Breakthrough ideas are the result of aspirational (one might even say illogical) goals and the messy process of trial and error, the what-ifs and what-abouts, the rabbit trails and side roads. Please don’t hear me say that logic does not have a role to play in such efforts. It is critical that any aspirational strategy ultimately pass the logic test . . . but crazy ideas will never have the chance to if you don’t put logic in a box at the outset.

Managing that creative tension — the paradox between experimentation and performance, improvisation, and structure, between possibility and logic — is the job of the leader. Because most leaders are wired, and rewarded, for results, sometimes the best way to make sure we don’t settle for less than we could achieve is to, at least for a bit, put logic in a box.