Getting it Done: How To Execute in A Crisis
Getting it Done: How To Execute in A Crisis
The fact is that people solve problems most effectively when everyone is working on the same set of activities, or "space," at the same time, in the same way.
Decision making during a crisis is the ultimate test for a leader. Especially when the problems are complex, roles become ambiguous, and urgent decisions get made hastily or pile up. The results are confusion and sometimes even paralysis. A leader can feel like the whole world is watching and waiting for decisive action that addresses issues and does it fast.
I am reminded of that by how the Obama Administration is grappling with the many crises it has inherited. The reviews have been mostly positive so far, but there are a couple of warning signs and patterns that hold lessons for business leaders.
The Washington Post recently detailed possible decision-making paralysis at the Treasury Department under Secretary Tim Geithner in an article headlined, At Geithner's Treasury, Key Decisions on Hold.
WaPo speculates on a few of the reasons for the execution crisis, including a hiring lag for key jobs at Treasury; the prospect of too many chefs in the decision-making kitchen; and tight control by the White House over even the most minor decisions.
Whatever the situation at the Treasury Department, when urgent decisions need to be made, a leader cannot wait for perfect circumstances. And it seems to me the issues raised touch on both decision making and execution strategies.
What follows are four ideas you can use to break decision making stalemates and move forward, even when your staff is lean and you’ve got complex reporting relationships to deal with.
1) Get Clear on the Process
In the teams I work with, I sometimes see an issue we could call, "Unclear on the Process." This occurs when a team doesn’t understand, or agree, on its own decision-making process (internal to the team, or externally with stakeholders).
You can recognize this team breakdown by the following symptoms:
• Consensus paralysis. All decisions are assumed to require consensus agreement.
• Lack of flexibility — meaning everyone must be involved in everything.
• Inability to move on (particularly on process issues).
• Attempts to gather input from stakeholders don’t result in stakeholder buy-in.
• General frustration.
If this sounds familiar, know that it is common, and it can be a painful place to be. Here are the steps I recommend to solve it:
• Ask "Who is the ultimate decision maker?" And agree on the answer!
• Let stakeholders know, explicitly, how input will be solicited and used. In particular, make sure they do not think they are making the decision if they're not.
• Close the loop with people once their input has been given.
• Delegate minor decisions. Empower people to decide, and let them own the process of implementation.
• Set a time limit for consensus and a fallback if it can't be reached.
2) You’d Better Shop Around
Geithner and Co. are no doubt involved in decisions that would humble any of us. They are right to take sufficient time to review various angles — after all, the Treasury is a system, and any change will affect the entire system, with consequences that may be far-ranging and surprising.
Secretary Geithner's people undoubtedly know they should include important voices and opinions in their process. So how can they streamline the seemingly infinite loops of agreements made and unmade? Here’s a way: The decision maker can insist that an emerging conclusion be shopped around to specific people before it's finalized. Any decision that seems workable in the meeting room must be road-tested with key stakeholders (perhaps, in this case, the White House) before concluding it's a done deal. This way, they can hear from those who may have a stake in the decision, so that their input can be considered in a systematic way. If opposition can be discovered ahead of time, they can either tailor the decision accordingly, or go back to the drawing board. By taking this one action, they'll be armed with important information before they have invested too much in a decision that won't fly.
This step is critical: disregard it at your own risk.
3) Use a Problem Solving Framework
Albert Einstein famously said, "It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with the problems longer." The fact is that people solve problems most effectively when everyone is working on the same set of activities, or "space," at the same time, in the same way. This doesn’t mean we necessarily all agree on the content, but we need to be on the same page with the process.
This Problem-Solving Framework lays out a way to move through a problem-solving conversation that all involved parties can understand and follow. As you can see from the model below, if one team member is thinking solution while his teammates are trying to identify the problem, the team may be headed for a stalemate, or worse. This can also lead to the infamous "Fire, Ready, Aim" approach.
4) Create an Action Plan
If you are meeting regularly with no results, take a look at your action planning. This is key when everyone is in agreement, and the big decisions have been made, but nothing is getting done. Action plans transform agreements made in the meeting(s) into clear next steps. They help ensure that decisions are implemented. Specifically, action plans are a record of what will be done, by whom, and by when.
Here are a few principles for creating successful action plans:
• Use action planning as an opportunity to identify clearly what is expected (e.g., a plan, a report, convening of a task force).
• Assign responsibility to an individual. If a group is responsible, designate a lead person.
• Make completion dates realistic.
• If action plans are not used to follow through to actual completion, they become ineffective. For ongoing projects, check status of action items regularly.
• When creating an action plan, it is important to identify how issues not resolved at the meeting will be handled. Incorporate "bin list" or "issues list" items into the action plan.
• Volunteering for action indicates commitment to the decisions made at the meeting.
• The acknowledgment of completed assignments rewards and motivates people. It also reaffirms the usefulness of the meeting that produced the results.
These four tips will go a long way toward keeping you un-stuck in a crisis and setting up successful decision making — and decisive action. Even better, it will save you time you otherwise might spend spinning your wheels. Remember, as a wise friend of mine likes to remind me: if you don’t have the time to do it right the first time, you will have to make time to do it over.
Published on 05/27/09 08:08 AM