The Burning Platform For Change

Every once in a while management wakes up saying "let's get disciplined".  This is one of those times. In a strong economy, there's no compelling reason to embrace the idea of "doing more with less". The irony is if we were more disciplined in good economic times, downturns like we're experiencing right now would not be as difficult. But that's water under the bridge and human nature - a topic for a different time. The burning platform of "doing more will less" has spread to every industry, from corporate to non-profit, and educational institutions. The challenge is not "How do we get through this?" (which we will) but how can we build organizational structures and practices that retain the disciplines we're putting in place right now? It's easy to justify building stronger foundations when a tornado sweeps through.

Sustainability is a reminder to focus on the long term, not just the next financial cycle. It is necessary to start by tightening our belts, reducing budgets or institutionalizing temporary hiring freezes. But if we don't learn how to retain that discipline when the economy stabilizes or improves, we've learned very little - except to run from a tornado when it strikes.

A great book that takes this long-term horizon on sustainability in Higher Education is Boldly Sustainable, by Peter Bardaglio and Andrea Putman. I highly recommend this book, both in the context of environmental sustainability but more importantly, how Higher Education needs to reorganize business structures and practices to produce greater coordination across academic and administrative functions. This is critical for sustainability in the broadest sense of the word.

Ten Team Behaviors To Look Out For

It's reasonable to expect teams to collaborate. Human nature however leads people to manage their own "slice of the pie". Management needs to take a hard look at the real message being conveyed across the organization about getting things done. The question can be boiled down to: Is success measured by realized strategic outcomes or is it about not being singled out as the reason for failure? Too often, senior management assumes that groups are working toward a common goal while at the tactical level, sub-groups or departments are playing hot potato with their unique tasks. Being accountable is often about not getting caught holding up the larger project versus being collectively accountable to the overall success.

What are the symptoms that point to issues of team performance? Consider these ten behaviors and attitudes:

  1. Low output and productivity
  2. Frequent complaints within the team
  3. Internal confusion about roles
  4. Ineffective meetings
  5. Lack of clear goals or low commitment to goals
  6. Problems working with the team leader
  7. People do not speak up and contribute ideas
  8. Decisions are made that people do not understand or support
  9. The team does not appear to have good working relationships with other teams
  10. People feel that good work is not recognized or teamwork is not valued

If you believe half of these behaviors are present in your group, it's probably worth taking a look at what can be done to proactively turns things around. Much of the work of building team is about having greater transparency and dialogue around the issues described above. Finding ways to talk about it goes a long way in addressing the problems.

Communicating Bad News

Breaking down communication barriers is no easy task, and it opens the classic question of what comes first, the chicken or the egg? Management is waiting to hear what’s really going on while staff is waiting to hear it’s ok to communicate breakdowns or bad news. (This, by the way, is not the same as complaining, which is communicating bad news with no commitment to action.) Organizations are often left with the “blame game” being played out over every missed deadline or poorly rolled out deliverable.  Here's what management needs to realize - your staff will not take the step of communicating bad news unless you explicitly demand it of them. For staff - you may never get explicit permission from management to stop filtering bad news.  The good and bad news?   Regardless of your role, the ball is in your court.

Decision-Making and Leadership

A book that was recently introduced to me by a good friend has validated and deepened my view on leadership, how decisions get made and trust. “Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes For An Answer”, written by Professor Michael Roberto, speaks to the value of a decision-making process that focuses on “deciding how to decide” versus the purely efficient approach of finding the “right solution” to a problem. Focusing on the “decision-making process” has tremendous benefit around building trust in and across organizations. Why? Senior leaders rightfully see themselves as charged with making the right decisions for their organizations. They have a genetic disposition to seeing a problem and quickly identifying the solution. Isn’t this what we expect from those in charge? But what if being in charge is less about having the right answers and more about using the people around you to come up with the “best solution”? This is one of the premises of Michael Roberto’s book.

It makes perfect sense to solve a problem quickly when the issue is straightforward or lacks complexity. Asking for collaboration when there is no intention to consider alternatives is disingenuous and only serves to diminish trust.

However, there are many more decisions that would benefit from rigorous dialogue before coming to a decision. Cutting work force, expanding to different markets or generating new revenue streams are all examples of decisions that have many layers of complexity. In these cases, bringing the right people together having the right conversations increases the likelihood of a well thought out solution. And with the presence of honest dialogue, a higher level of trust can develop between parties.

If we find ways to encourage participation in problem solving, starting with “deciding how to decide”, our leaders and managers will be jumping out bed to get to work and participate in healthy debates. This is exciting work and gets people powerfully engaged. Not only will you get better results, but you’ll see trust in action.

You can also find Professor Michael Roberto’s blog at