I recently had a brief exchange with an existing client organisation that speaks volumes about how a great number of businesses are managed today – the need for improvement is driven by crisis. Instead of being intentional about pursuing excellence, improvement has become a synonym for recovery. More and more the manager’s job has become the never-ending search for the next hole in the cost report that needs to be filled or the next deviation from “the plan” that needs to be corrected.
I was meeting with a new Operations Manager for a large construction organisation. As we discussed some of my thinking for pursuing project delivery excellence, he said he liked what he was hearing and had one particular design and construction project in mind that might benefit from the concepts and underlying practices. He said it was still in the early design stages and was already showing signs of distress. He had scheduled an in-depth review of the project and said he would get back to me when he knew more.
When I followed up a couple of weeks later to see if there was anything that I might be able to assist with, the conversation went something like this:
“Hey, Jeff. I’ve had a detailed look at the project and it’s probably not in as bad a shape as I originally thought. I don’t think we need to do an intervention at this point in time and there are more urgent things that I probably need to focus my time on. So we won’t be needing your help on this one. Thanks.”
I was certainly disappointed that I didn’t get the work. Like all small businesses I wanted to make the sale. But more importantly, it was an ideal project for maximising value for both the delivery organisation and the client. It was early in the project when the chance to identify and seize opportunities is at its greatest. It’s a significant expansion to existing, operational infrastructure so the criticality is high. It is both technically and logistically complex so the business stakes are high.
However, what struck me most about this missed opportunity was the thinking that sat behind the decision not to proceed.
Intervention in the face of crisis is the basis for pursuing improvement. It is only in dealing with the urgent that senior management value their investment of time and energy.
But what about taking steps to avert crisis? What about investing time and energy into the activities that will minimise the need for an urgent response to problems later on?
Intervention is “the manager’s trap”
The reactive world of intervention, or crisis management, provides a certain level of “comfort” for managers. Problems often come to you, you don’t have to go seeking them out. The sense of worth and value in your efforts are much more immediate when you’re putting out a fire that is burning brightly NOW. It may be stressful and exhausting, but there is a certain satisfaction at the end of the week when you can recount the problems that you’ve solved or the projects that you’ve put back on track.
The difficult with managing crisis through intervention is that…well…it requires a crisis. It is “the manager’s trap” because action is driven by negative business impacts that have already occurred. Putting out the fire that is burning brightest means that something has already burned.
It’s a trap because it is a cycle that is doomed to repeat itself. Consuming your management time by reacting to the urgent and immediate means that there will be more urgent and immediate to consume you. The interventions that you stage tomorrow will almost invariably be the result of lost margin and unfulfilled client expectations today.
Leadership requires that you be intentional
To escape the manager’s trap you need to be intentional about seeking out and initiating activities that will lead to exceptional performance. This requires strong leadership intent because the next urgent challenge is often just around the corner and solving problems requires time and energy that consumes management bandwidth. Being intentional is a leadership quality that recognises that time invested in looking forward will never create itself – you have to make it.
Instead of managing by crisis, create a leadership intent to make operational improvements that help to avoid crisis in the first place. Intentionally engage and motivate your teams to explore new ways of working that address challenges as they emerge not as they become emergencies. Have a clear intent to drive strategic activity in parallel to the need for tactical recovery.
5 ways to be intentional
Being intentional about operational excellence is what allows businesses to move from recovering to thriving. It allows you to drive profitability as well as delight your customers. An intentional approach to improvement is what allows organisations to successfully adapt as the business landscape shifts rather than recover from the impacts of disruption.
Here are 5 key focus areas to make your organisation more intentional:
Pursue opportunity, don’t simply recover from adversity. Far too often leadership activity is driven by business adversity – falling profits, a drop in top-line revenue, or a troubled project or product line. Make a conscious effort to identify and pursue opportunities. Engage in regular “strategic thinking” sessions that explore where the opportunities might lie. Be willing to create experiments or pursue business opportunities that have a low chance of success but, if successful, might be game changing.
Set direction, don’t direct course correction. As a leader in the business, your key role should be setting strategic direction for the business and your people. Don’t become mired in directing recovery efforts. Empower your people to do that for you by setting expectations, demonstrate that you trust them to succeed and support their efforts.
Replicate what you’re doing well in addition to eliminating what you’re doing wrong. One of the most effective improvement techniques is understanding what you’re doing well and seeking to replicate that across the business. By standardising around practices that work well, you not only leverage the positive benefits, you also create a foundation for ongoing continuous improvement.
Continuously assess and adjust rather than learning lessons. It is common to review the lessons learnt at the completion of a project or business campaign. However, in fact, learning lessons and improving are two very different things – lesson learnt rarely translate into meaningful operational improvements. A far more effective approach to pursuing business excellence is make continuous assessment and adjustment part of your operational practice. By assessing and adjusting as work is being done you engender a far more proactive mindset and begin to embed improvement as a part of day-to-day business activity – not a session where everyone gets flogged at the end.
Do the important before it becomes urgent. Plan and control the activities that allow you to add value to your product or service every day. Eliminate the work that doesn’t add value and is unnecessary in meeting your customer’s needs. Create processes for identifying the tasks that enable your value-adding work and understand when they need to be done – then do them in the order and by the time that they are required.
An intervention approach is a race to the bottom. It is a management approach that constantly seeks to minimise the damage of business problems and challenges. In managing by crisis you ensure that there will be new crises to manage as you have done nothing to prevent them in the future. It is a game that is constantly playing below the line.
Being intentional about improving business performance is a leadership approach that will allow your business to float to the top. By being intentional in the pursuit of business excellence, you eliminate the crises that drive the need for intervention. This is, in turn, generates leadership bandwidth for more intentional focus. It instils a calmness where creativity and strategic activity can thrive. It is the way that you will take your business above the line.
Questions for consideration
Does your business value intervention over intentional improvement activities?
Do you manage based on adversity or lead your teams around the pitfalls that create adversity?
Is your business’s focus the pursuit of excellence or staying on plan?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.