Where in the hell are we going?
Main idea: In complex work environments, better leadership is needed to clearly articulate where the team is headed and how they will get there in the most compelling way possible. This blog addresses the challenges of this task along with four recommendations to improve. This is the 3rd part in a 6-part blog series on teams. Start with the first blog here.
Going through the motions.
It is easy for teams to go through the motions day in and day out. Each team member successfully works away at their individual piece of the puzzle, but with a limited understanding of where the team is actually going. This may not be an issue if you work on an assembly-line. However, if your role involves working with data and information this can be demotivating at best and dangerous to the business at its worst. I once designed and led a series of competitive role-playing exercises to help team leaders improve their ability to articulate the direction of the business. Through this process leaders led mock meetings and challenged each other with tough questions. They asked the kind of questions that their followers are likely thinking, but not asking. It was an eye-opening experience for all of us. And those company-wide surveys reassuring us that the direction of the business was well understood? Yeah, not so much. Team members receive information from multiple sources in the organization and at various times. This leads to a complex and confusing game of telephone resulting in misunderstandings, conflicting messages, and unnecessary debate. The problem is magnified in organizations with deep hierarchies. A typical approach in most organizational settings is to pass down a broad set of goals through email and corporate websites. In my experience, leaders spend very little time ensuring their team members understand where they are headed. “You’re going the wrong way!” There are typically three ineffective leadership responses I’ve observed when working with leaders on how to communicate the direction of the team.
The first is a passive approach, usually stemming from the leader not knowing where the team is headed. In these cases, the leader does not communicate because of one of two extremes. They either do not understand and are unwilling to inquire at the risk of appearing ignorant or they know it so well that they are aloof to the possibility that others may not know. The second type of style comes from leaders with an affinity for consensus building. These leaders may have an opinion on where the team should go, but they hold back and prefer to take a consensus-based approach. This often ends up in frustration for everyone involved because of the time it takes to agree on the direction and the lack of commitment from each member. Have you ever piled into a car with friends, turned on the engine, and then asked, “so, where are we going?” A third style that I’ve observed is the leader who knows where the team is headed but keeps it a secret. In these situations, the leader is retaining control and power while attempting to minimize the stress and drama that comes with changing direction. At one time, an executive told me it was a very conscious choice to keep the team “in the dark” because it kept the team on the edge and energized. This is a clear example of fear-based leadership. Traditional goal-setting is making the situation worse.
It is not that setting goals are inherently bad, but it is the way it is conducted that enables teams to overlook the importance of accurately understanding where the team is headed. Goals are written down, quickly reviewed, and the box is checked for corporate compliance. The actual process becomes busy work with an outcome that feels like work was accomplished. At one time, I undertook an analysis of individual goals taken from multiple teams and examined the information in the context of the business strategy. Each individual set of goals made perfect sense for that particular individual, but when viewed alongside others the conflicts, gaps, and duplication were frustratingly apparent. Organizations often fail their leaders in preparing them to clearly explain and articulate in a compelling way where the team is headed. If this is happening at the executive level then we certainly can’t expect it to be occurring anywhere else. Besides missing the information and the roadmap, there are also no role models to help leaders understand how to energize their teams with a compelling direction. Blaming the organization, however, will not address the issue. This mentality simply abdicates everyone from responsibility. The best place to start addressing the problem is with the team leader. This is tough for individual leaders because it’s easy to become a victim of the culture. You’ve arrived at your destination. When teams truly understand where they are going, they can better coordinate with each other and with other teams ultimately making it possible to change direction more quickly. A common fault of large organizations is their bureaucracy and inability to compete with smaller competitors. A great deal of this is due to misinformation and the overwhelming amount of communication required to keep individuals focused on a common path. Teams with clear direction seem to have a sixth sense of being able to anticipate what’s coming next. A team that executes with confidence moves quickly and is more likely to gain trust from others in the organization over time. Confidence comes from knowing where we’re going and the benefits of what’s to come when we arrive. I’ve observed this sitting in large cross-functional meetings where a couple team members from one team are present. It’s as if they are in control of the meeting and moving in lock-step through the agenda because they are executing with a sense of purpose. There are greater independence and innovation to put the full strengths of the team to use when a team knows where it is headed. Team members who have a good handle on where they are headed, where they are at in the journey, and what’s to come understand how to leverage each other. We see this when we see individuals put the team above themselves. Each team member knows there is a greater focus that requires the collective strengths of the team. 4 ways to get started.
1. Make it clear who has authority to set the direction of the team. This is the first step in ensuring that a team knows where it is headed and motivating them to get there. Don’t fall into the trap of taking a passive, consensus building, or secretive approach to this fundamental responsibility. A common mistake here is that leaders too often handover decision-authority to the team before they are ready.
2. Provide the blueprint for where the team is headed. A blueprint defines what is to be accomplished and ensures everyone involved understands what the end state should look like. It does not explain how to execute, but it is challenging enough to motivate the team and tap into their drive for achievement. Leaders who do this effectively use effective metaphors, analogies, and examples to articulate the direction. They engage with their teams through questions and open dialogue. 3. Give people a choice to be a part of the process and ultimately the outcome. When team members understand where they are going and why they can evaluate their place in the team and how they envision themselves contributing. This is an often overlooked aspect of leaders. Too often leaders feel pressure to bring every person along and fear the perception of a team member choosing not to commit. This is a big mistake. Leaders need to have the courage to allow for team members to choose willingly. 4. Measure the progress and share the consequences. Maintaining the focus and being adept at changing directions requires constant measurement while the team is on its journey. Imagine playing a sport that had no clock, no measurements, and no score. The game just goes on and on and the players roam around with little motivation. Leaders who are not actively measuring progress, creating short milestones, and sharing the consequences are missing an opportunity to compel their team forward. Take Action Take a tough look at the approach you're taking to set the direction for your team. Check-in with your team members to ensure understanding. Have the courage to articulate a clear direction. Thanks for taking the time to read. I hope you will consider giving the post some likes and shares so that others may have an opportunity to view the post as well. Read the first blog of the series here. About the author: Kris Potrafka, Ph.D. is the Founder and CEO of Music Firsthand, a music technology start-up. He is a former Operations and HR executive working with leaders to solve complex organizational development challenges. Follow Kris on Medium and connect with him on LinkedIn.