Techniques to create and improve initiative in your team
By 14797 Richard Martin (CMR ’85)
We live in such a complex world that it is not possible for a leader to singlehandedly come up with all the solutions and innovations required for organizational and business success. Many employees also want to have sufficient power and authority to resolve issues and initiate changes within their respective mandates. Here are some techniques and approaches that can be used by any leader to encourage the initiative of team members and followers.
Start with the end in mind. Follow military practice: tell people what you want them to achieve in terms of outcomes rather than the details of what to do. The military calls this “mission command” and it is usually contrasted with more traditional forms of leadership that involve the leader telling everyone exactly what to do and how to do it in the greatest of detail. This approach to command and leadership is superior to directive leadership in most circumstances because the leader can’t possibly know everything that is happening and because the situation evolves quickly. By getting everyone involved in decision-making and problem solving, the ultimate solution is much better. However, this means everyone must have a clear idea of the ultimate end state and strategy.
Communicate the big picture. It isn’t sufficient to know the goals and outcomes to be achieved to make good decisions in the interest of the organization. It has become fashionable to give everyone the vision, mission and strategy, and that is fine, as these provide the overarching framework for decision-making. However, it is also critical that people fully understand and accept the strategic context that is affecting their decisions and actions. If your company is in dire financial straits or the competition has made serious inroads into your target market, then it is imperative that everyone in the company be fully aware of these realities. This will concentrate attention on the criticality of all decisions and actions and focus everyone on providing innovative solutions.
Reward innovation and encourage dissenting opinions. Here is a hint that your team lacks initiative. You have a planning meeting and everyone agrees on the nature of the problem and its resolution. No one questions your authority and everyone accepts your assessment of the situation as gospel truth. Maybe you are truly brilliant and your team is composed of dunces. However, it is more likely that you have quashed initiative and dissenting opinions through your own actions and attitudes. Innovators and people who show initiative are often treated like squeaky wheels by their bosses and teammates. They can be viewed as troublemakers and individualists because they don’t jump on the bandwagon when everyone else does. They tend to not fit the accepted mould. But that is a price that must be paid to get a different point of view, especially when everyone agrees with the boss or on what needs to be done.
Harness the natural competitiveness of your people. Most people are competitive by nature, especially in areas where they feel they have an advantage. However, in situations where they don’t feel they have the advantage, only a few will see this as a challenge and a means to raise the bar on their own performance. This is where the leader comes into play as a catalyst for competitive action. Competitive spirit can be harnessed in numerous ways, but the two main ones are to focus on beating an opponent (as in team sports) or to focus on improving one’s own score (as in golf). The former can be used as a catalyst for team effort in gaining market share or in developing wholly new products, services and processes. The golf analogy applies in many areas where direct competition is not as easy or evident, such as in government. In that case, continually striving to improve can be expressed as a means of competing against oneself. A variant is when teams are set against each other within an organization, but this is a dangerous path to follow because it can lead to balkanisation and senseless turf wars. These are prevalent enough without purposely creating them.
Strive for success, not perfection. This is probably the most important technique to encourage initiative. It is the converse of micro-management. Leaders who are micro-managers tend to want to do everything or to specify how to do things in great detail because they are perfectionists. In other words, they are afraid of failure. The reality though is that perfection is elusive. Just like the horizon, it is always receding. If you delegate responsibilities and authority and expect your people to come up with novel products, services and processes, then you really have no choice but to empower them and to encourage them when they do so. This is essential when someone inevitably makes a mistake or makes a decision that doesn’t pan out for the company or the organization. For the leader who is used to making all the decisions and doing everything personally, this is hard. But there is really no other way to harness the native energy and interest of everyone in the team.
These are just a few techniques that you can use right now to create, develop, and otherwise encourage the initiative and innovativeness of your followers and employees. Begin to apply them immediately and to adjust your approach. It may take time for people to trust that you have really changed, especially if you’ve been energetic in stamping out initiative up to then. However, you have no choice if you are to succeed while maintaining your own sanity and life balance.
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