Ten Important Questions About an Organization’s Work

Management consultant and Continuous Improvement pioneer Bill Conway often said, “The most important business decision people make every day, is deciding what to work on. It’s all about the work”

This perspective has proved to be true in much of the consulting work our firm has done. In fact, we’ve found that working on the right things comprises at least half of project improvement or continuous improvement!

But once people know what to work on, there are ten critical questions to consider, the answers to which will lead the way toward building a high-performance culture of continuously improving an organization’s work.

These ten questions are:

What processes should we use to identify the best opportunities for improvement; the work processes that, if improved, can make the biggest impact on the bottom line?
How will we prioritize the opportunities?
How can we ensure or increase alignment?
How will we identify desired outcomes… the way things ‘could or should be’ if everything were right?
What specific improvement goals shall we set?
How can we involve the people closest to the work?
What tools will we use to find fundamental solutions?
How will we measure progress?
How will we recognize and communicate progress and achievement?
What is our follow-up system to assure that the work processes, once fixed, stay fixed?

Once these important questions have been answered, and as implied by the last question on the list, proactive and visible leadership is a must.

This need has clearly been recognized in the marketplace as, according to data shared by Northeastern University, 58% of U.S. companies say their number one strategic priority is closing their current leadership skill gaps. The study also indicated that many more plan to increase their total spending on leadership development initiatives in the next few years- “now treating professional development as an important component of their business strategy.”

Leadership provides the energy for improving an organization’s work and the commitment to sustain the improvements. Today’s leaders must continually work to hone and refine a range of skills if they are to engage and lead a workforce.

These skills include:

Communication and active listening
Method of sharing optimism, energy and enthusiasm
Empathy
Consistency
Dependability
Motivation
Risk assessment
Delegation
Empowerment

Finally, it’s important to note that, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be in a C-level role to be considered a leader. Strong leaders exist-and are highly valued-at every level of business to inspire, engage, and influence their colleagues and stakeholders.

The Very Real Consequences of Evasive Answers

Some time back I was in a meeting with a project manager who presented the status on his troubled project to the project sponsor and other executive stakeholders. This project was of high interest to the sponsor and stakeholders as they were depending on its successful completion to make some major changes in their respective organizations. The project sponsor asked the project manager a very straightforward question:

Why is the project slipping?

The project manager went into a long, meandering monologue. The sponsor interrupted and asked the question again. More meandering from the project manager. Seeing the sponsor and other stakeholders’ growing frustration, the project manager’s boss stepped in and said they needed to do more homework and would come back the next day better prepared. The next day, the project manager’s boss presented the status and answered questions–along with a new project manager.

Through my career I’ve seen (and been in) plenty of situations where an exec’s (who I will refer to as “the asker”) questions were met with evasive responses. It could be that the person being asked (“the askee”) didn’t want to admit not knowing something or be proven wrong. The askee would then, as we liked to say in the consulting world, “tap dance” to attempt any response that might satisfy the asker. More often than not, the asker would grow frustrated with the evasiveness. This led me to the following hypothesis:

If an asker asks a question, the asker expects a direct answer.

When an askee is evasive, the askee leaves it to the asker to make up his/her own answer.

The askee has not only damaged his/her credibility, but now has to change the asker’s perception of the answer.

While my focus is in executive interaction, the same principle applies to other relationships like spouses or business partners. When an askee is evasive, the asker makes up his/her own answer, and the askee now has to dig out of a hole to reestablish credibility and set the record straight.

Need to build your answering skills? Keep the following eight tips in mind:

Listen first then answer – Take the time to listen to a question without interrupting the asker, then when the asker is finished, give a response. Resist the urge to interrupt to get your answer in.
Do ensure clarity – If you truly don’t understand a question, then by all means ask for clarification. But don’t continually ask for clarity; it could look like you’re deflecting.
Give straight answers – If you’re asked a direct yes/no question, give a yes/no response. If there are contextual factors that support the answer or conditions that may change the answer, then provide them–concisely. And please don’t say, “It depends” without qualification.
Don’t reframe – Saying something like “The question you should be asking is… ” immediately conveys that you think the asker isn’t intelligent enough to ask the right questions. Acknowledge the question, respond, and move on.
Don’t deflect – Changing the topic to avoid answering a question may work if the asker can be distracted, but usually the asker can sniff out when someone is avoiding a question by changing the topic. Do it once and you’ll probably get some grace for innocently not understanding the question; do it two or more times and you’ll be viewed as an avoider.
Don’t attack validity – Saying something like, “That’s not important,” or “You shouldn’t ask that,” tells the asker you believe his or her intelligence is inferior to yours. If the asker is taking the time to ask a question, then assume the question is important to him/her.
Say “I don’t know” – If you don’t know the answer to a question then be quick to say “I don’t know, I need to get back to you.” Then record the question and be prepared for a “When will you know?” follow-up from the asker.
Be quick to admit if you’re not prepared – Too many “I don’t knows” may mean you have to do more research. It’s best to avoid this by being clear on the topic and prepared to discuss it. One humiliating abrupt ending to a meeting with a “you need to do more homework” directive will motivate you to not let it happen again.

This bears repeating: the consequences of evasive answers not only means the asker makes up his/her own answer, it also harms the askee’s credibility. Give straight answers and control the narrative.

The Calmest One in the Room

As a young manager, I was involved in a significant crisis which had the attention of not only the partners in the firm but also its CEO. I, like many of my cohorts, was nervous about the crisis, its impact on our clients, and my employment status at the firm. There was a very senior partner who was tasked by the CEO to assume responsibility for navigating the firm through the crisis. It took us a year to work our way out of the crisis; and we all learned some valuable nuggets. I thought I was a good leader before the crisis. Now I realize how naïve I was in my assessing my leadership skills. That experience, while excruciatingly painful, was an inflection point in putting me on the path to becoming a better leader.

As a result of this and other crises I’ve experienced, I’ve learned a number of very valuable tenets that I adhere to when in crisis mode, as follows:

A leader may not know all the steps to get out of a crisis, but he/she always focuses the team on the end game and what needs to be done next.
You’re most likely in least-worst alternative mode when evaluating crisis resolution alternatives. It’s not about the best alternative, but the alternative that represents the least amount of loss.
The leader’s demeanor will permeate the team. If a leader is nervous, the team will be nervous. If a leader is calm and focused, the team will be calm and focused (or at least less nervous).
Regular, concise, candid communication is paramount. When there are gaps in communication, team members and other stakeholders will write the script in their heads.

Time and time again I’ve seen crises separate great leaders from merely average leaders. If you want to be one who rises to the top of the leadership heap during a crisis, take note of the following tips:

Acknowledge the crisis and its consequences – In the heat of a crisis there may be differing views on what the crisis is, whether or not it’s a true crisis, or the consequences of not addressing the crisis. Ensure there’s agreement to avoid the lingering question of what happens if the crisis isn’t addressed.
Make sure the right people are working the crisis – Many crisis situations involve pulling people off existing work assignments to work the crisis. There will invariably be pushback, particularly if reassigning someone means another ball might be dropped. Remember, you’re working to the least-worst alternative, and while something else might slip, not addressing the crisis might be worse.
Get concurrence on what success looks like – In the heat of a crisis the leader needs to ensure all the right stakeholders have a crisp understanding of what success looks like in addressing the crisis. The greatest success in most cases may mean returning to the status quo prior to the crisis, or to a state with the least amount of loss. Rarely will success mean an improvement to the status quo. It’s important to align everyone’s expectations of success.
Drive what/who/when – It’s important to be very precise about what needs to be done, a named person (not TBD or team) accountable for delivery, and a specific date (and time depending on urgency) for completion. Keep a running list of actions, marking them as complete once done. It’s important for the team to see progress and also to highlight where some may be falling down on tasks.
Use a calm, authoritative voice – I’ve done this many times during a crisis. When others are running around like headless chickens, a true leader maintains a calm, authoritative demeanor. Nervous team members will react positively to a leader who looks in control and demonstrates clear-headed thinking. Be cautious not to give the impression that you’re like “Nero fiddling while Rome burns.” Demonstrate appropriate urgency, just do it calmly and authoritatively.
Replace nervous with focused – During a particularly large crisis where I was driving resolution, I had an executive ask me if I was nervous. I told him, “You pay me to be focused, not nervous.” I’ve heard many leaders through the years use the phrase, “I’m nervous about this” when faced with an uncomfortable situation. Followers don’t want to see you nervous; nervous people tend to do irrational things. Take the term nervous out of your vocabulary and replace it with focused.
Secure the next reconvene to follow up on actions – As I said, a great leader always knows what to do next. Ensure there is a very timely follow-up where the team reconvenes to review actions and assess next steps. While the reconvene rhythm may change as the crisis is worked, there should always be a “Let’s meet up again at (date/time).”
Set up a situation room – Designate a place either physically or virtually where people can go to see outstanding action items and team members can work (if appropriate). It’s also good for you as a leader to hang out in the situation room periodically to demonstrate to the rest of the team that you’re in it with them.
Establish a regular, concise and candid communication rhythm – Depending on the pervasiveness of the crisis, ensure there is a communication plan of who needs to be informed, what they need to know, the frequency of communication. and the medium (email, meeting, etc.).
Realistically inspire the team – In the early stages of a crisis, people need reassurance from the leader that they’ll get through the crisis. What’s important here is to be realistic in your reassurance. While there may be some carnage left in the crisis’ wake, acknowledge that things are going to be tough, but the team needs to stick together and work the problem. Inspire the team, but realistically acknowledge the situation.
Solve the problem first, assess accountability for the problem later – When a crisis emerges, many will start finger-pointing at who they think is responsible. While it’s important to understand root causes of a problem and put things in place to avoid it happening later, wasting time pointing fingers while the crisis rages on is not the time to do it. Get clarity on the crisis, what success looks like, and what needs to be done first. Once the flames have subsided, focus on accountability and corrective actions.

Hey crises happen. Next time one rears its ugly head be the calmest one in the room and put these leadership actions in place to navigate through the crisis.