You’ve probably heard this before: if you want something done, ask a busy person. A team that ships software will keep shipping; a team that talks about grandiose plans will keep talking. In other words, Newton’s law of inertia - a body in motion tends to stay in motion - applies to people and organizations.
This observation may lead to depressing conclusions: if you’re in an environment where there’s lots of talking and very little doing, you might think that there’s little hope, and all you can do is leave.
I beg to differ. Even as a leader of a small group, you can do quite a bit to turn the ship around - yes, the bigger ship, not just your group. What does it take to break the pattern of talking, and be the source of this change?
1. Aim to create a small “island of good”
Acknowledge to your team that what you’re going to be doing is different than what they’re observing in the rest of the organization. Tell them that you’re going to create the best-performing team and show the rest of the company how it’s supposed to be done. That this team consists of specially-picked superstars that can pull it off. That the results from this team will make everyone else envious of your “island of good.”
Together, you will create an island of good in an ocean of complacency, philosophizing, and politicking.
Is this, effectively, an “us versus them” behavior inside an organization? Yes, absolutely. It’s the same hard-wired tribal mechanics in action, used for something productive and helpful. Once you establish a small “island of good,” expand it: welcome others, help them do better. This is how this seemingly divisive strategy has none of the negatives that we’ve come to expect from an “us versus them.”
2. Make a sharp turn in a minor matter
If your company loves PowerPoints, bar PowerPoint in your group. If your company loves consensus-based decision-making that takes months, nominate a single decision-maker (or be one) and back them up so they can ask for forgiveness, not permission.
That is, make a sharp turn. Separate powerfully with the past, show contrast. Once the team sees a significant break with their previous environment, their “comfortable” behaviors will cease, they’ll learn quickly, and then inertia will be on your side. After shipping a couple of times, they’ll keep on shipping.
3. Catch your people doing something right
When you’re asking your team to do something they’ve never done before, or if what they’re doing has historically been counter to the broad culture of the cruise ship of a company you’re attempting to turn, they’re fearful. They are worried they’re going to get fired; they’re worried they’re doing it wrong; they suffer from imposter syndrome.
This is the moment for you, their leader, to concentrate on positive reinforcement. Are you seeing someone doing something productive and net-new, something that’s broadly aligned with what you’re after? Praise them. Publicly. Name the behavior you’re praising them for, precisely. That is, catch your people doing something right.
Much later, when the time comes for promotions, if you have a chance to promote someone who exhibited this positive behavior - be sure to loudly call it out, in an all-hands, and in your promotion announcement email.
4. Reduce the cost of a mistake
Repeat, incessantly, that “we do not need this to be perfect - we need it to be fast and iterative.” Getting customer feedback on what we think is an imperfect product 2 weeks from now is better than getting their feedback on what we believe is a good product (but really isn’t…) 2 months from now.
5. Forget individual accountability
When you take a significant risk as a team, you should be accountable as a team. Forcefully reprimand finger-pointing and forget all the stories about individual accountability at this stage. We will all go down together if this doesn’t work.
If you’re in enemy territory, every soldier is a part of the squad: they don’t want to mess up on purpose. Your job as a leader is to create air cover. They may be scared and need support; they may not be the person you take with you into the next battle. But while in it together, don’t point fingers - defend them, help them to be the best version of themselves.
When you take a step back, it may seem as if you’re powerless; as if despite your role, the real “leaders” are your bosses, the CEO, the board, and you’re just a puppet with so little control. If you subscribe to this worldview, you’re destined to complain.
If you instead choose a route of transforming the environment directly within your control - making your island of good - you’re likely to both feel happier and achieve more. Those that you lead are also likely to feel empowered to be more than just cogs in the machine. And isn’t this why we enjoy being managers in the first place?