Saturday, November 19, 2011

Leadership Success is a Vision with a Plan

Executive Summary:
One of the great responsibilities of any leader, at any level is to set a vision and then guide his or her organization toward the fulfillment of that vision.  A good leader not only has a compelling vision, but a plan for achieving it.

The Rest of the Story:
One of my favorite pieces of leadership advice is a Japanese proverb that translates as follows.  “Vision without action is a daydream.  Action without vision is a nightmare.”

I believe it is a leader’s job to provide a vision and also to drive a plan that achieves that vision.  A leader helps us to grow and prosper and also gives us the guidance we need to achieve success.  This is relevant at a professional or scholastic level, and also on a personal level.

As leaders we often have visions of a better future for our organizations and our personnel.  It can be very difficult to achieve those visions, however, in spite of our determination or level of effort.  Bringing those visions to fruition may be the most difficult challenge in leadership.  A carefully constructed plan can be the key to pulling off the impossible.

I learned a great deal about setting a vision and making a plan to achieve it, in particular, from one former boss, now a good friend.  I wonder if he even realizes how much he taught me because the lessons weren’t passed on in mentoring sessions where he sat down and taught me step-by-step.  Instead, I learned how to put plans together by learning to anticipate his questions and challenges to cover all of the bases in order to garner his approval and endorsement of my proposals.

My friend’s name is James and I could write a book or two filled with what I learned under his supervision.  Let me share some of the basic points about developing a plan to achieve a vision.  Perhaps you will find them helpful as I have.

1.  The most important aspect to achieving a vision is being able to communicate that vision.  There are hundreds of ways to do so, but I find that two thoughts are especially helpful when trying to plan that communication.

First, try to communicate a from-to formatted message.  Whether we communicate in words, pictures, actions, models, or theatrics, or any combination of them, it helps our audience find the same context if we first explain how we see the current situation, then proceed to discuss a better future.  Sometimes, if we just jump right to the future, our audience will not understand how it is different or better than what they perceive already, or why it’s important.

Second, try to formulate the vision in terms of a solution to a carefully constructed problem statement.  A good problem statement explains what is the problem, when it occurs, and how we know.  It is free of opinions and does not include a solution.

You will notice that if you begin with a problem statement, and then provide a proposal for a solution, you have just presented the from-to format I proposed a paragraph before.  The problem statement provides a way, a format, a guide for capturing the message.

Because the problem statement format is free of opinions, it bounds the situation in terms of what, when, and how we know, and it describes a problem, it makes a very credible statement that sets up the current state as something clearly in need of improvement.  It sets the tone and prepares the audience for a solution, or better-way description of the future.  I find it to be a very helpful approach.

Once you have the from-to, problem statement and solution message clearly identified for yourself, you can proceed to making that message clear and presentable, understandable for your audience.  It might sound like a-lot of structure around a simple message, but understand it only takes a minute or two, and if your audience doesn’t get it, then no effort will be enough to make your vision come true.

2.  Once our vision is clear and communicate-able, we should consider what it would take to make that vision come true.  Consider what is different between the future state and the current state.  I think that because this seems so obvious a thing to do, we don’t typically think of it as something worthy of an exercise, but I strongly believe that it is.

Make a list of everything that is different.  Structure that list in terms of what today is like and what your vision would be like.  Don’t just consider technology or end results in your list, though those should certainly be part of it.  Consider also the following elements, especially the human elements.
  • Will a different organization (communication structure) be necessary?
  • Will new technology or systems be required?
  • Will new skills be required?
  • What are the new behaviors?
  • What processes or policies must change?
  • What information will be required?

You might think of others, but please notice how many of the elements I listed concern how people behave and interact, or the rules and guidelines that direct people’s actions.  Achieving a vision is about driving change, which is about creating new behaviors and habits along with new skills and methods.  These are the most important elements of any change, and they are often the most overlooked.

3.  Once we have a list of everything that is different, or at least the critical differences, we should start thinking about how we will go about getting from today’s state to our vision’s state for each element on the list.  Some of it will come with acquisition of new tools, technology, or methods.  Most of it will come from changing perceptions, priorities, behaviors, and beliefs.  The former are easy, the latter are difficult and are the real leadership challenge.  Also, the former will require some of the latter.

As we put together our individual plans for each element, answer each of the following questions.
  • Who will do it?
  • How will he/she/they do it?  (Training, mentoring, development of new systems, etc.)
  • When must it occur?  Is there a priority, or must one element come before another?
  • Why is this element important?

The last question is very helpful to me.  Not only does it help to verify my plans for driving change, but it gives me a short statement to use to communicate to everyone involved why we are focused on that element and why we must start changing our ways.  “Why,” will be the most often asked question once the change process starts.  Having the answers in your hip pocket is very useful.

When we have completed the above, we have a list of actionable tasks or projects that we must achieve.  Congratulations!  With such a list of actions, we are well ahead of most leaders trying to drive a vision.

4.  Once we have our list of actions, particularly for visions of large-scale importance or change, it often helps to break each element and its actions into phases to become bite sized.  Consider identifying up to 3 or 4 milestone steps for each element or project. 

For example, suppose the vision is to get engineers and production teams truly collaborating on product development projects, so that new designs integrate into production quicker and with fewer post-launch design changes or defects.  Let’s say the element or action to achieve is for production line leads to be integrated into the design team and contributing to the design discussions and decisions.

Perhaps the first step is simply to see that the production leads are invited to the team meetings.  The second step might be to observe that design decisions include a sign-off from the production lead.  The third step might be to observe engineering teams actively seeking production teams’ insights and advice for design elements.  The fourth step might be to observe that production teams are contributing to designs not only by identifying production constraints but by also suggesting innovations or improvements in production that might enhance designs.

I know that these example statements sound a little vague and difficult to pin point.  We’ll talk more about that in a moment.  The important point that I want to make is that change is a process, not an event.  Make your plan with that understanding in mind and try to identify milestone points in the shift of behaviors and methods that will indicate the change is taking place, or that will provide specific behaviors or targets to shoot for along the way.

5.  With a list of actions and projects, broken into perceivable milestones or steps, we can now think about how we intend to monitor progress.  This typically leads us, like it or not, into identifying some metrics.  You can keep these private to minimize the effect of metrics driving behavior, or you can make your metrics clear to everyone for the express purpose of driving behavior.  That is a leadership choice and prerogative.

When constructing your gauge of progress and success, make sure you have a meter for every element on your list.  Also, I like to use the following two questions to guide my metrics development.

First, I ask myself, “What does ‘done’ look like?”  This helps me identify what to measure.  It might be % of people that have been trained or the number of people demonstrating some behavior or using a new system, for example.

Second, I ask, “What metrics will drive the desired behavior?”  Obviously the corollary question might be, “What behavior will this metric drive, and is that the behavior I really want?”  There is no avoiding the phenomenon of metrics driving behavior, so we must carefully consider how to make that phenomenon work for us and not in undesired ways.  Keep a close eye on the actual behaviors that manifest and be ready to change your metrics if necessary to keep things on track to your ultimate vision.

6.  With the above 5 suggestions planned out, our plan is nearly complete.  In truth, our plan for driving from today’s state to our desired future state is now mapped out.  However, there is one important element or behavior that we must exhibit as leaders in order to achieve our vision.  That is unrelenting focus.

If our followers perceive that we have taken our eye off of the ball, they will also relax their focus on the vision.  We must not let this happen.  The key to demonstrating our focus and determination is a communication plan.  If we are always talking about it, then they will know that it remains important.

When constructing your communication plan, there should be two parts:  regular or scheduled communications, and spontaneous or unscheduled communications.  Both are important.  It is human nature to selectively tune out those rhythmic noises that become a droning in the background.

Decide how often it is best for you to address your organization and report progress.  Put your scheduled communications on your calendar and don’t forget.  You might have different frequencies and different reports for different audiences.  Plan them all.

Don’t be afraid to say if you are pleased or displeased with the progress.  Either way, be sure to communicate what comes next and what you expect.  If things are going well consider pushing harder.  Communicate your intentions.  This will let everyone know that you are still focused and that progress and your vision are very important.

If things are not going well, it can be encouraging to mix some good news or reports of small victories with your message.  Make sure that everyone understands that your vision is achievable, and let everyone know that failure is not an option.

Spontaneous communications are powerful.  When something expected or unexpected happens, such as when a milestone or metric is achieved or someone achieves a spontaneous breakthrough, communicate it to your audience that same day if possible.  Spontaneous communications provide a level of excitement and attention. 

When you go out of your way to report an achievement, your audience will perceive both that you are watching closely, and that you are excited that things are coming to fruition.  It is much more powerful than waiting until the next scheduled droning to report the status of a metric.

Something that I do to help trigger these spontaneous communications is to flag milestones or events on my action list that warrant immediate communication when they are achieved.  Additionally, I set up reminders to myself every few days to screen for opportunities.  I’ll put it in my to-do list or my digital calendar as a quick, “Did anything happen yesterday or today that should be broadcast?”  By triggering myself to run a quick inquiry, it causes me to find and act upon opportunities.

A last thought about the communication plan:  the more personal the conveyance, the more important and meaningful the message.  If you communicate via e-mail, expect that most will not read your message right away, some won’t read it at all, and few will take it seriously.  If you do a Webcast, you will get greater attention.  If you do an assembly, you will get even more.  As much as possible, use in-person communications, or at least an interactive communication with your own voice.

There you have it:  six fundamentals to planning the achievement of your vision.  Of course, any plan will need to be adjusted once you get started.  Every great military leader throughout history has provided a quote to communicate the fact that no plan survives an engagement, once battle commences.  Don’t get discouraged, adapt.

As leaders, our people expect us to take them toward a brighter future.  Fulfill that expectation by taking a little time to lie out a plan that will take you and your organization, however huge or humble, to the future you envision.

Stay wise, friends.

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