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Sunday, 17 March 2013

Got an Idea for a New Product? Let the Team Decide How to Make it Happen!

Once again virtually the same issue came up during one-to-ones with Vistage members and consultancy clients - the perennial question of communications.

The shape of each issue was different but the basis was the same.  Why is it that I, as a leader, can say things or suggest things to my team, expecting that they would pick it up and run with it, when in fact they don’t and I am left wondering what have I done wrong?

Quite rightly we pass out ideas to the team and because they are talented and hard working we naturally expect them to understand exactly what we want without the benefit of much background explanation.

When I was at school seemingly centuries ago we had a chemistry master who would put on the board a simple chemical reaction equation, look at it, tap the board a few times and then write down the conclusion without including the intermediate steps.

He knew exactly what would happen in such a chemical reaction but we didn’t (or at least I didn’t) and I never really progressed in the subject.

I suppose that it pays the team members a compliment to expect them to understand but in actual fact, most of the time they don’t and it behoves the leader (or chemistry teacher) to go though the steps and explain what is happening and what is expected.

This is not to say that we need to explain everything in great detail but we must accept that few people have the ability to mind read and so a measure of explanation is genuinely required.

As an example, let us assume that the leader wishes to initiate a project with the team to develop a new product.  It is manifestly pointless merely having a meeting, saying that we need to develop a new product then going out to play golf expecting the new product to be in production in a couple of weeks.

Overstating the case? Probably but the general thrust is correct. In previous posts I have said that nobody enjoys being instructed to achieve other people’s objectives and this is a case in point.  Ideally in this scenario, the leader needs to assemble the troops and give them an idea of what sort of outcome is expected.

From there on, it is down to the team.  It is better to use simple techniques like Ishikawa (the fishbone method) or Gant charts all based on the question:

“If that is what we are to achieve, what precisely will we need to do in order to achieve it?”

If that question is asked of each functional manager in the group and importantly with time lines the leader can then reasonably expect the team to move forward towards the objectives.

It all sounds very reasonable and rational but there is a further need for a realisation of accountability.  It is a good scheme to have someone detailed to act in this role independently so that participants know to whom they are accountable and for what.

I suppose that I am proposing a more formalised approach to task management and while some leaders will react against that, in the end it is more likely than not that there will be rather than merely slinging out an idea and hoping that something will happen.

Communication is two way exercise and unless you and the team understand that there is always likely to be a barrier between you. It is the leader’s function to overcome that barrier.
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