Why Tasks are Bad for Leaders and Problem Solvers

Lead­ers are prob­lem solvers, among other things. But lots of lead­ers end up com­plet­ing tasks and putting out fires rather than actu­ally solv­ing problems.

How It Looks

Busi­nesses need lead­ers who can show them what the future looks like…people who can see prob­lems and under­stand why they’re prob­lems and exactly what they’re made of, down to the human elements.

Because the one who under­stands the prob­lem the best has a sig­nif­i­cant strate­gic advan­tage over the competition.

They have to under­stand how things work and why in order to know how to break from the rest of the indus­try and become more rel­e­vant to customers–to solve the real problem.

Now, the ques­tion becomes, in its sim­plest form, what adjust­ments do we make that will most sim­ply and directly solve that problem.

Doing this takes study and a lit­tle bit of well-placed research, which many lead­ers sim­ply don’t have. Because they’re loaded down with tasks and putting out super­fi­cial fires, instead of extin­guish­ing them at the source.

The Solu­tion: Del­e­gate Tasks and Focus on Prob­lem Find­ing and Solving

The main theme here is that lead­ers need to get out of the day-to-day. Lead­ers shouldn’t be over­bur­dened with tasks. Rather, they should be mas­ter del­e­gaters who can study a prob­lem until they under­stand it well, which is the fastest approach to a well-fitting solution.

How to Do It

There’s more to get­ting out of the day-to-day than just know­ing you need to del­e­gate. It’s sim­ple, but not easy. If you want to enjoy busi­ness again, stop get­ting over­whelmed, and let me help you ease into it in a way that’s excit­ing and deliv­ers short-term results as well as long-term. Con­tact me here.

ROI Alone Just Slows Your Descent

Picture of Bayham Old Abbey Ruins

Photo cour­tesy of Simon & His Cam­era on Flickr at https://www.flickr.com/photos/simon__syon/

I was talk­ing to a smart mar­ket­ing guy who swore up and down that brand­ing is a waste of money; that mea­sur­ing ROI is bet­ter than brand­ing. He didn’t under­stand that brand­ing is lead­er­ship: look­ing ahead. And ROI is mea­sur­ing past performance.

It’s like say­ing cars are bet­ter than trucks, or alge­bra is bet­ter than geom­e­try or this.

Let me Illustrate.

So a guy gets mar­ried and pays a lot of atten­tion to his new bride, lis­ten­ing to her and find­ing out what she enjoys. He finds out she enjoys hik­ing, camp­ing and pic­nics. So he makes a plan to, for the rest of their mar­riage, do those same activ­i­ties and, to make sure she’s never dis­ap­pointed, mea­sure his effec­tive­ness. In other words, he com­mits to ROI.

Then, 5 years later, she wants to have a baby. But he’s mea­sur­ing ROI (because ROI is the no-nonsense approach to get­ting results). So instead of under­stand­ing her per­son­al­ity, becom­ing more rel­e­vant and grow­ing with her, he just dou­bles down on ROI.

No lis­ten­ing or insight required. And no lead­er­ship needed.

He spends the next two years study­ing the data. His notices sales num­bers are drop­ping: she’s less and less inter­ested in those ini­tial out­door activ­i­ties they did when they got mar­ried, so he increases his sales bud­get, tak­ing her to din­ner more often, so he can deliver his mes­sage with­out distraction.

Two years later, she leaves him.

ROI only lets you look back­ward. Impor­tant, but not suf­fi­cient. ROI, by itself, just slows your descent into irrelevance.

Generous Leaders Don’t “Make it Happen”

Lead­ers lose sleep over the pres­sure to force things to hap­pen. But what if you could could make more for­ward progress through gen­eros­ity: by NOT hav­ing ideas and NOT forc­ing things to hap­pen? This arti­cle will give you three prin­ci­ples that will make a big dif­fer­ence today.

But first, do you ever won­der why you always hear that lead­er­ship is a lot about gen­eros­ity and encour­age­ment? It’s because many good lead­ers aren’t try­ing to make things hap­pen. Instead, they’re find­ing ideas and energy and coor­di­nat­ing them to the larger goal. They’re using their time to be with peo­ple. And they’re allow­ing their peo­ple the sat­is­fac­tion and the glory that comes with success.

Here are three prin­ci­ples that help lead­ers to be gen­er­ous (and have more time in their day):

Prin­ci­ple 1: It doesn’t need to be your idea

As a leader, it’s not your job to be the smartest. It’s your job to help oth­ers do great things. This means fos­ter­ing rela­tion­ships and con­ver­sa­tions, cap­tur­ing their ideas and help­ing develop them. It means find­ing the energy hotspots in the orga­ni­za­tion and fan­ning the flame. It’s about find­ing ideas and energy in other people.

Prin­ci­ple 2: You don’t need to make it happen

Once you find those hotspots and turn energy and ideas into a clear goal, you help them find team­mates. Since your net­work is big­ger, you con­nect them with peo­ple who might also see value in their idea. Then you find peo­ple who can sup­port and man­age move­ment toward those goals using project man­age­ment skills and good peo­ple skills.

Prin­ci­ple 3: It doesn’t always have to work out

You’re putting teams together to try stuff. You’re ask­ing ques­tions about fea­si­bil­ity, risk and reward, all the while keep­ing things on-strategy. But it’s okay if peo­ple have ideas, and it makes it halfway and dies. You can’t always con­trol that, and it can be waste­ful (read: costly, both in dol­lars and indi­rectly, through man hours) to try. So encour­age peo­ple to boot­strap until the idea reaches prototype.

So get out of your own way, breathe eas­ier, work less and see more fruit: let oth­ers be smart and let ideas fail if they should. Find smart peo­ple, develop them and their ideas, and then con­nect them with peo­ple who can help them make it hap­pen. And then let me know if your job gets eas­ier and you start see­ing more suc­cess and energy in your teams.

Note: Ask me why you don’t need to actu­ally man­age any­one to use these prin­ci­ples effectively.

A Lack of Action Verbs is Causing Leadership Failure

At the risk of being obvi­ous, lead­ers should always inspire action. But if a strat­egy isn’t inspir­ing action, maybe it’s not a good strat­egy. In this arti­cle, I’ll tell you how a lack of action verbs is caus­ing lead­er­ship failure.

It’s easy for the planner/leader to for­get that, to be suc­cess­ful, my “aha” moment (strate­gic insight) needs to action­able, not just vision­ary. I have to turn state­ments like “be bet­ter at cus­tomer ser­vice” into a list of actions, like “show each cus­tomer you under­stand before mov­ing to a solu­tion or a sale.” This means lead­ers need to use more action verbs.

Remem­ber that “be” is a goal. As in “I want to be famous.” But actions reflect process, and process is what gets you there. Like “I will learn to post inter­est­ing twit­ter con­tent that makes peo­ple want to share.”

We Trick Our­selves into Lead­er­ship Failure

We trick our­selves into think­ing we get it. We invent a goal, but fail to cre­ate a model of what it looks like and the actions it takes to get us there. We share our goal, and some­one asks us “What do you mean by that,” and we don’t know what to say.

I real­ized this while read­ing Leisa’s very smart blog post about strate­gists who spend months work­ing on a plan that nobody else seems to understand.

The solu­tion? Lead­ers need to bridge the gap between strat­egy and actions.

How Lead­ers Can Bridge the Gap

Strate­gists and busi­ness con­sul­tants don’t always under­stand how their strate­gies will meet every­day tasks. They sim­ply stop at the higher-level things with­out con­nect­ing them to the every­day, either because they don’t offer to see it through or the client doesn’t want it.

This is where the leader needs to trans­late what he can (to the rest of the orga­ni­za­tion) and push the strate­gists (using good ques­tions) to better-develop the rest.

The Good News: This can be Learned

First, remem­ber that action is evi­dence of strat­egy. Great writ­ers know that action verbs show, and mod­i­fiers only tell. So pay atten­tion to the words you use. Strate­gists should show by using action verbs to con­nect peo­ple to their part in the big­ger plan.

Sec­ond, tell each per­son only what mat­ters the them. If you’re try­ing to inspire that jan­i­tor, it’s okay to be gen­eral (not vague; just gen­eral) until you get to his level in the orga­ni­za­tion. Then be spe­cific about why his job mat­ters. So it’s like “We’re doing x. This is how it might affect your work.”

Third, accel­er­ate the process by call­ing me. If I can teach col­lege stu­dents to do it, I can help you by work­ing through a project or two together, giv­ing you sup­port and insights, while mak­ing sure you’re the owner of the project.

This isn’t a magic wand, and many lead­ers aren’t able to take the time or energy to get this sorted out.

This post inspired by: Every­one is doing strat­egy right now. – dis­am­bi­gu­ity.

About Chris: As a uni­ver­sity instruc­tor and con­sul­tant, he’s helped orga­ni­za­tions coor­di­nate long-term strat­egy and action with­out dis­rupt­ing the orga­ni­za­tion. If this sounds use­ful to you, get in touch.

3 Instances Brands Shouldn’t Offer “Unlimited Vacation”

I’m a huge fan of Base­camp, Under­cur­rent and other com­pa­nies that seem to take a more lib­eral (low­er­case “L”) approach to man­age­ment. Why? Because it’s so con­sis­tent with brand think­ing and inno­va­tion. These com­pa­nies cre­ate effi­cient processes using prin­ci­ples of how humans nat­u­rally oper­ate. The unlimited-vacation pol­icy is a case-in-point.

This is why I was so glad to run by Jacob’s arti­cle on why unlim­ited vaca­tion could be a prob­lem. He inspired me to make a short list of rea­sons a brand would fail at insti­tut­ing such a pol­icy. Here are my 3.

Instance #1

Your com­pany shouldn’t offer unlim­ited vaca­tion if you have a high sen­si­tiv­ity toward treat­ing every­one the same (which is one of the cost­lier ways to ensure equality).

The best lead­ers (in my esti­ma­tion) don’t insist on treat­ing every­one fairly, which I’m sure would be anath­ema to many cul­tures out there. Great lead­ers make it about the worker’s con­tri­bu­tion to suc­cess, not about obsess­ing over unim­por­tant equal­ity issues.

Instance #2

Your com­pany shouldn’t offer unlim­ited vaca­tion if you hire peo­ple who legit­i­mately need to be babysat. Don’t hire peo­ple you can’t trust to nego­ti­ate a mutu­ally ben­e­fi­cial situation.

Let me add that great brands often have a com­bi­na­tion of great lead­er­ship and process. Process requires effi­ciency (peo­ple who can take orders and repeat tasks), and great lead­er­ship means flex­i­bil­ity (inde­pen­dent thinkers). There’s no shame in hav­ing processes you can plug unskilled, inex­pe­ri­enced peo­ple into. But be sure you know why your com­pany is set up that way, or you could be over-processing your com­pany into inef­fi­ciency. And how ironic would that be?

Instance #3

Your com­pany shouldn’t offer unlim­ited vaca­tion if you proves your cre­ative by buy­ing Mac­in­tosh com­put­ers and a foos­ball table. Remem­ber that you actu­ally have to have peo­ple buy into your lead­er­ship before you can inspire them to work in an orga­ni­za­tion built on team­work and trust.

In Clos­ing

Now Jacob is clearly an intel­li­gent guy, and I can’t fault his analy­sis. I was right where he is six months ago. Still, con­trol takes a lot of work. Wouldn’t we rather cre­ate an orga­ni­za­tion that attracts tal­ent and rewards inspi­ra­tion rather than one that mea­sures what’s ulti­mately not very important?

I think the unlim­ited vaca­tion con­ver­sa­tion is tak­ing us in the right direc­tion. Thanks for the arti­cle, Jacob. Good luck in your journey.

Ref: The lim­its of “unlim­ited” vaca­tion « Jacob Kaplan-Moss.