May 31, 2013
“Go slow to go fast.” This is a slogan that is particularly relevant at the beginning of projects, jobs or strategic initiatives. Often, in the rush to get going, leaders fail to set themselves up for success. Critical omissions emerge at the most inconvenient times that arrest forward progress on goals.
During a space flight launch, rocket engineers must go through a careful checklist before ignition. In the same way, successful leaders can go through their own checklist to ensure that the key ingredients for success are present at the inception of any significant effort they or those who report to them are undertaking.
The first question on this checklist asks:
Does this effort require leadership and commitment to produce the result?
Some things will happen without needing leaders to do much. (For example, people will most likely cash their paychecks without prompting from the CEO).
But leadership and commitment is required to cause something to happen that is not predictable—something new that is not necessarily constrained by past results. So, this first question asks if what they are working on needs a significant outlay of intentional effort to succeed.
If yes, the next question is:
Who is behind this effort—whose baby is it?
Said more rigorously, “Who is the person committed to the outcome–the first one to speak for the project, the champion, the one who says ‘this shall be?’” This person becomes the committed speaker for the effort.
This does not mean this person does it alone. It does mean that they are willing to stand for the result and promise to their manager or their Board that it will be accomplished.
At this point a critical and seldom asked question emerges:
Is this a reaction or a creation?
Most projects or change initiatives fail right here. They are not really creations and expressions of pure commitment, but rather are reactions to the past, driven by largely unconscious concerns or beliefs about what is possible.
The trouble with efforts that are reactive is that this reactivity is a weak base from which to lead. If the circumstances that drove the project’s inception shift, then the energy to finish it is gone.
The wise leader owns the current reality, accepting the concerns and reactions about the situation, but does not generate the project from these reactions or act purely in order to address them. Rather, the leader leads from a commitment to new possible futures, acting from a commitment to create something rather than to simply address problems.
The next question to ask is:
Will the manager or supervisors accept the declaration of commitment from the effort’s leader as authentic and feasible to accomplish?
If they do, they become his committed listener–someone who listens to the declaration and promise of the project leader seriously, sincerely and with a commitment that they succeed.
In effect, they become the committed speaker for the project as well.
Both the speaker and the listener then need to ask the next questions:
What are the conditions of satisfaction for success?
How will we know that the project succeeds? What conditions, once satisfied, indicate that the committed speaker for the project has fulfilled her promises? Along with the conditions for success being defined at the set-up, clear definitions of measures for success—interim and final metrics—need to be established as well.
What are the necessary structures for the fulfillment of those conditions?
These structures can be resources of time and money, other personnel who need to be involved, authorizations in place, etc. Other critical structures to put in place at the outset are the channels and time frames for communicating progress or stops in the action, i.e., deciding who needs to know what and how frequently.
The final question to answer at start up is:
Who needs to know about this project?
Over communication should be the standard. Include everyone you think needs to know about it and then expand the circle again. The more widely you declare yourself and your project, the more you take on risk, because, now, you’ve gone public.
Putting yourself at risk in this way empowers you doubly: first, it is simply empowering to stick your neck out and make a bold declaration; second, by widening the network of those in the know you widen the network of potential supporters.
Once the effort is fully formulated at the outset, then powerful, committed action can happen. As a result, project success, while not assured, is at least possible.