Friday, 18 March 2016

Engaged Execution: Lighting up the Average Everyday Moments

“This graph just doesn't cut it; I hope there’s a shutdown in the city tomorrow”. At 3 AM, the harsh glare of the laptop monitor has become a shade nastier, not in the least helped by this new loud, jazzy and animated presentation template. That stiff back and the shooting pain in the neck have become second nature by now.  Will a third cup of espresso fix it? Even as he bravely digs out some more “factoids” from the project repository for another “reasonable spin”, an exasperated Neeraj knows that luck is clearly running out. He certainly doesn't look forward to today’s management review meeting. Not that he was ever enamored of these “harrowing” talking shops! Two big crises, and three escalations in the last fortnight have totally shattered the deceptive calm of these metrics that no one but the wise man in the corner office cares about. A senior team lead and a business analyst have quit in the last six months. Neeraj and team are fighting with their back against the wall. This program has been one turbulent ride and there isn't any sign of a silver lining anywhere! With the help of his left palm and thumb he tries to gently straighten out the fingers on his right hand. That familiar frozen numbness after midnight.
One thing that worries him a lot is (in his own words) “the lack of ownership and drive” in the team. It’s not as if he doesn't have seasoned players. Some are very hardworking too, and with many laurels from the past. The workload has been pretty high off late, and he is aware that scope definition is definitely a black spot for sure. Among other things, that is! What is particularly scary is the frequent crisis mode that has almost become a norm now. Neeraj invariably gets pulled into this tiresome firefighting. There’s also hardly any respite from the sundry initiatives actively pushed by senior management. He is aware that with so much on his plate, he might be missing out on something very vital: the ability to take stock, reflect, identify changes and drive them to make some impact in the long term. “Am I spreading myself too thin, and just lurching from one fire to the next?” It almost seems like everyone is busy in somehow keeping the show running for just a little longer. The ominous danger signals were always there. It seemed okay to ignore them so long as nothing blew up. Alas! After Reena’s exit (she was the lead Business Analyst for Neeraj’s team for two years) it’s been a continuous tumble. Losing control over the narrative isn't empowering at all. Especially when you are unable to influence the team to even be aware of what’s truly lacking, forget about raising the level of their game. And to top it all, it doesn't help when you’re overly constrained and held back by bureaucracy and hierarchy in the name of processes. With options being limited, it can only lead to a damaging and gnawing self-efficacy crisis.
Say Hi! to Neeraj and many more like him, who at least in private may confess how this constant struggle is almost pushing them off the edge! The execution phase doesn't feel like much fun these days. What looked almost picture perfect in boardroom strategy sessions and the leadership offsite now appears hideous with warts, dents, freckles and more! There are plans and more plans. Continuous improvement drives and disaster recovery documents tumble out of every shelf and closet you can find. So much of what seemed logical and well thought through at planning stage is embarrassingly giving way later. How can Neeraj get his team all excited to passionately go for the best outcomes? What does he focus on?
A back of the envelope analysis may tell you that when all the logical analysis and root cause identification is done with, the changes and corrective actions identified are rarely pathbreaking in nature. Alright, you may not want to say that in public, that’s fine. The good news is, they needn't be either, at least most of the time. If good intentions and sexy metrics were to solve our problems and make our organizations perform better, we’d all  have been laughing our way to the bank already, right? This is not to say these processes and measurements are useless. Where and how are they going to be used is probably a better question to ask. I’d say pay more attention to the where part of the question. That’s really where the rubber meets the road and you get to figure out if that change in fortunes is happening at all.
Is there a genuinely upbeat environment that enables your team to seize the moment without getting overwhelmed? Cut-throat competition is the default setting in these ruthless times. When processes and methods are increasingly looking similar, what can you do to stay ahead, or even survive? The one potential differentiator that holds out the promise of redemption is the level of engagement that people demonstrate in the execution of your change agenda. Not in big intentions and rousing calls to action, but in the daily grind, in those average everyday moments at work. As a Leader, what are you offering that’ll be noticeably different enough for them to give their best and commit to more? And not just that, goad them to go one step further and inject fresh perspective and a creative approach that emerges from the ground level, with an element of surprise. Too much to ask?
The team lunches, retreats, foosball tournaments, bowling alleys, rock climbing adventures may all be good options. But when people come back from the retreat, are they being welcomed to the same environment, or do they sense anything different? On a day-to-day basis, what has changed to motivate them at a deep intrinsic level? Most importantly, what change will they see in you, the Leader? What can make them connect to your new plan of action meaningfully and differently?
Engaged Execution. Good Lord, here comes another fancy intervention from the HR department! A veteran of many such make-believe drives, Neeraj doesn't even try to hide those smirks anymore. Maybe they’ve read some articles on Harvard Business Review or whatever! “Nothing’s gonna change out here. When all is said and done, I’ll be left holding the short end of the stick”. With those words, Neeraj is ready to drown himself in another sea of data and information. Just like Mulla Nasruddin and his lost keys!
Sure Neeraj, you can keep looking for the keys where there’s more light, if that helps. Coming back to engaged execution, here’s what it can do for you and the team:
  • Ownership and meaningful Commitment
  • Embracing Accountability
  • Higher Motivation
  • Solution Orientation
  • Greater Adaptability, when the unexpected hits you
  • An upbeat team ethos + Smoother communication that actually works
The idea is to get people to emotionally connect with the change that you wish to chaperone. At a gut level is exactly where this connection has transformational potential. That totally convincing powerful logic alone wont take you that far.
How do you install engaged execution in your team, project or program? The four pillars of engaged execution are as listed below. As we get into details, we’ll also look at the finer granular aspects of each of these pillars.
  1. An Engaged Buy-in: Laying the Foundation
  2. Rallying the Troops
  3. An Enabling Culture
  4. Adapt & Re-Align
The order given here makes sense at one level, and may seem logically sequenced. As engaged execution takes deep root in the team and organization, you’ll realize that a thriving “Enabling Culture” acquires the form and character of an overarching umbrella of sorts. The other pillars seem to merge into it nicely. The juicy bits are all in the “Enabling Culture”. If you can commit yourself wholeheartedly to stick with it, this is where logic fuses with intuition and instinct! So, what’s the reason for this particular order given here? My assumption is that this order makes it easier to implement wherever you are right now. Maybe, like Neeraj you too are in the midst of unprecedented chaos in an ongoing assignment. Some of you may be starting a new customer engagement, program or project. Perhaps you are heading a greenfield product development team. In all of these cases, it might seem more reassuring and less intimidating for your logical brain to know that a foundation is getting created right at the start, and not in the middle! My worry is that an amorphous sounding “enabling culture” as a starting point might not hit the right notes as a definitive call to action for most of us! Once the ball is set in motion, then we’ll see the centre of gravity shifting over a period of time. So, let’s relax for now!

  1. An Engaged Buy-in: Laying the Foundation

The logical brain is happy to see the contours of a plan, with bells and whistles galore. Add in the right level of buy-in from your team and you’ve opened the door for engaged execution. We’re talking here about laying a strong foundation that you can work with. 

Ownership of Solutions: Does the buy-in feel more like unquestioning adherence, compliance or is it closer to an open and enthusiastic embrace? How do you get more of the latter? Perhaps, by involving them in the process of identifying the way forward and potential solutions. Certainly not by cleverly making them reverse-engineer the answer you seem to know already! Rather, by articulating outcomes and setting standards, and then leaving it open enough for them to fill in the how. Yes, the biggest damage you can do to engaged execution is by playing the role of the “expert” who knows it all, to the hilt. Ever felt like that labored “brainstorm” session seemed so much like a charade? It happens! Especially when “prima-donna esque” leaders are reluctant to give up some of their control or even cede the limelight occasionally.

Liberation from Tick-Boxing: And how would you know if the buy-in seems more like the “tick-boxing” kind of compliance or an excited embrace? Now, this is where you’ve got to go beyond the words exchanged. What do you see in their facial expressions? Look into their eyes, do you see an air of discomfort, disengagement, disbelief, or disconnect? Make sure you spend time reading the “facial-codes” of your key team members in less troubled times. What are their typical expressions like? Look at the eyes, eyebrows, lips, shoulders, and the various gestures on display when they’re responding to different triggers and situations in day-to-day life at workplace, and even in social settings. Listen to the tone and tenor. Recognize the adjectives when they describe their feelings. Of course, I am not recommending a research project in the middle of crises situations! Keep these in mind during normal interactions with your people. Experts recommend you look at those fleeting micro-expressions that are authentic indicators of their true feelings. Before they can even think of faking it!

So Neeraj, have you noticed Maqsood’s pursed lips getting pressed into a thin almost straight line whenever he is irritated? Or Rekha’s rolling eyes and constant fidgeting and handwringing during that unpleasant performance appraisal discussion? Or Manoj having trouble meeting your gaze, and looking down and away, after his “disastrous” presentation?

The idea is not to get obsessed with body language and non-verbal expressions. Instead, use them as indicators. You’re looking for engaged buy-in. Use these signals to your benefit. Heard that dull tone when Rekha said, “Yeah, that’s fine”? Maybe some more clarification is needed to get Rekha excited about this change? If she’s more of a numbers gal, she isn't falling for presidential style flowery management glib-talk. She wants to see solid data, analysis and logical inferences before she can nod in agreement. Maqsood might be more of a “visual” person. Numbers alone wont convince him. A flowchart here, a few graphs there, and maybe even some photos can give him a “complete picture”. You see, the point is that different people have different ways of absorbing and processing information. Some might be happy seeing your emails and colourful slides. Others want to listen to you, they want the story in your own words. Then there are the serious “number-nazis” like Rekha. When you want to get wholehearted buy-in, it is worthwhile to spend some time to customize your message for the Rekhas, Maqsoods, Manojs and many others. One-size fits all approaches combined with that dour killjoy delivery styles will get you more of tick-boxing, if not unadulterated passive resistance! Neeraj, get your fingers tested; That maybe carpal tunnel syndrome after all!

Show Eagerness to Engage: And let me tell you this secret. It is not just about buy-in. It is also about getting vital pointers, clues and early warnings much ahead of the eleventh hour rush. You want to pick their brains effectively. So, go ahead and demonstrate true open-mindedness and eagerness to explore options with them. Maqsood and Rekha have a few aces up their sleeves, and you really want that, don't you? 

Outcome and Solution Orientation: And of course, keep bringing back their focus to the expectations and standards you’d outlined at the start. They will figure out how to get there. As a leader, certainly you may need to get into a directional “tell-all” style sometimes. Maybe when the crisis is upon you and the muck has hit the fan! Or with an inexperienced and clueless set of folks. But that’s a different problem altogether, needing some other fixes too. In most other cases, you aren't getting engaged buy-in this way.

Competency & Skills Check (when things go right and wrong too): This is also a good time to sort out if the best and most competent hands are in place to drive the change. Are you getting Sheela to play to her strengths, or forcing her to fill in the gaps somehow? What is the competence that is sorely lacking when you know that failure isn’t an option on the table? Who can bridge that gap? Where do you need help? While some of it boils down to seemingly “logical” factors, engaged execution calls for something more! This is when you can actively brainstorm about failure modes, alternate workflows, and contingency plans. What skills are needed when that happens? Are you still sure Sheela can handle it independently? What “preparatory” step can increase chances for success?

From the Archives!: One particular approach that has worked very well for me is to project the ideal outcome, describe it in detail (with some colorful pictures and graphs too; okay, full disclosure: I am a very visual chap) and work backwards to figure out strategies and ideas. And I love putting together mind-maps and flowcharts (with even numbers and percentages thrown in) that “grow” on the whiteboard as the discussion progresses. The flow-chart has this amazing skill to alert you about dependencies! Somehow the initial central node on the mind-map and the empty space all around is like a metaphor of sorts!

And I always start off with a picture depicting the desired outcome. It could be a simple mind-map. This is placed on the top right corner of the whiteboard, as a constant reminder of what we want. As the discussion progresses, it is also a good idea to stop once in a while, and provide a recap. State where we are, and point back to the picture on the top right. I’ve seen people open up with brilliant ideas and some powerful “Aha” moments. It is great to see the picture become clearer as we go along. Maybe it is the excitement (in advance) of connecting to that “heady” feeling they’ll experience when it’s done deal! Somehow, it elevates the mood and it feels like this is going to be fun, really!

Mind your Language, Please! I personally prefer to have the failure mode analysis happen later. And of course watch out for your own choice of words and language. Somehow, at a tense time, you aren't particularly helping by repeatedly chanting dire messages like “Guys, if this doesn't happen tomorrow, this project will be a total disaster, and all your heads shall roll; I’ll take you down with me, mark my words”! Gosh, there goes your engagement (in the office I mean) out of the window!  With Managers like these….   

Generating Insights with Smart Questions: Use more open ended questions wherever feasible. Don't limit them with narrow Yes/No options. Make them pause and reflect. Get them to elaborate, and get others to listen. And when they elaborate, they also get to hear themselves out. You can help of course by sharing your understanding of what they said, and what you additionally inferred. Make sure your body language reflects earnestness to know more. Show them you care for their opinions, and let them feel really valued. Liberally acknowledge positive contribution, good suggestions and ideas. In troubled times, these little gestures speak a lot about you! Will be critical in that culture umbrella we spoke about!

Ground Rules: Have some ground rules in place, so the “smart-folks” aren't subtly elbowing out soft-spoken introverts. You maybe the unitary smart-folk; apply the rule on yourself! Use the simplest words and eliminate jargon. Many facts emerge out of the woodworks when the crutches are taken out! Create an open space where people don't hesitate to say “I don’t know”. More about it in our section on “Enabling Culture”.

Talk about Assumptions: It’s also a good time to get those assumptions out of the wilderness! State them, validate them. Visualize what happens with them and without them! Explore diverse scenarios, and multiple versions of the story with your questions. Are the right priorities in place? Are we just getting short term fixes in place? Mark them with red ink on the mind map. 

Clarify & Follow-up Diligently: Keep using the non-verbal cues and ask follow-up questions to clarify further. Cross check facts and weed out the fiction. This is where some smart friendly intrusive questioning may also work. “What makes you say that? & How do you know?” have stopped many fires in their tracks!

Go Mute: Silence can be used effectively too, to allow all the brains to make some vital neural connections and linkages for best insights. You need them, trust me! Don't short-circuit that process by hogging the airtime non-stop! If you know folks who so much love listening to themselves, tell them to record their speeches on smartphones and play while traveling to the workplace! Sure, it can be therapeutic for some! Not poor Neeraj of course. He genuinely wants this to be fixed, right!

Some sample questions:
“For this to happen, what needs to be in place already”?
“Who is the best person (even outside of the team) to get this sorted”?
“What is needed to get to the same outcome maybe faster"? 

All about Risks: What risks do they foresee? And what do you see in addition to that? What are the impacts if they occur? How can these be mitigated? And what is your contingency plan if it does occur?

The Platinum Handshake: Keep updating your mind-maps and flow-charts on the whiteboard as your foundation is being strengthened. Tap into the doubts, especially the ones that aren't explicitly articulated. Assign owners for every risk that’s identified. State very clearly how you want these to be tracked. And what is expected and by when. Do likewise for unclear points, open issues, and shaky assumptions. As you assign the responsibility, take note of the verbal and non-verbal alignment. Do you notice any dissonance?
Clarity, Clarity and more Clarity is the mantra! Tell them to note down what they are agreeing to. Ask them to speak it out and get it checked in your presence. Something still doesn't feel right? Make a note, and keep it in your tray to explore further. Not every ’t’ can be crossed, and every ‘i’ dotted in one go! And of course, don’t stop with risks, assumptions and open issues. Assign the specific actions identified during the discussion also! All the good practices in the platinum handshake shall be adhered to wholeheartedly, okay?

Alright, some of this is standard management stuff out here. But, remember it isn't about one versus the other. The logically sound plan meets engaged execution, and then there is peace on earth!
Time to rally the forces! More on that in the next article of this series.

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