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What, exactly, are you trying to achieve?

Can you paint an accurate picture of success? Can you describe what will be happening and how people will be feeling? Can you answer that question very specifically?

For example, it could be something like: ‘Communicate our new vision statement to all staff.’ In which case, I don’t believe it would be good enough. To satisfy me, it would have to be something like: ‘By September, communicate our vision to all staff and ensure that they understand it, can remember it, and are able to explain how what they do contributes to the vision.’

Very often, I find myself working with a leader or a team who are actually not crystal clear on what they are trying to achieve. They may have a very broad sense of purpose, but they cannot articulate with precise detail what it is they need to do. As illogical as this might sound, it is nevertheless true. They will come to me because they’re in the middle of a crisis, or because they face a significant challenge and need to respond. When I run into this situation, I often leave this first step to one side, or allow (for the time being) a vague objective. The second step will make objective setting much clearer, simply because it involves the task of thinking about the people you need to influence and the behaviours required to deliver a solution to your problem. It is the second stage that often helps to clarify the question at the first stage.

One of the management books that I most value is The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R Covey. It is probably one of the best selling business books ever published with more than 25 million copies sold in 38 languages worldwide. One of the seven habits that Covey advocates is: ‘Begin with the end in mind.’

To me this means being really clear about what it is you need to achieve, and why.

Defining the problem is really what this first step is all about.

If you define the problem in the right way, it will help you to determine the nature of the communication required. Sometimes I have seen clients achieve breakthrough solutions by spending quality time on defining the problem. Why is our current situation not satisfactory? Why do we need to change? From there you can move to a more future-based vision. What will be happening if we manage successfully to change? How will everyone be interacting? How will everybody be feeling? What will they be doing and how will this contribute to our goals and enable us to achieve our numbers?

Sadly, I have seen many more occasions when people have not been sufficiently rigorous in defining the problem they’re attempting to solve or even articulating why the problem is important. As a result, they answer the first question in vague terms and then wind up chasing programmes that are not aligned with their goals. I have a profound belief that leaders need to become better at asking these questions so as to ensure that they tackle the right problems.

You may be fooled into thinking that, as a new leader of a team, you aren’t solving a problem but creating a new vision of success. If that’s the case, then what was wrong with the old one? If there was no need for change there would be no need for you as a leader. There is a problem or you wouldn’t be trying to galvanize people into action.

The rigour with which this stage is tackled is one of the most important factors in finding the best solution. As a leader, you’re going to have to explain the need for the solution, so what is the need? Who will benefit from a solution? Why will you and your organization benefit from the solution, and how is it aligned with your plans and strategy?

Sometimes, you also have to pay careful attention to how you phrase the objective. For example, I have learned to my cost how talking about productivity gains can be a real switch off to staff. Even though they intellectually agree the necessity, in their hearts it just feels like they’re going to have to work harder and harder. If, instead, you talked about how to make their jobs easier to do and more fun, you would likely get a vastly different reaction. It is always worth getting multiple perspectives on how you phrase the challenge, which is why Stage 2 is so necessary…

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