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The fundamentals are all you need to solve (nearly) all of your management problems

by Bruce TulganDecember 2015

   You walk into your weekly team meeting expecting the standard updates around the table. Some people more prepared than others. Not enough information from some, too much from others. Digressions. Side conversations. Devices. One hour turns into two.

   You sometimes think: “Why do we even have these team meetings?” After all, everyone touches base with everybody on the team almost daily. There is an open door policy. If something comes up, you let each other know as needed. You talk and email with each other all day long.

   Nonetheless, the meeting begins as usual. Until it quickly surfaces that very important Project Q is off track and behind schedule. How could this be? You’ve been checking in with everybody regularly one-on-one on top of the weekly team meeting.

   It’s not clear what happened. Maybe there was a change in specifications that wasn’t fully communicated. Perhaps a resource constraint got in the way, a technology glitch, or human error? Somebody must have dropped the ball – internally or externally. Is there anyone who can be held accountable? Mr. Red has dropped the ball before.

   There are a lot of moving parts with Project Q. Now changes must be made throughout, changes that will require rework by counterparts in another group in another department. They will not be happy.

   Time, resources, energy, and money have been wasted. There is blaming, complaining, explaining. Everything has been harder since the team recently lost its most valuable player, Ms. Platinum. And her replacement, Ms. Bronze, is still not fully up to speed.

   You spring into action and the firefighting ensues. You have a series of one-on-one huddles with the team-members you know you can count on in a jam. You take over some responsibilities yourself – including begging the counterparts in the other group in the other department to redo their part. There are some quick stand-up meetings and long hours of heavy lifting. The crisis is handled and Project Q is back on track.

   When you figure out exactly what happened, there will probably be some very difficult conversations, and there will be consequences. Some people might lose their jobs. Even if Mr. Red is not to blame, it’s about time you really spoke to Mr. Red about his stubbornly inconsistent performance.

   Once you finally get everything back on track, you are way behind on your other responsibilities. So are your employees. But things are mostly back to normal. .

   You touch base with everybody almost daily. They know your door is always open. If something comes up, you let each other know as needed. You talk and email with each other all day long. In any event, you will catch up with everyone in the next team meeting.

   The manager of Project Q above appears to be attending reasonably well to the fundamentals of management 101: Holding regular team meetings, touching base with his employees almost daily, open door, and ongoing visibility by email and telephone. And if you asked him just before Project Q fell apart, he would probably have said, “Everything is going just fine.” 

   The manager in this story is like the vast majority of managers at all levels in organizations of all shapes and sizes. There’s lots of communication.  It’s just not very good communication. Like so many managers, this manager’s communication is mostly ad hoc, hit or miss, surface level, and often pro forma, “managing” more or less on autopilot until something goes wrong, which it always does, and then they get pulled into firefighting mode. .

   What can a real manager in the real world actually do to gain control? That is exactly the question that I have been trying to answer since 1993 in our ongoing research on supervisory relationships.  It turns out that when things are going wrong in a management relationship, almost always, the common denominator is unstructured, low substance, hit-or-miss communication. More to the point, we have also been tracking and documenting and synthesizing the best practices of the very best most effective managers.

   What special tricks do the very best managers have up their sleeves? Not many. All they do is practice the fundamentals very well.  They build and maintain an ongoing schedule of high-quality one-on-one dialogues with every single person they manage. These are not so-called “crucial conversations” when things go wrong, but rather the so often neglected regular structured conversations to concentrate on the fundamentals:

     - making expectations clear   
    
- tracking performance and provide ongoing candid feedback      
    
- providing support, direction, troubleshooting, and guidance   
     -
recognizing and rewarding in line with performance

 

   How many ongoing structured regular (at least weekly) one-on-one dialogues can a manager maintain? The answer is different for every manager. No matter how many people you are responsible for managing, you have to make choices every day about how you are going to use your management time.  Some people need you more than others, of course.  But everybody needs to have an ongoing high-substance dialogue with you.

   High-substance means rich in immediately relevant content, specific to the person and the situation, with a clear execution focus.

   Talk about what’s going right, wrong, and average.  Remind everybody of broad performance standards regularly. Ask really good questions. Turn best practices into standard operating procedures and teach them to everybody. Use plans and step-by-step checklists whenever possible. Focus on concrete actions within the control of the individual employee. Follow up, follow up, follow up, and provide regular candid coaching style feedback. Follow through with real consequences and rewards based on performance in relation to expectations. 

   One-on-ones are also where you answer employees’ questions as they come up. Get input from your employees throughout the process. Learn from what your employees are learning on the front line. Strategize together. Provide advice, support, motivation, and even inspiration once in a while. Together you’ll need to regularly think through potential obstacles and pitfalls – make back-up planning part of every work-plan. Anticipate and prepare. Train and practice.

   Together you will uncover on a regular basis what can be done and what cannot, what resources are necessary, what problems may occur, what expectations are reasonable, what goals and deadlines are sufficiently ambitious, and what counts as success versus failure.

   Every step of the way, stay on the lookout: Are there problems hiding around the corner or just below the surface? Small problems that can be solved now so they don’t turn into bigger problems soon? Resources we need to obtain or else figure out what to do instead? Key people in interdependent roles we need to be engaging?

   What’s changing? What’s about to change? What might change soon? Don’t be embarrassed that things change. It wasn’t your idea. Uncertainty is the new certainty, right? When priorities change, expectations change. That is just further evidence that telling people what to do and how to do it is critical. After all, who is going to tell each employee:

     - Which priorities have shifted and changed today?
     - What are they supposed to focus on today?
     - What are the expectations today?

     That's it. It's just the fundamentals---- practiced consistently with rigor and discipline.

     Here’s the good news: The fundamentals work. The simple process of maintaining high-structure high-substance ongoing one-on-one dialogues really works wonders. When managers consistently practice this technique, employees get the guidance, direction, feedback, troubleshooting, and coaching they need. And the business results follow: Increased employee performance and morale, increased retention of high performers and turnover among low performers, and significant measurable improvements in business-outcomes. Not only that, but a steadily diminishing rate of management time spent “firefighting.”

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