Issue 221 - August 2021
An old fable tells of a farmer with a wagon brimming full of cabbage heading to a new market. He stops for directions and asks, "How far is it to the market?" The man replies, "It's about an hour if you go slowly. But if you rush, it will take all day." It was a bumpy road, and if the farmer went too fast, he'd spend most of his time picking up the cabbage that bounced off his wagon.
Taking the time to slow down can move us more quickly along our way. An experiment in crowd control provides a good example. A major -- and sometimes deadly problem -- at many large venues like stadiums with huge crowds is everyone jamming the exits when it's over and time to leave. The study found a counterintuitive solution; slowing people down with obstacles to speed up the rushing hordes of people eager to get home. Strategically placed obstructions slowed the crowd down just enough to better control the flow of people through narrower exits points. This allowed more people to exit more quickly.
In their Harvard Business Review, "Too Many Projects," Rose Hollister and Michael Watkins write, "Leaders keep layering on initiatives, which can lead to severe overload at levels below the executive team." This is a critical problem that's burning out managers and team members. Declining engagement and retention are just two symptoms of the problem.
There are many reasons leadership teams allow their priorities to be badly distorted. Things that matter most -- team dynamics, key strategic priorities, and organization change and development efforts -- are often crowded out by things that matter least -- firefighting operational issues better managed by those closest to the action.
Fall is a popular time for strategic planning sessions. A critical differentiator of highly effective and agile leadership teams is slowing down to increase their speed. This issue focuses on strategic leadership. We'll look at leading change versus being changed, four strategic planning traps and how to avoid them, how truly strategic leadership teams rock, and how to boost strategic retreat effectiveness.
For decades, Harvard professor Michael Porter has studied, written about, and consulted top companies and countries on competitive strategy. He's found that "the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do."
How strategic is your leadership team? Are you slowing down to speed up?
Are you leading at the speed of change? If the rate of external change exceeds your rate of internal change, you're going to be changed. Impermanence and disruptive change are central life forces. This never has, nor ever will, change. Constant, unpredictable, and sometimes very sudden change is as predictable and certain as death and taxes.
This month's cover article in Harvard Business Review is "How Good is Your Company at Change?" The authors are Bain & Company; partners writing about their decade of studying organizational change efforts to track which ones worked, which ones didn't, and why. They identified nine "elements of change power:"
The article concludes with three "Steps to Take Now; 1. Get the facts; 2. Disrupt how you work; and 3. Mobilize your leaders." We've found that last step to be especially vital in building an agile, highly adaptive culture. "If you want to disrupt old patterns, embrace a new approach, and improve critical change capabilities, you've got a lot to do: You'll need to orchestrate a team effort, develop a shared ambition, and map an action plan." Decades of our experience have shown the most effective approach to doing that is through a leadership team retreat.
The 19th-century British naturalist, Charles Darwin, revolutionized the study of biology with his theory of evolution based on natural selection. One of his key research findings was, "it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one that is most adaptable to change."
I recently had a call with a CEO about facilitating a strategic planning retreat this fall with 15 of their top leaders. That will be a refreshing change -- we're all fully vaccinated and ready to get together in person again.
The CEO sent me their draft agenda for the session. Looking at the fairly typical approach they've used before, four common strategic planning problems immediately popped out:
This typical approach to strategic planning is a prime example of why decades of research show that 50 - 70% of planning and change efforts fail. For example, a Harvard Business Review article by Michael Beer and Nitin Nohria on "Cracking the Code of Change" concludes, "the brutal fact is that about 70% of all change initiatives fail." An IBM survey of over 1,400 leaders responsible for designing, creating, and implementing change in their organizations found "only 20% of respondents are considered successful in managing change."
As the old saying goes, "if you don't change direction, you'll end up where you're headed." This leadership team was heading straight for one of seven common causes of failure - partial and piecemeal programs.
What's Your Plan for Planning?
It's that time of year when many leadership teams are organizing planning sessions for this fall. If you're planning a planning session, here are a few key points you might find useful:
Given all we've been through in the past 18 months, refocusing and re-energizing is especially important. An effective retreat can help your team advance. Make good use of your time together, so your planning is truly strategic.
The metaphor of putting rocks, pebbles, and sand in a jar has been used for decades to illustrate the time management principle of prioritization. If we start with sand, then marbles, and finally rocks, we likely won't get many rocks in the jar. And the jar will have gaps and empty spaces. However, if we first add the rocks, then the marbles, and finally sand, we'll get more rocks into the jar -- with no gaps and empty space.
Many leadership teams fill their days with sand. And too often, in their urgent firefighting, throw pebbles and rocks at each other. Heike Bruch, professor of leadership at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, and Jochen Menges, lecturer in human resources and organizations at the University of Cambridge's Judge Business School, wrote a series of articles in Harvard Business Review on the strategic use of time problem. They called it "The Acceleration Trap." This typical approach means speeding up to pile on more tasks and projects. Harried and accelerated leaders don't feel they have time to step back and focus on strategic priorities. This is another well-used time management metaphor; the woodcutter who won't stop to sharpen his ax.
In their study of over 600 companies, Bruch and Menges compared the most effective to least effective companies. Do their findings sound familiar?
The Acceleration Trap research adds to many studies showing that the most effective leaders slow down to speed up. For example, in a study of 343 businesses (conducted with the Economist Intelligence Unit), the authors report,
This reactive and crazy busy acceleration are the first two of our Seven Leadership Team Failure Factors quiz. The quickie quiz helps you "look in the mirror" to see which of the seven common traps are ensnaring your leadership team:
These are vital strategic issues. Complete the team assessment and compare your total score with our scoring guide. We will send you links to leadership team development resources. An even more powerful approach is to have your leadership team complete the assessment and compare your scores.
Highly effective leadership teams rock. They periodically put down their sand and pebbles to agree on which 3 or 4 rocks they need to focus on. A leadership team retreat is a great way to do that. It's slowing down to speed up.
So, is that jar completely full after adding first the rocks, then the pebbles, and finally the sand? Not quite. You could pour a beer or glass of wine over everything and fill the jar to the very top. A great way for the leadership team to toast getting their shift together.
Getting your leadership team away from daily operations for a few days of reflection and planning is incredibly effective. I am clearly biased since I've facilitated so many retreats. When offsite retreats are well designed and facilitated (a bit more bias), the return on investment is exponential.
Planning a retreat starts with clarifying 3 or 4 key objectives of the session. Here are a few typical retreat objectives:
Setting retreat objectives depends on the organization's culture, team dynamics, development needs, strategic issues, and priorities. Most retreats are 2 to 3 days. Having everyone stay overnight with dinners and casual time together is a great way to get into deeper conversations and bring the team together.
Here's an agenda menu (often following this flow) that's proven to be most effective:
Building on our Strengths/Successes
Possible Foundational Frameworks
Visioning our Desired Team/Culture
Organizational Values/Team Behaviors
Strengths and Shifts
Identifying and Addressing Moose-on-the-Table (like Elephant-in-the-Room)
Leadership Team Development
Establishing Our Strategic Imperatives
Wrap Up and Next Steps
Time away from daily operations in a strategic retreat is critical to "sharpening the axe." Having seen the powerful R & R (revitalization and renewal) emerge from dozens of offsite retreats, it's baffling that many leadership teams don't do them. The main reason seems to be they've become stupid busy, allowing urgent operational issues to crowding out strategic effectiveness.
Leaders bring hope, optimism, and positive action. That's really tough to do while social distancing and facing an uncertain future. We multiply misery if we allow the pessimism plague to infect us as well.
To counter Headline Stress Disorder and strengthen resilience, I actively scan a list of resources for research, articles, and tips on leading ourselves and others through these turbulent times. I post those articles every day.
Let's shorten our social media distancing. Follow or connect with me:
Together we can Learn, Laugh, Love, and Lead -- just for the L of it!
The items in each month's issue of The Leader Letter are first published in my weekly blog during the previous month.
If you read each blog post (or issue of The Leader Letter) as it's published over twelve months, you'll have read the equivalent of a leadership book. And you'll pick up a few practical leadership tips that help you use time more strategically and tame your E-Beast!
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Let's leverage our leadership strengths to work together and get through this challenging time.
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