Thursday, November 12, 2015

Achievers are never laying bricks, they are building a cathedral

As we have seen in the earlier blog, many senior managers slip because they try to score a goal on their own without ensuring that the team is aligned and ready. They tend to strike before the 'iron is hot' and naturally fail. Do you wonder why?

Because they are too focused on their individual job/role. They tend to ignore the final work-output. They tend to forget that their first work-objective is to score a goal. They are like the bricklayer, when asked what he was doing, replied ' I am laying the bricks'

Every professional knows the result areas -what results are required - in one's job. But very few are aware of their role in producing the final work-output. For instance, every sales officer knows that he must meet his sales target, but very few are aware that their primary work-output is to satisfy the customer so that he comes back again or he refers others. One can achieve achieve job-results sometimes at the cost of work-results. But not for long. Soon, they lack the skills to focus on the whole. On the other hand, one cannot pursue work-output while ignoring one's personal output. Achievers strike this balance. How? 

Achievers see their jobs as 'part' of whole. For them, scoring a goal is more important. They are like a bricklayer, when asked what he was doing, replied " I am building cathedral"Although they may not be responsible for the entire work-output, they view their role/job as contributing to the final work-output. Being able to see the end result, they see their bottlenecks in advance, and are more motivated in tackling them. To do this, they adopt 4 rules of achievement that average achievers do not follow.

One, they define problems ( in achieving results) not from the job they are doing, but from what is preventing them to score a goal.  Like a detective, they keep on probing until they find the real problem that is hampering the delivery of results. Two, they strive to find real solution for this bigger problem, even if they cannot implement it immediately. Once they understand the bigger picture, they can see their roles differently. These two rules help them focus on the 'whole' before they start looking at their 'part'.

Three, they do not twiddle their thumbs and wait to implement the 'real' solution. Instead they implement 'smaller' solutions to achieve personal outputs. Simultaneously, they keep on getting ready to implement their best solution.They do not rush. Big solutions require lot of elements to be tied together. So they wait until the time is ripe. And four, they spend time in 'tinkering' with solution to ensure its acceptance. This implies that solutions in an organisation always require more than one person to readjust. 

Rule 1: Achievers find the 'real problem' that is hampering results

Achievers do not accept the problem as given. Identifying the real problem from the available problems requires an approach of a detective. Achievers find the real problem in delivering results by investigating the entire value-chain of which they are part. For instance, imagine a boss asking the marketing officer of an automobile company to change the marketing program because sales revenue of automobiles has dropped in the last quarter. Before altering the marketing program, Achiever pauses. Instead of assuming the marketing program as the 'real problem' that is causing low sales, he investigates.
  • Check with the upstream participants:  He gets data from the upstream participants of his value chain because upstream impacts the quality of downstream. A value chain of 'Marketing executive' includes Marketing, Sales, Delivery and After sales services. For a marketing officer, the upstream participants are external agents such as competitors, Financial institutions like banks which changes finance rates and other external regulatory agencies. If, while investigating, he finds out that sales revenue of all the competing car companies has dropped, it helps him conclude that 'marketing program' is not the real problem. Or if he finds that his sales revenue has dropped while the competitor has increased, he will investigate further. Upon further investigation he finds competitor has a introduced a new car in the market. He discovers a different 'real problem'. Despite all the efforts, information of external agents is never complete and accurate. Marketing officer, like all the environment-facing functions, is forced to deal with incomplete information.
  • Check with the downstream participants: Achievers also ask questions to downstream functions to find the real problem that is preventing the results. For instance, to find the reasons of less sales revenue, Marketing officer will get more information from Sales team, such as the 'footfalls' of customers in his sales showroom in the last six months. If the footfall have not decreased, it would  mean that marketing program cannot be blamed for lower sales revenue. Or it may mean that the marketing program is good but is bringing in 'wrong' customers in the showroom. To find if wrong customers are visiting, he will further probe: get information on the profile of visiting customers, profile of customers who are not buying the cars, the queries they are asking. Only when he is sure of the 'problem' that is causing the loss in sale revenue, the marketing officer will take the next step of finding a solution for that problem.
The above investigation requires understanding of value chains in an organisation, something that can be acquired in a day or two of training. Many researchers in the decision-making field believe that spending time on defining a problem is better than spending time in solving a wrong problem. To solve a problem, they spend their time in 50-20-30 ratio. They spend 50% in defining the problem, 20% in finding the best solution, and 30% in tinkering with the solution so that solution is modified suitably for acceptance. On the other hand, average achievers spend their time in the ratio of 10-60-30.  They spend small time in defining a problem, 60% on finding a politically-acceptable solution, and 30% of the time in implementing the solution with fan-fare, with no latitude for tinkering the solution. 

Rule 2: Achievers find best possible solution by scanning the entire value chain 

The first rule enables the Marketing officer to find the right problem. Instead of beating around the bush to solve the problem of less sales revenue, he identifies the real problem as 'bringing in wrong customers'. Once the problem is defined, the Achiever can concentrate on finding the best possible solution, not the acceptable solution, to the given problem.

Why is this a better approach? Like the renowned Management Guru Peter Drucker advised managers 30 years ago, 'Before finding what can be done, one should list down what should be done'. Before deciding on what can be done, one should explore all the possibilities. Even if one decides to use less-than-best solution, one is fully aware of the trade-off one is making.

Further, by finding solution that is not restricted to any one function - marketing or sales- they increase their chances of finding the best solution. For instance, the solution for 'bringing in right customers' may require the change in 'product design' of the car, or it could be 're-positioning' of another car, or it could be 'identifying the right profile of customers in the sales showroom from the available customers'. This approach helps find 'real solution' to solve 'real' problems, not boss-determined problems. At this stage, it is not prudent to become 'realistic' and prune the list of solutions in advance. Instead it is better to list all the solutions, even if one cannot implement it immediately.

What is the advantage in listing down all the solutions? It sensitises the organisation to the possibility of big changes happening in the 'car market'. Many times, when such big solutions are to be implemented, the organisation requires far more information to invest in the 'solution' and therefore require further investigation In short, when one problem is being solved, the company may discover other new problems that require attention.

Rule 3: Achiever becomes practical and chose the mix of solutions that suits him the best

Once they have the list of solutions, Achievers prioritise the solutions based on 4 factors: Time impact, Feasibility of implementation, One's readiness to implement and Visibility of the solutions.

Quick impact solutions are like low lying grapes that can be plucked easily. Visible solutions are visible to at least three participants in the system: team members, colleagues in other teams, and Boss. Quick impact and visible solutions are prioritised ahead of others, because that helps Achievers gain trust of the organisational system.

On the other hand Long impact solutions should be delayed, because it generally involves buy-in of many participants. Although such solutions are good, they are not feasible, especially if one is new to the system and one has not gained enough trust of boss. But some solutions are not feasible because the colleagues in the team are not ready. For instance, if the sales manager wants to sell more cars in the showroom by 'spotting the right customers', he may not be able to implement the solution because his team is not trained on this.

On the other hand, some solutions cannot be implemented because one is not ready at an individual level. You may want more budget , say to implement a digital marketing program. But your boss is not convinced. You need to gain his trust before he can give you the freedom to implement the solution.

But trust takes time to build. One cannot build trust by taking one action, or producing result once, or helping someone once. If you think of a friend you can trust, you will remember the countless experiences you share with him, the times when he helped you without asking, the events where he stood behind you even when you were at fault, the time-emergencies you shared and supported each other. In the same way, gaining trust in an organisational system depends on four variables: Being Competent in doing the task, Being Credible in what you say, Being cooperative with everyone, and Being reliable in times of crunch. We shall see later see the ways of building trust step by step.

Rule 4: Improvise the solutions while implementing it 

It is very rare that a solution can be implemented by individual alone. A solution in organisational setting always require more than a person to readjust its work. Achiever never forgets that an organisation is a socio-technical system, not just a technical system. Therefore improvisation is mandatory.

Improvising a solution is required for two reasons. One, no solution is perfect to address the different scenarios. Therefore a solution has to be tinkered ( not overhauled) before it is workable for many different situations.

For instance, if the sales manager concludes that marketing function is bringing in 'wrong customers' in the showroom, what solutions does he have to increase his sales revenue ? Either Sales manager can focus on 'spotting' the right customer by developing new criteria. Or he can find other way to increase sales revenue, say by using referral customers. These may be short term solutions until he finds a way to address the problem of wrong customers.

For instance, the long term solution for tackling wrong customer may be to convince his sales team in the showroom the need to spot the right customers. But convincing the team to change is not enough. He may also have to train his team to spot the right customers. The solution has to be made feasible.

For doing all this, he has to gain trust of his sales team first. His sales team should trust him to believe that he will not 'favor' one member over another. That he is competent enough to deal with different issues. That he is credible enough to do what he says. That he is reliable enough to be supported when the targets are not met for a month. If a person produces results without gaining trust of his team, he is derailed from the achievement train like Rajneesh.

And two, the solution has to be implemented by people. Therefore, only when the solution is 'accepted', people remain committed and keep on 'modifying' the solution to face the exigencies. If the solution is pushed too hard, the people will implement the solution out of compliance. When they are complying, they do not share all the difficulties in implementing the solution; instead they wait for the solution to 'bomb', and sometimes actively take part in 'bombing' the solution.


Average Achievers are in hurry to solve problems by making up the numbers. They listen to the problem-definition as given by their boss or by someone else. They want to implement the ready-made solutions and keep everyone satisfied. Even if the problem is not really solved, they can safely claim " I did what i was told". This approach works in keeping others happy. But for a professional, who wants to achieve his goals through work, this approach is damaging. Because, with this approach, he never learns to produce results. He never learns to identify real problems. He never learns to find real 'real' solution to 'good solution'. He never learns to build trust with his colleagues. His experience of 10 years is 1 year repeated 10 times. 

In the next blog, we shall see how this method of viewing one's job as building the cathedral helps an Achiever achieve big goals in life.  

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