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Direction, Energy, and Accountability
Successful Leadership Trifecta
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic looks at three common fallacies that I’ve found leaders tell themselves thinking they’ll provide success. Yet I find them as the primary causes of organizational inefficiency. If I see one of them, I typically see two or more as they seem to build off of each other. These three failure modes also have a simple solution to remedy, or better yet, prevent any leader from falling victim to these fallacies and improve overall performance.
Over my years of continuous improvement, systems engineering, and analysis, I continuously experience three primary fallacies that people in leadership positions will tell themselves about planning, execution, and change management which perpetually degrade the impact of technology development, project management, leadership, and process improvements. These three revolve around avoiding providing direction, energy, and accountability.
The first fallacy that I hear regularly I’ll loosely articulate as “I’m not going to tell the team what to do, the people doing the work know what they need to be successful.” This appears to be intended to imply trust, empowerment, and delegation. Yet what this fallacy most often looks like is the drive for a bottoms-up approach to everything, especially planning. While vague guidance might be provided, the lowest levels are left to figure out the details and then those tasks and goals are forced to be aggregated up to the top with leadership trying to avoid the ‘sausage making’ of planning. The actual outcome is a mess of inconsistent planning, an inordinate amount of time spent trying to coordinate and de-conflict, initiatives not receiving proper sponsorship, misaligned incentives, etc., etc. ad. nauseum.
The only organization I’ve worked in where I didn’t see this was the Army. To put it in perspective, a bottoms-up approach is like asking a bunch of privates and sergeants to plan how to win a war. In this context, we recognize alignment, delegation, and delineation of duties top-down and across is required for battle but in business, we very often skip this, justify it as wanting to be overly prescriptive, or worse, believe this abdication is somehow empowering.
Without direction, the people doing the work don’t know what they need to be successful. They know what they need to do to survive. Clear direction provides clarity in expectations, confidence in where we’d like to go, and commitment to achieve true success.
It’s critical to recognize that this direction has to be intentional and cross-organizational. Concepts like OKRs (Outcomes and Key Results), as articulated by John Doerr in his book Measure What Matters, provide great insight into how to set and align your direction. Direction is top-down and across. Autonomy and flexibility are then provided to define solutions to achieve this direction. As I’ve told leaders before, without the illuminating light of direction, anything that emerges from the bottom will not be healthy and aligned.
Providing direction alone is still not enough. It is essential to ensure it always comes with the ‘why’. Or as Simon Sanuk would say, the direction must “Start with Why.” This is aligned with one of my axioms from my time in the Army:
I always owe my team the why, because the how might change, but the why will succeed even if I’m not there to see the end.
To borrow another example from the military, in the five-paragraph operations order, paragraph 1 captures the situation by describing the big picture Why. Paragraph 2 is the mission statement; who, what, when, where, and Why. Paragraph 3 section A is the commander’s intent articulating Why, yet again. The outline of the ‘what’ is established, but the details are left to the lowest levels. In this situation, a leader tells the team what needs to get done and their intent and the subordinate leaders provide plans for how to achieve that. This is successful for winning a war AND running a business.
Every organization that I’ve witnessed falling victim to this fallacy, and applying the bottom-up approach, ends up, best case, sub-optimized, and, worst case, in chaos. Direction, starting with why, coordinated from the top-down and across, and leaving the details to the teams is essential and actually empowering to teams.
The second fallacy I encounter leaders telling themselves is that people will naturally gravitate to a higher level of performance. I also call this the Field of Dreams Fallacy, “If you build it, they will come.”1 (which I’ve literally heard people say verbatim) This assumes that if the work is done to develop a new technology, tool, process, etc. people will naturally see the value and willingly transition. This fallacy is intended to motivate teams to create *amazing* solutions with a *wow* factor but it most often results in really good ideas not being supported and fading out before they overcome the natural hurdles of change acceptance.
As with the first fallacy, I’ve never seen a change management process apply this fallacy and succeed. Sure, you’ll get early adopters. You always get early adopters but the presence of early adopters is never evidence of general acceptance. If you only target early adopters, you’ll only ever end up with 5% of the target population. Instead, I’ve seen hundreds of great ideas that just needed to be dusted off and actually supported through implementation.
Just like the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that a system will go from a state of order to equilibrium, and then to chaos without the application of energy, so too will any processes or system. When a process or system is executing, and you want to improve performance, you must add energy into the equation and build systems to maintain that energy at a higher level of performance. Without it, the system slips back down to equilibrium, and any gain is lost.
This Field of Dreams fallacy also ignores the layers of stakeholder and voice of the customer (VoC) engagement that existed in that movie. Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella didn’t decide to build the field and then the ghosts arrived. The ghosts had goals to achieve their own closure and Ray Kinsella literally listened to the VoC, built the field, and continued to adapt and refine to achieve the finale in the film. It took a bit of trust, but Kinsella did not build it in isolation, disconnected from the actual value propositions from the stakeholders. He also didn’t build it and then do nothing more. Once it was built, he was an active participant continually adding his energy to the end.
Direction is critical to ensure alignment and Energy is essential to power the execution.
The third fallacy I constantly run into is the assumption that accountability naturally exists. I was once taken to task by a senior leader after I had expressed frustration that there was a general lack of accountability in a design group. They angrily responded, “We have accountability! If someone screws up, we have corrective actions and discipline.” While that is a type of accountability, it is what I call Reactive Accountability. If a leader is only relying on this level of accountability, they will never achieve a high-performing team. This fallacy also contains elements of the previous two; reactive accountability does not set direction, nor does it add energy. It merely reacts to problems and truly sets employees up for failure.
The solution to this is to focus on Proactive Accountability. Proactive accountability sets up processes, expectations, and open communications that draw accountability forward, well before any point of failure. In this way, the risk of failure itself, and the need for reactive accountability is substantially reduced (preferably eliminated). This also demonstrates to the teams that the leadership is invested in the success of the effort.
In addition to proactive engagement, whenever I see a behavior I don’t like, I look for the metrics and rewards that are incentivizing it. People don’t act in ways that are detrimental to their career prospects. Especially when reactive accountability is so prevalent.
A perfect example was a supply chain initiative that changed the vendor on a screw saving $200K in cost. This was a great success to reduce costs and multiple people received rewards. Soon numerous teams were finding hundreds of opportunities to do the same. It wasn’t until you crossed into the engineering organization and realized that the vendor change also required drawing updates and review, and re-testing at a cost of $1M. What appeared to be a savings was actually an $800K cost. Now consider the dozens of other opportunities to save $200K that was costing tens of millions of dollars in the end.
Another example was while performing a Root Cause, Corrective Action (RCCA) on a critical process failure, we found dozens of process workarounds to keep the product moving. On a hunch, I had HR list out all of the monetary achievement awards that were issued during the same time period. We found that 95% of the awards were awarded for creating the workarounds that ended up causing the critical failure. The incentives were driving the very behavior that caused the issue.
One method to ensure proactive accountability and alignment of incentives is through metrics modeling. Metrics have math and equations in how they are measured. Ensuring that you don’t have conflicting equations or that ‘success’ in one area doesn’t trigger ‘failure’ in another is a critical deconfliction that many organizations don’t pay attention to. Metrics modeling also allows the organization to identify which metrics are sensitive and which ones are insensitive. There isn’t a lot of value in driving toward insensitive metrics while ignoring the ones creating noise in the system.
Metrics modeling then takes us full circle back to the planning and goal setting of direction. Properly defined and delineated OKRs set the foundation for the metrics model we can use for proactive accountability. Setting a clear direction also helps define the energy required to improve the system.
Direction, Energy, and Accountability are rightly interwoven into a trifecta of mutually supporting success like the three legs of a stool. Yet their counter-point fallacies remain tempting siren calls where just one of them can topple everything. I honestly don’t know why those fallacies are so attractive because, as a Lazy Leader, I can’t abide by the thought of how much energy is wasted following them. But then again, if people are still rewarded for ‘success’ maybe that’s where the issue lies.
While I can’t quite pin down why I constantly run into these three fallacies, I do know that providing Direction, Energy, and Proactive Accountability has always resulted in my best success, happiest teams, awesome work/life balance, enthusiastic confidence, and the safest places to produce the most innovative solutions whether in a combat zone in the Army or the engineering departments of businesses.
Have you ever run into these fallacies and what have you done to mitigate or avoid the subsequent challenges?
The actual quote is “If you build it he will come” but as many things do over time, it does get morphed in general usage