Practices for Productive Leadership

1.       Know what problem you are trying to solve. This sounds simple and it sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people can run around, working on something, but have actually lost sight of the problem they set out to solve.

If you keep the problem front and center, you exponentially increase your effectiveness. It helps you prioritize. It helps you focus. It helps you bring in the right help. It helps you ask the right questions.

If you lack clarity in the problem you are solving, then you are most likely wasting a lot of time and effort. It’s tough to hit a target when you don’t know what it is. On the flip side, you can save a lot of time and energy when you know exactly what the problem is that you are trying to solve.

2.       Get smart people on a cadence. It’s a lot easier to build your execution muscle if you decide on a simple cadence. For example, on my teams, I like to focus on shipping weekly.

I use a pattern I call, Monday Vision, Daily Outcomes, Friday Reflection. On Mondays, as a team, we identify three wins for the week. Each day, we identify three wins for the day.

On Fridays, we reflect on our results by asking, “What are three things going well?” and “What are three things to improve?” The goal is to take what we learn and carry the good forward. So every week we are getting better and better.

This very simple cadence creates an efficient and effective learning loop. As individuals, and as a team, we very quickly surface the bottlenecks and opportunities to improve our results.

3.       Set boundaries and buffers. The best solution for burnout is to avoid it in the first place. This is knowledge work, and as one of my mentors puts it, “Brains work best when they are rested and relaxed.” The way to set the boundary is to first decide the maximum number of hours you expect to work for the week.

For example, one of my best managers forced me to set a limit of forty hours. This meant I had to ruthlessly prioritize and focus throughout the week to flow the most value. I could no longer throw hours at the problem. Instead, I had to get clear on the priorities, choose the best things to work on, and spend my time more wisely.

At the same time, I had to make sure I was creating space and allowing for things to go wrong. I’ve never seen a project where everything goes exactly as planned, and nothing changes. With that in mind, it’s better to embrace the reality and design for it, and create space so you can deal with unexpected surprises.

4.       Lead with your why. The key to great results is passion plus purpose. Start asking yourself, “Why do you do what you do?” Find the meaning and make the connection between the work you choose to bite off, and how it lights up your life.

If you live for adventure, then make every project an epic adventure. If you love to learn, then by-golly make every expedition a chance to learn a new skill, conquer a new challenge, and add a new tool to your toolbox.

Share your “why” with others. It’s contagious. The most unproductive teams I know have no purpose. They have no juice. They have no joy. They do work, and every bit of work is a chore. Ironically, it’s not the nature of the work, but our mental models that make work meaningful.

5.       Give your best where you have your best to give. One question I get asked often is, what’s the biggest game changer I’ve ever seen when it comes to execution excellence. I have to say, it’s always the same thing. Have people on the team spend more time in their strengths.

That includes you. If you want more out of you, then do more of what you love. Do more of what you are great at. Do more of what you can uniquely do.

The most ineffective teams I ever see are when people are all “out of position.” People are constantly working on things they aren’t good at or things that they hate. It kills their energy. In knowledge work, this is the “kiss of death.”

6.       Focus on outcomes, not activities. I can’t stress this enough. When you focus on outcomes, you find the critical paths and the short-cuts. When you focus on activities, you throw time at things, but don’t necessarily achieve meaningful results.

As soon as you start asking yourself, “What’s the goal?” or “What’s the outcome?” you will quickly find yourself getting clarity on the problem. It will refocus your effort and energy in a more meaningful way. You can shave away needless activities once you identify what you want to accomplish.

7.       Ask better questions. I heard a colleague remark the other day that too many people still operate under an old leadership model. The leadership model of the 70s was command-and-control. That made sense for industrial type work or in the military. It doesn’t work well when it comes to knowledge work.

The people in the trenches are the closest to the problems and they are also closest to the solutions. In today’s world, the key to effective leaders is asking the right questions. Inquiry is your friend.

One of my mentors uses a small set of questions to guide investments:

  • o    Who’s the customer?
  • o    What’s the problem?
  • o    What’s the competition doing?
  • o    What does success look like?

It’s simple but highly effective. One of my favorite questions to ask is, “What are you optimizing for?”

Question: What leadership practices have you found that make you and your team more productive?

This is a guest post by J.D. Meier. He is the author of Getting Results the Agile Way and blogs on personal effectiveness and leadership at Sources of Insight.  Read more practices for productive leadership here.

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