Monday, July 03, 2006

The last thing your people need is your strategy

Shortly after taking over IBM Lou Gerstner famously said “The last thing this company needs is a vision.” In an era when businesses men often seem to compete with each other for “vision” this was a brave thing to say – particularly for a technical company. I’ve been thinking about that comment for the last week.

Some years ago I was a developer at a small software company in South London. A few months after I joined they hired a Software Development Manager and charged him with sorting out developement. One of the games I’ve played with myself over the years since then is to ask myself: “In his position what would I do?” – in other words, what would my vision, my strategy be.

Last week two people I know were in the position of taking over a existing group, and my advice to them, well, the last thing you need for your new team is a vision. Sure you need your own strategy for taking over the team but beyond that I don’t think you should have a strategy.

I’d better explain myself...

If I come in with a fully formed vision for my new team, particularly if I spell it out in PowerPoint slides then it is my vision. This might be great if I’m trying to persuade investors to put money into my company, or trying to find like minded people to join me on the quest but when the people are in place it does nothing to get their buy in or address the real problem.

When you take over an existing team there are existing problems, organizational issues and a lot of history. If you come in with a vision you don’t take any of these into account. Sure, being new is a great position to be in, you have a fresh pair of eyes, you can see what others can’t because your not mired in the thick of it. But, your going to need these people to deliver something.

So, you walk into your new team, give them your PowerPoint, and talk them through what you are going to do. Your communicating your vision, your strategy, not theirs. Your task, as you have defined it, is to get your people to execute your strategy. You have to explain the strategy, they will interpret it, they may not have exactly the same interpretation as you, will you ask them to play it back? Or will you assume they got it? And if they don’t quite get it? Will you explain it again, and again until they do, or will you listen to their comments and change?

And once they do understand it your going to have to ensure they do it. You now have a policing action on your hands – make sure they do what you want. (Fortunately management have tool for this, its called MBO – Management By Objective.)

So I don’t think this is a good idea. I do have an alternative, I’ll outline it here, I’ve done most of it although, to be honest, I’ve never done it in the kind of systematic way I’m laying it out here – but then I’ve never laid it out like this before.

First don’t do anything. Listen, watch, learn. Look around you. See what people are doing, specifically see what your team are doing.

Second, expand this into a longer investigation phase. Talk to the team, talk to them one-on-one, talk to their customers, their suppliers and any other interested stakeholders. Find what all these people think of the team, what they should be doing, what they are doing, and how they are performing.

Do you observations for a while, at least a month but maybe as long as three months.

Next get the team together. Find out what they problems they see collectively. Find out what they see as their overall goal. Now this could be tricky, hopefully what they are doing and what they think they are doing matches up with what the other stakeholders think. If they don’t your going to have to correct that, but I think in the broadest sense there will be something everyone can agree on.

Now work back. Get the team to collectively agree on what they should be doing to solve the problems. Don’t tackle all the problems, if possible throw some of them away, i.e. just don’t do them if you don’t have to. Remember people can only focus on so many things so don’t pick too many.

Once the group is in agreement it will probably help to work with everyone one-on-one to find out how they see the team, the aims and their responsibilities.

At no stage should you attempt to tell them a vision or a strategy. Let them work it out. These are bright people – if they aren’t why are they working for you? They are going to be far more motivated when they create the strategy and vision then when you tell them it.

Don’t worry that what they come up with isn’t what you expected, what others want or were the company is heading. You can correct this over time if you find a problem, the trick is to expose your team to the wider picture, make them aware of what the corporate strategy is, give them examples of were it is working and then help your team work back to change what they do.

I honestly believe that when bright people know where everyone is heading and are allowed to work things out for themselves they will a) get it right, b) be very motivated to do it, c) you’ll get a better answer because you used more brains and got collective action.

This may mean eating some humble pie and you don’t get to play with PowerPoint. The point is: it is not your ideas that are important, it is the team’s ideas. It is not important for you to have a big idea, it is important for you to help the team, and the people in it have big ideas.

Do it right and you will get a strategy and vision, and it will be a truely shared vision.

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