When step by step directions don’t work
It was winter of 2009. I was struggling to get engagement and performance from a team member; let us call him Manish. Manish was a business systems professional who was smart, well trained, and technically proficient in his craft – writing user stories and designing software configuration. Manish had potential to do more and give more to his work; or, at least that’s what I thought. Prior to leading Manish, I had relied on a tried and tested strategy that I had been trained in.
In my early management training, I learned a strategy that worked seamlessly for my management roles. Business consultants like Ferdinand Fournies (Fournies, 2007) pushed this idea further by advising their clients to give step by step directions for a job. At least that’s my interpretation of some fine writing by Fournies; his advice worked for many managers including me.
Task Management, to me, is about getting the work done by systemizing it, dividing it into activities (a.k.a. work breakdown structure), assigning the activities to people who report to you, and then inspecting and monitoring the work to ensure the activities get done. You as a manager have tools available to ensure execution, e.g., reward your team with a higher bonus, or punish them with a lower commission. I learned task management, practiced it, and became well versed in it. The method worked for me for many years, until it didn’t in the winter of 2009.
I was giving Manish directions with as much clarity as I could while handing out assignments. My instructions were detailed and step by step, exactly what I had learned and practiced with success – so far. The first time a method fails to produce the desired results, I tend to double down on my efforts. Alas, that approach did not make things better for my team members or me. I expected Manish to find a better, novel solution to the assigned problems. When I was unable to direct Manish to increase our team productivity, I was perplexed.
I pulled Manish aside and asked him, “What’s wrong?”
He said, “Nothing. I did what you asked me to do.”
Here was the problem – I wanted him to do more. I wanted him to take ownership of the solutions, and to come up with innovative ideas to solve our business problems. I felt like he was not giving his full focus and attention to the work. If you are a coach, you intuitively know when a player is disengaged; you can tell from his body language.
The more time and direction I provided to Manish, the more disengaged he became. I kept getting the same old, stale Manish. I KNEW he had more in him. I had to find a way to get it out. “Why?” you ask? Because it is my calling to bring the best out of the people who report to me. It is every leader’s calling.
So, I went on a quest to change the situation – for Manish, for the team and for the projects we were working on. Did I learn a new rule of management? No. I just went back to the fundamental rules, and asked myself:
1. Did I make my goals and vision clear?
2. Were the directions clear and step by step?
3. Did Manish understand the directions and goals?
I thought to myself, “Hey, I did all the above.” I was still not getting the results our customer and I wanted. Something needed to change. Maybe, I needed to change…
As a professional, you learn the rules for practicing your craft. You master the rules and you live by them. And then, one day, the rules don’t work anymore. You realize that the rules worked under certain circumstances, in a proverbial box. Your life has outgrown the box. You are called upon to think outside the box.
You learn to break the rules.
I take a testing approach to breaking the rules. I break one rule and observe what happens to the outcome. If the outcome improves, I remove the rule from the current play.
Instead of just changing my approach on a whim, I put myself in Manish’s shoes. And then asked myself, “What would I have I wanted?” I am entrepreneurial at heart. I believe in creative freedom; I demand it in my own performance at work.
I asked myself, “How do I give creative freedom to Manish?” After introspecting for a while, I thought to myself, “What if I throw out the rule #2 above?” What happened next was very refreshing.
When I stopped giving detailed, step by step directions to Manish, he started showing increased ownership of his tasks. He would come up with ideas that I did not even think of. He felt engaged and happy at work, a side benefit to the company we worked for. The other team members became more creative and engaged as well. This winter experience turned out to be transformational. Going through the process of giving freedom to my team changed me as much as it changed Manish.
There is a conventional rule in management circles: the clearer and more detailed the direction is, the better results you can expect from your direct reports. This might be true when you are leading a worker who is doing the same steps day in and day out, e.g. assembling a product on the factory floor.
When you are leading a creative professional tasked with solving a complex business problem, this rule becomes an obstacle instead of an enabler. When you are leading a creative professional, remember to not take away their creative space for the work. The creative space for working is like oxygen for breathing; they need creative space to experiment.
An approach like this has a side benefit: it will increase the amount of innovation from your team. Harvard Professor Linda Hill called it switching your leadership role from that of a performer to a stage setter for your team (Onderko, 2015). In 2011, I modified my personal leadership philosophy to tell my team members what to do and not how to do their jobs. As a result, I enjoyed having a more engaged team. My personal findings are in line with what author Francesca Gino has suggested in her Harvard Business Review article “let your workers rebel” (Gino, 2016).
What are the implications for the practice of your leadership? You should know when to provide step by step direction to your direct reports; it is table stakes, basic management of people. But then, switch to the role of a stage setter when you need innovation and creativity from your employees. Break the rules if it creates a great colleague out of a mediocre one.
Use your station in life (and at work) to transform a direct report into an innovative professional. You owe it to your colleagues. You owe it to all of us in the workforce.
Don’t let your employees hide their gift. Expose it. That’s why we became people leaders.
Fournies, F. (2007). Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed To and What You Can Do About It. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education.
Gino, F. (2016, October). Let your workers rebel. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/cover-story/2016/10/let-your-workers-rebel
Onderko, P. (2015, March 16). 8 New Rules of Innovative Leadership. Retrieved from Success Magazine: http://www.success.com/article/8-new-rules-of-innovative-leadership