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There are always factors outside of the control of leaders. A post-Covid hangover means the world is awash in problems we didn’t create and can’t fix, but they are directly affecting us: the supply chain crunch, employee shortages and punishing inflation, just to name a few.
While the external challenges are frustrating, they’re not the biggest frustration leaders express to me. Their biggest frustration comes from within — their team‘s inability to adapt to these external challenges.
Have you said something recently that sounds like “Yes (fill in the blank) is a giant problem, but there are still so many things we are not doing that we could be doing”? If this sounds like your situation, you already know that your team has to move beyond feeling hopeless and beyond their current standard operating procedures. However, you also know that simply asking them to do this won’t accomplish a thing.
So, what is the best way to move forward? Attack this challenge at two levels: macro support and micro ownership.
Let’s start with macro support. Before asking front-line teams to carry the weight of these additional challenges, determine what you can do at your level to clear the path for those closest to the work.
Macro support could mean additional investment for people or equipment, moving organizational boundaries or removing work that now could be considered non-essential. This is where you show that the organization is putting skin in the game.
For example, a Fortune 200 food manufacturer I worked with recently was riddled with supply chain issues. Yet, they were also aware that many of these issues could have been mitigated, or even solved, if employees within the company had been willing to work across organizational boundaries, take more initiative or anticipate potential problems. Their current standard operating procedure was falling short.
What did macro support look like in this situation? The head of operations started by organizing a senior-level team with the express purpose of helping anyone who had a challenge that crossed organizational boundaries. Members of this team were hand-picked leaders who had a reputation for problem-solving. Any employee who anticipated a supply chain problem now had a way to raise the flag and marshal whatever resources were necessary to meet customer needs.
Micro ownership starts with every team identifying a target. Essentially, one result that team could influence directly (in addition to their day job) that would have the biggest impact on the overall challenge.
Think of this like being on a leaky boat taking on water. If a team’s normal day job is bailing the water out of the boat, then this team’s micro ownership target could be patching a hole. Will patching just one hole in a leaky boat make a meaningful difference? My decades of work in strategic execution has shown that it is the cumulative impact of these small wins that precedes the biggest breakthroughs.
This single team result might be at a food production plant targeting a reduction in shrinkage to offset increased food costs, a sales team focusing on prospecting within a critical segment or a manufacturing team going after an increase in the number of shifts with full crews while dealing with staff shortages.
At first, some people are inevitably thinking “Hey, boss, if we knew how to do that, don’t you think we’d already be doing it? We are not holding out on you!” But it usually doesn’t take long for a team to see areas where significant gains can be had with some focus and consistency — especially if you are only asking for one result in addition to the day job.
Management pioneer Peter Drucker taught that the most important (and difficult) shift people can make is to move from thinking of their work in terms of activities to thinking of their work in terms of results! Ask someone about their job. Most people will describe the activities they perform, not the results they produce.
The best way to begin moving a culture toward a results mindset is to begin with a single result they can influence. Establishing macro support and micro ownership won’t solve all the supply chain, employee or inflation issues. But it will stop uncontrollable circumstances from holding you and the organization back.