Focus

Being an effective manager doesn't mean trying to tackle everything.
by | September 1, 2007
 

In my last column I talked about guerrilla warfare -- how to create change when you are not in charge. This month I want to flip it around. What do you do when you are in charge? You have a vision -- there is so much you want to get done. How can you get everyone on board? How do you get all these people to move from here to there? How do you get it all done? It's simple -- you don't. So much is possible when you realize you can't do it all.

One of my favorite quotes, usually attributed to the Archbishop Oscar Romero, is: "We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well."

Put another way, it's not important that we do everything well but that we do the really important things really well. What are those vital few things that, if done extremely well, will fundamentally transform your culture?

Buckminster Fuller, the late inventor/futurist/leadership sage, introduced the trimtab as a metaphor for creating change (so much so that "Call me Trimtab" is on his tombstone).

"A trimtab is a nautical device that acts as a small rudder used to turn the larger rudder of giant ships, offering tremendous leverage in terms of steering and changing the direction of the ship. Fuller, drawing upon his naval experience, saw the trimtab as a powerful metaphor for effective individual leadership: small and strategically placed interventions can cause large-scale and profound change." (Leadership By Design: How One Individual Can Change the World. The Leadership Principles of Buckminster Fuller. Medard Gabel and Jim Walker, 2006).

The metaphor works as follows. Imagine your organization/department/bureau/section is a ship. You are the captain. As the captain, you realize that the ship is going the wrong direction. How do you get a large ship with a lot of momentum to stop, turn on a dime and head a different way? We have some options. We could:

o gather all the crew together and tell them how important it is to turn right

o produce a newsletter extolling the virtues of the right turn

o train everyone on how to make a right turn

o form a cross-functional steering team (pun intended) to oversee the right turn

o put turning right in everyone's performance expectations

Or, as Fuller pointed out -- we can use the concept of the trimtab -- leverage. The reason why it is difficult to turn a large ship is because there is so much momentum creating pressure on the rudder. The trimtab is smaller and trails the rudder. Moving the trimtab breaks ups the surface pressure around the rudder, allowing it to more easily turn, which then allows the boat to turn. The same is true for our organizations. There is so much pressure on our rudder (all the reasons why we can't change) that is difficult for even the most skilled captain to turn it.

However, we can find those leverage points -- trimtabs -- the areas of the organization that once improved would break up the momentum of the status quo, allowing you to make even more changes, then still more, and eventually the boat is heading in the right direction. For example, suppose your vision is to make your agency more customer-friendly. You could talk a lot about it, publish a Customers Count newsletter, train everyone to be nice to customers, evaluate everyone on their perceived customer friendliness, and so on.

Or you could take a hard look at your agency and say, "What two or three things, if we radically improved them, would really make a difference in the customer experience?" Maybe it's redesigning a complex form, or streamlining a permit process. Perhaps it's spending some time on the phone to figure out why people are calling and working to remove the root cause of the phone calls. Which approach do you think would have the bigger impact?

It is important not to confuse trimtabs with low-hanging fruit. It's not about improving what is easy. It's about improving what is important. What vital few things, if radically improved, would make everybody take notice -- employees, customers, citizens, elected officials, etc.

At the heart of this approach is a word that we are not allowed to use in government -- focus. Government managers often get accused of lacking vision. I think this in incorrect. It is not vision we lack -- rather, we lack focus. (And this impairment gets worse the higher up in the organization you go). What does it mean to focus? By definition, you are bringing something into your field of vision, you are concentrating on something, which also means, by definition, that you are also letting things out of your field of vision, not concentrating on everything. (This is why it's so hard in government. We fear that if we prioritize something than that means everything else will get "cut" or that we will be accused of taking our eye off the ball. Which ball? All of them.)

Focus means something, not everything. So why do government managers struggle so much with focus? Why do we have mission statements with 30 commas? Why do we have strategic plans thicker than phone books? Because we believe everyone has to be on board.

The pattern typically goes like this: We decide something is important (strategic planning, performance measurement, employee engagement, etc.); we want everyone to do "it"; so we set about the arduous task of getting everyone to "buy in." It's the mistaken belief that we can't make progress until everyone is ready. (This was a big issue back when Total Quality Management was the Flavor of the Month. We interpreted "total" as meaning "everyone," so we all got trained on how to create a Pareto chart).

Experience has taught me (which is my way of saying that I have no data on this) that whatever it is you are trying to do, there are about 20 percent of the staff who will be with you from the get-go (if it's less than that than you probably need to take a long look in the mirror). Sixty percent will be on the fence waiting to see if this too shall pass. And 20 percent won't come with you no matter what you say or do.

Yet where do we spend all our effort? We invest so much time and energy trying to convince the 60 percent (who will only believe it when they see it, not hear it) and trying to force the last 20 percent that we neglect the 20 percent who were with you from the start. We need to flip this. Spend 80 percent of your time with the 20 percent who want to follow you. Or, to borrow a phrase from the current administration, "Go with the coalition of the willing." Equip them, support them and help them complete their mission. Let their success get people off the fence.

So how do you create change when you are in charge? To follow through on Fuller's ship metaphor:

1. Define the direction. Where are we going? How will we know if we are making progress? Are we there yet? (Sorry, still suffering the after-effects of our family road trip this summer.)

2. Identify your trimtabs -- those vital areas of your operation that when radically improved will move you closer to your results.

3. Form project teams to improve the trimtabs. Change happens in projects -- if you want great change, run great projects. Executive sponsorship, clear scope and charter, the right team members and skilled change agents who can guide the team to radical solutions.

4. Give those projects all of the attention and support they need to be successful.

5. Upon completion (not commencement), celebrate the victories wildly. Make sure everyone hears about what was accomplished. Create a buzz. Let the results of the trimtabs be the momentum that turns the rudder.

6. Rinse and repeat.

Focus means not everything and not everyone. Prioritize. Focus on the important and the willing. Which raises an important leadership test: What do you do when the important is not being managed by the willing? That's why you get paid the big bucks...

In my next column I will talk about a great trimtab that every agency should be working on.

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