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Tips and Tricks to Help Traverse the Execution Gap

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RISMEDIA, July 29, 2010—The ability to manage change, a structure that supports execution, employee involvement in decision making, alignment between leader actions and company values and priorities and company-wide coordination and cooperation are the five bridges that enable a company to execute well. But how do you go about building these bridges? First, you need to get comfortable with the fact that it’s a never-ending process. Then, you put certain time-tested tools and techniques in place and implement them relentlessly.

Richard Lepsinger, president of OnPoint Consulting and author of Closing the Execution Gap: How Great Leaders and Their Companies Get Results offers his favorite tricks of the trade for getting these bridges underway.

Bridge Builder 1: Create and Use Action Plans
Action plans are the cornerstone of effective execution. They are the way you translate broad strategic objectives into specific, more easily monitored activities for teams and individuals. In short, they help you manage the work and bridge the gap between strategy and results. There are three steps to creating and using action plans:

Step 1: Clarify your goals and standards. This step provides direction for the work, gives you something on which to base individual action steps and helps determine when a project is complete. A good goal statement is specific, measurable and time bound. Standards are statements of quality, quantity, and timing required for success. They drive action steps and answer the question: What actions must be taken to meet these standards?

Step 2: Develop your action plan. An action plan helps you manage the workload, review and appraise project progress and communicate about the work to be done. Its basic components include action steps that break down the work to be done into tasks and activities, accountabilities identifying the party/parties responsible for doing each step, a schedule with start and completion dates for each action and resource requirements such as equipment, people, money, or anything else needed to complete action steps.

Step 3: Minimize risk. You can do a bang-up job on the first two steps, but if you don’t pay attention to this one, you are likely to fail. A truly well-thought-out plan must include an assessment of the potential problems that could derail it, safeguards to stave off these “what ifs” and the determination of what will be done if problems occur despite your best efforts.

Bridge Builder 2: Expect and Get Top Performance
In today’s competitive business environment, you need every member of your team working at his or her full potential. The evidence is overwhelming: when we believe people are capable, we treat them like they are capable and they come to believe they are capable. Unfortunately, the converse is true as well. This powerful dynamic starts when your expectations (high or low) are translated into behavior.

Break your own “low expectations” mindset. One way to do this is by focusing on what low performers do well. Find the thing your marginal employee currently does well, no matter how small, and focus on that. Start where you and she have confidence in her ability to deliver results and move out from there. Set a modest stretch goal that is easily attainable and provide the appropriate coaching and support as she takes the risk and tries something new.

Beware of (seemingly benign) self-esteem eroders. Even if you pride yourself on being a “straight shooter,” there is a right way and a wrong way to give feedback to your employees.

DON’T say: “I want you to realize that this is the second time we’ve discussed your department’s lack of productivity. I don’t intend to discuss it again.”

DO say: “Last time we spoke, you said you felt an 8 percent increase in productivity was reasonable. However, the department is at 2 percent. What has happened since we last reviewed this issue?”

See the difference? By focusing on the problem and not the person, the manager is able to address the issue without eroding her direct report’s self-esteem. And by asking the person how he would handle the situation and involving him in determining the solution, he signals that he has confidence in his ability and uses the interaction as a coachable moment.

Catch people doing something right. Providing recognition for a job well done has a powerful effect on people’s performance. It reinforces good work and shapes future behavior. It motivates, builds trust and builds self-esteem and confidence. It makes people more receptive to feedback for improving performance.

When done well, recognition is more than just a “psychic hug” that makes a person feel good about herself. It’s a way of helping her understand what “good” looks like. The message is, “This is what it looks like when it’s done well, so keep on doing it.” Second, you’re saying, “You can do this.” Recognizing calls the person’s attention to the fact that she has accomplished something important or made meaningful progress.

Bridge Builder 3: Hold People Accountable
We all know accountability is important, yet many of us don’t hold others accountable for their actions. In the heat of the moment it seems faster and less of a hassle to just “let it go”—though, obviously, this approach does not work in the long-term. The good news is leaders can create an environment that enables others to operate at a higher level of responsibility. For example:

Boost accountability on the front end by setting people up for success

Three simple actions will help get things off to a good start:

1. Clarify expectations. Here’s where you explain “what good looks like.”
2. Establish unambiguous due dates. Saying things like “as soon as possible” and “by next week” lay the foundation for misunderstandings. (Does “by next week” mean before next week? Does it mean Monday of next week or Friday of next week?)
3. Schedule periodic check-ins. Agree to these upfront with the employee and you won’t be viewed as a micromanager. These progress checks will be seen as a mutually endorsed activity.

When an employee misses a target, ask him these three accountability questions:

1. What can you do right now to get back on track?
2. How did you contribute to this situation?
3. What can you do in the future to ensure this will not happen again?

These questions allow you to help the employee solve the problem, rather than trying to pinpoint blame. They also protect his self-image and help minimize excuse making.

Bridge Builder 4: Involve the Right People in the Right Decisions
Decision making is a complex activity that uses a variety of mental processes. Many of these processes compete for dominance, and the quality of our decisions is determined by which ones win out. (For instance, your emotional processes can overrule your logical, deliberative ones). But there are things you can do to improve the quality of decisions made by you and your team members.

Understand what “delegate” truly means. Managers must walk a fine line between the “dump and run” approach to delegation and the “over-engineered” (a.k.a. “micromanaging”) approach. When you practice effective delegation, you:
-Provide enough lead time for tasks to be done right
-Share relevant facts and the big picture
-Assign jobs to people who are competent to do them
-Build confidence and competence with sincere feedback

Realize that sometimes it’s okay to be an autocrat. Other times you need to build consensus. There are three very different (yet equally valid) ways of involving people in decision making: autocratic decisions, consultation decisions and group decisions. All three types of decisions are valid. The one you choose depends on three more factors: decision quality, decision acceptance, and the amount of time needed to make the decision. Yes, it’s complicated—which leads us to the next point:

Outsmart your brain with a systematic decision-making process. That’s right. Rather than relying on instinct or going with your gut, you should use an objective, systematic process for making decisions. This helps you avoid letting emotion or bias cloud the issues or simply defaulting to the kinds of decisions you’ve made in the past. This will also force you to incorporate risk assessment in your decision making.

Bridge Builder 5: Facilitate Change Readiness
Execution frequently requires a change in behavior on the part of those you depend on to successfully deliver the expected results. Some of the most powerful tools and models for creating behavior change come from work being done with people trying to change addictive behaviors like smoking, overeating, and drug abuse.

Don’t preach or lecture. Research shows that when leaders expect people to be resistant, they treat them that way. When leaders “push” too hard and “tell” people why they need to change, employees tend to react by becoming more entrenched in their own position. Consequently, leaders get the behavior they expected (without realizing they helped cause it) and continue to push for change—which just perpetuates the situation.

-Help employees “talk themselves into” wanting to change. To diminish change resistance, ask these two important questions:

1. On a scale from one to ten, how important do you think this change is?
2. On a scale from one to ten, how confident are you that you can make this change successfully?

When the other person gives you her “importance number,” instead of asking, “Why is the number not higher?” ask, “Why is the number not lower?” (“Why did you give it a six instead of a four?”) The idea is to use the person’s answer and expand on it to emphasize and reinforce her awareness of the need for change.

Reinforce “change-talk.” Your instinct will be to try to convince the person that the importance number should be higher. Instead, encourage her to say more about her thoughts and feelings about the change and reinforce change-talk by:

-Pressing for specifics by asking her to elaborate
-Reinforcing the positive change statements by agreeing with the person’s insights and comments that support the change

Bridge Builder 6: Enhance Cooperation and Collaboration
Organizations are complex structures with many interdependencies. We must rely on others to help get things done and meet our objectives, and that means cooperation and collaboration are often the key to our success. Here are a few ways to ensure the conditions that create and sustain cooperation and collaboration are in place:

Make sure they really understand what you’re saying. When you demonstrate you want to cooperate, people will usually respond in kind. But first you must be sure your communication is clear and transparent. Two simple actions—not assuming people know what you are thinking and paraphrasing to check for understanding—can go a long way toward meeting this goal.

Align interests and establish common ground. It just makes sense: when everyone is working toward the same goals and outcomes, they’re more likely to cooperate. On the other hand, when the objectives of one person or group are at odds with the objectives of another, efficiency and reliability suffer.

Avoid these seven conflict management mistakes:
1. Minimizing or ignoring others’ concerns
2. Pulling power plays
3. Attacking the legitimacy of others’ positions or priorities
4. Suppressing differences
5. Imposing own goals/priorities
6. Refusing to temporarily remove constraints
7. Going through the motions of managing the difference, but refusing to carry it through

Once in place, cooperation is a delicate state. People will still have disagreements and different points of view about how and when things should happen. Your ability to effectively and constructively influence others and gain their support is critical to maintaining cooperation.

About the Author:
Richard Lepsinger is president of OnPoint Consulting and has a 25-year track record of success as an organizational consultant and executive.

For more information, visit www.onpointconsultingllc.com.

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