Where does the vision stop?

One of the key ingredients of successful projects is effective leadership, and one of the primary tools of a good leader is the vision, that definition of where we want to get to and how we will know when we get there.The problem is that the vision can be too limited in its scope, too “broad brush” in its analysis and quite simply  not viable because people haven’t thought through the consequences.

One of the most valuable skills in the armoury of the successful project leaders is the impact assessment – “what will happen if we do this?” This is used heavily in change management and risk management, so should be finely honed in most project teams (!)

Impact assessing the vision can be very tough, but failure to do so can snatch failure from the jaws of victory.

When the Government decided in the 80s to force brewers to sell tied houses, so increasing the number of free houses and the demand for real ales, they were rather startled to find that the legislation had a completely contrary effect – half the brewers stopped brewing to run much larger chains of tied houses (bought from the other brewers) and bought all their beer from the few remaining big breweries. It has taken 30 years to recover from that piece of woolly thinking.

Barnes Wallis, a kind and gentle engineering genius, is reported to have been inconsolable when he found that 56 aircrew were missing in action having dropped his bouncing bombs in the famous Dambusters raid in 1943. His reaction to the 2000+ civilian deaths, including nearly 800 Ukrainian women workers in a labour camp near the Moehne dam, isn’t recorded.

When the modern state of Israel was born, no one seems to have thought through what would happen to the people already living there, and as a long-term consequence there seems no end to the slaughter of the innocents. The UK government has often had a policy of not negotiating with “Terrorists”, but one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. In Ireland, there has twice been a cessation of hostilities between the UK and terrorists/freedom fighters – both times it has meant the UK government having the courage to set aside its policy of demonising “the other side” and doing what must be done – talk to the people most passionate about the wrongs they feel have been done to them. The first time led to a peace with what is now the Republic of Ireland, the second (“Good Friday agreement”) seems to have brought a degree of peace back to the North.

When setting out on a great project, it really helps to think through the vision, because if you don’t, you have to be utterly pragmatic in dealing with the consequences, to achieve a lasting solution.

Stretch targets – managing expectations

Setting stretch targets is a classic way of energizing a team, challenging them to think differently, to innovate and pull together.

The key thing to realize as a leader is that stretch targets are sometimes missed because they are impossible under the circumstances.

When that stretch target is externally imposed and genuinely immovable, people almost invariably respond to the best of their ability, and perform to their limit (and sometimes beyond).

When the stretch target is set internally, there are 2 scenarios:

  1. Firstly, that hitting the target is realistically achievable – in this situation, people tend to react as well as the externally set target, working hard together to deliver the result.
  2. The second scenario is that the target is NOT realistically achievable! This is frequently not obvious at first, so everyone sets off full of good intentions, aiming for the target. After a while, as the situation becomes progressively clearer, the uncertainties around the plan start to resolve, and timelines start to stretch out as the true scope of the work required is revealed.

When it becomes a probability that the stretch target will not be hit, what follows is usually very close to the “five stages of grief” described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book “On Death and Dying”, from working with terminally ill patients.

When a person is faced with the reality of their impending death, he/she will experience a series of emotional “stages”: denial; anger; bargaining; depression and acceptance (in no specific sequence).

We see these in leaders when their stretch targets will not be met.

The denial, anger and depression responses are destructive to the organization – for a leader to display these for more than a few moments is unprofessional.

  • Denial – this undermines the confidence of the team as their professional views are rejected and disparaged. It creates a break between the leader and the team members and is strongly demotivating
  • Anger – If the leader was genuinely involved, there would be no surprise and no anger, so it is proof of a hands-off management style
  • Depression – powerfully demotivating for the team, causing delays before contingency planning can start

Bargaining, if it drives the consideration of wider options and flexing the target, is laudable, but bargaining is not just the dogmatic repetition that the target must be hit.

Acceptance is vital – this allows full-hearted focussing on contingency planning and making the best of the situation as early as possible, rather than steaming full-tilt into the iceberg.

I always approach stretch targets through putting risk management as the primary management tool, with the project plan very much in second place. The project plan (in Gantt format) makes it look as though timescales and the scope of work is known, when often it isn’t – until enough work has been done to create a baseline plan, presenting a Gantt chart gives a false sense of security about the stretch target being hit.

Managing by risk foremost makes these uncertainties explicit. Some people don’t like this, but when they buy into it, it delivers much better results.

Management Styles – Hands-off

This is the fourth quadrant, where the leader feels low need to control the situation and low interest in the team members.

This is a very dangerous region for leadership behaviours, as there isn’t any coming from the supposed leader, and there is no active encouragement or development of it from subordinates.

There is a high risk of anarchy in such a situation unless individuals are tightly constrained in what they can do.  Process and rules replace leadership, turning staff from human beings into robots. Contact centres, especially in Financial Services, display only too awfully the result.

At best, a Delegative leader:

  • defines the targets, processes, rules and the responsibilities,
  • initially plans and sets up the team’s activities,
  • delegates responsibilities and sets targets,
  • sets up performance monitoring, such as KPIs and BI reporting, and tracks performance,

then steps in only when required.

This can foster mutual respect through expertise, though this is not guaranteed as it’s a cultural thing. Lack of the personal touch can be seen as being elitist, and being unapproachable.

Team respect can only come from the professional competency of this type of leader. This profile is in many cases less able to inspire his teams, to share a vision, so this style is unsuitable for a team with low morale.

It is also unsuitable for dynamic situations, with changing requirements, risks and objectives, as this leadership style requires substantial lead-time to plan and set up a working situation.

A delegative leader with high expectations can work well with experienced and motivated employees, but will fail with less experienced staff who start doubting their own  abilities to perform the job.

More likely is the worst case, the Abdicative leader, who:

  • isolates himself from his teams, with poor communication of background information vital to team spirit (the “Mushroom treatment”), communicating principally by email dictats,
  • focuses on the KPIs, and has no idea how they are being achieved or what to do if they are not,
  • is rigid in his definition of roles and functions, doesn’t have his finger on how his “team” is working, who is delivering what, and who is providing essential leadership in the other quadrants,
  • confuses activity and result, favouring those who seem busy (“hard workers”) over those who are quietly efficient (“clock watchers”),
  • manages activities rather than employees,
  • does not question the existing organization, from which their status is derived.

When turning abdicative, the manager will apply the old adage “First class people promote first class people, second class people promote third class people” to secure his position and avoid competition. He will promote staff with low-ambition and shed employees with high energy and drive, damaging the future of the organization.