Author Archives: Andrew J. Hope

The “I” in TEAM

The “I” in TEAM

Ask any athlete what the crucial element of success in a relay race is and nine out of ten will tell you it’s the hand over of the baton. The relay race is an analogy often used in business environments. Managers and trainers use it to emphasize the importance of team work, working together, the grey areas of hand-over where mistakes lurk and so on. I use the analogy myself. In my opinion, especially in businesses, the most crucial element of success is to get everybody running in the same direction. Then you can focus on the details.

In a recent workshop I rediscovered for the umpteenth time the problem with teams in small businesses: They aren’t teams. The team members may be good at what they do. If asked what it is they do they will focus on the technicalities. I type, sell, draw, analyze, call customers defaulting on their payments etc. They seldom refer to what they do in reference to what the company is supposed to be doing or with respect to what the customer expects. So what’s the problem? Well it boils down to either having a team or having several individuals working in the same company. A team has a common goal. Its members know what the team philosophy is and the team leaders promote a healthy team spirit and set clear targets. The team knows what it has to achieve. It knows who the enemy is and will defend what it considers its own with an almost fanatical zeal. In the other case, when asked what the company offers, replies read like a menu. “We do this, we do that, we do the other”. What is missing is the element of passion. Passion at work usually relates to a brand. If the team doesn’t have a flag to rally around, be proud of, defend, hold up and conquer, then there’s not really much hope. If your people are not a team, spend time on forging them into one. It can’t happen over night but it can be done. Build up what the company offers. Why should any customer come to you and not the guy next door? Your people should be fans of your company. Talk to them. Listen to them. Create a culture of cooperation and weed out any individuals that drag the others down. Build up a brand: what do people think of when they hear your company name? What are your values? What do you stand for? Why?

I am sick of reading smart ass tips of the day written by people who think they are on par with the likes of Winston Churchill and Victor Hugo. They come up with disjointed, isolated apothegms like, “The road to success is full of crossroads” or “Being right is an attitude” and similar shallow BS. One of these one-liners I don’t subscribe to is “There’s no I in TEAM”.  Of course there is! Teams are made up of individuals with different approaches, perspectives, talents and expertise. People work towards satisfying their need to succeed. If you can achieve a team that succeeds by its members succeeding as individuals working towards a common goal, you will win the relay race every time. Set out some team building goals for the New Year. You’ll be surprised to see that the value of the whole is indeed higher than the sum of the values of the parts. Enough clichés for one blog. Get them all running in the same direction, work on the hand-over and if necessary hit somebody with the baton…

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Posted by on 28/12/2012 in Managing people


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Present perfect

Present perfect

There is one thing that many companies, especially there smaller ones, don’t spend enough time on: training their people to present. Sales people and managers are expected to deliver presentations at various levels. Some present on a daily basis, others not so often but there comes an inevitable time in a professional’s life when he or she has to stand up in front of somebody else and talk about something. If there is a natural flair, fair enough. Actually still not enough. Even if you are good at presenting to begin with you still need to hone and fine tune your skills so that you are not presenting nicely but effectively.

I make an incorrect assumption that there is at least a basic understanding of power point as this is the de facto tool most people trapped in the business world use. If there is no such knowledge it must be acquired. Do it in house or use self study, ask a savvy colleague. Sorry, ppt trainers out there but this is not the time to spend money on watching slides pasted from help files (disclaimer: there are a few trainers that make it worth while).

Start from the audience.  To whom are you presenting? A client? The boss? The BIG boss? This should mean something to you. If it doesn’t, WAKE UP! You can’t present the same thing to different people even if it is the same thing. Does that make sense? Think about explaining the facts of life to different age groups: it’s the same thing but you can’t use the same extent of detail, graphical descriptions and illustrations with a seven year old and a colleague (yes there’s always one). So think about who will be taking in what you will be dishing out. Think of the recipients as clients. What are their needs? If you are presenting to clients think of their needs not only in terms of what you are selling but also in terms of how you are presenting it. Are they pressed for time? When are you presenting? Early in the morning? Late in the evening? Over the weekend? Everything counts. You may need to adjust your presentation, even if it is simply in terms of enthusiasm and pace, depending on who is sitting in front of you and where and when you are presenting. Irrespective of the subject.

Dos and don’ts:

Do rework your presentation until it has flow and contains all the necessary information. Not data, information. Don’t put up a slide stuffed full of numbers that you spent a month putting together and expect people to make the connections you have.

Do use images and graphs. Do use a pointer. Do get a good rest the night before. Do use transition/animation effects. Do rehearse over and over so that you are speaking while clicking the next point without having to consult the screen. Do make sure you know everything related to whatever it is you are presenting. Do maintain control of the audience at all times.

Don’t overdo it on the animation and transition effects. The “appear” function is enough in most cases. Don’t use those horrible sound effects (unless you are presenting to kids). Don’t make people dizzy by turning the laser pointer into a laser show. You don’t have to draw squiggles on the screen. The dot at the right place will suffice. It should make people focus, not dizzy. Don’t talk about things you don’t know about. Don’t let attendees upstage you. Don’t wander off in tangents. Don’t get side tracked least the train of though you are trying to build become lost in the wilderness (you are trying to build a train of thought in your listeners’ minds right?). Don’t ever, ever, ever (did I mention ever?) go unprepared. No matter who is the receiver; your boss, your employees, your clients, the public. This is the presenter’s equivalent of cutting your hand, jumping into the shark tank and splashing around (no, all those documentaries about how wonderful and misunderstood sharks are have still not removed the image “Jaws” created. There, I broke the train of thought. Now I have to use another sentence to get you guys back on track). NEVER go unprepared. You will lose credibility and the interest of your audience instantly and irreversibly. You will also make sure they don’t attend your next presentation and tell their friends no to either-let’s get a beer instead.

Even if it turns out that they are not interested in buying whatever it is you were presenting, they should always have something positive to say about the way you presented it. Even if the numbers you are presenting are bad, you can still deliver professionally. In short, you will make an impression every time you get up to present. Make sure it is a positive one.

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Posted by on 16/12/2012 in Management tips


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Now go over it again

Now go over it again

We are living in interesting times. Get over it. They will become increasingly interesting as time progresses. At some point they will become unbearably interesting and then we will have disruptive change. Until then, we need to make do with manageable change in the name of cost cutting. Many people talk about it and some companies and organizations pull it off but in their majority, small and medium companies get carried along by the current of everyday activity. At some point some people decide to look up from the task in front of them and take in what’s happening in their environment. If they are lucky they see the signs and avoid the rapids. Others spot, too late, that low branch or experience (too late) that feeling of nothingunderneathusness as they go over the waterfall.

So what is the underlying message? Just because you are keeping busy doesn’t mean you are being productive. Getting stuck in denial gets you stuck in outdated practices. Getting stuck in outdated practices will get you killed. From a business perspective. So what to do? The key is at the end of the previous sentence: “?”. Start questioning things. Why do you do whatever it is you are doing? Why are you targeting this customer and not that one? Why do you have “x” employees working on “this” activity. I may be repeating myself but, after all, isn’t that what best demonstrated practices are about?

So take an analytical look at everything that goes on in your company. Remember you are paying for it. Even if you don’t see an invoice for the specific activity, item or action you are paying for it. So do you really need it? Is this the best way to do it? Nine times out of ten the answer is NO. There is always a better way. So stop doing things that are not adding value to your company. These are the things your customer would not be willing to pay for. Like that expensive chair you love so much and which inspires you to better the service you provide. Try putting that on an invoice and sending it to your customer. Don’t want to? What else are you doing that you are not proud of? Duplication? If your process is not worth presenting at a conference and bragging about its benefits, you should probably be redesigning it. Look up process improvement. Start small. Mini projects with achievable goals, aimed at making your customer happier. Happy customers come back. This should be your goal in life. Which process would you not like to describe to an expert on the subject? Use the gourmet approach: you sniff and if you can’t put your finger on the ingredient you try to link it to the memories it brings to the forefront. If you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong with a process, use a similar approach. How does it make you feel? Safe? Happy? Proud? Shocked? Afraid? Very afraid? Then go and dig deep and don’t stop asking why until the answers you are getting are making sense to you. Do this often and for all departments and aspects of your business. How much are you paying for “X”? Why are you buying it in the first place? Is it adding value to you offering? Is John in Accounts adding value to your offering. And so on.

Start asking. Otherwise you won’t get any answers.


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Who are we selling to anyway?

Do you have a clear picture of who your customers are?

In a discussion the other day with a group of people putting together a proposal for a retail company it struck me that even large, reputable companies in some cases get lost in the woods. Then they run into a candy cottage and think they’re on to a good thing. The company in question was doing well and getting lots of browsers. They were looking to get more people into the store by offering an enhanced experience. So far so good. What did they have in mind?

“Well they want people to enjoy spending time in the store so we are considering various fun activities such as using the game consoles, book reading corners with beverages, play spaces for kids… “

I was expecting “shoulder massage while waiting to pay” to creep in somewhere. Why?

“What do you mean why?”

Why are they looking at this shift, change, transition or whatever you want to call it?

“Well, people are walking in but they aren’t buying stuff”.

And this will be remedied by rewarding browsers just to be browsers?


Then we got to talking about how the company is branded. Is it branded? What do you think of when you see the logo? And please note that this is a successful retailer with a dynamic approach to doing business. So how did we get to the point of examining what meat lockers we need to install without determining how many of our customers are vegetarian?

It all boils down to knowing who your customer is. In some cases you should also be looking at which customers you are attracting? Are they the same as the ones you are targeting? If not, which way do you go? How strong is the brand? Is it strong? Has work gone in to building it? What are you changing and why? The fact is that in real life there are loads of companies that start a change initiative without taking a good look at the facts and figures. In an unbiased manner. With an open mind. And if the figures aren’t there, for God’s sake get some. Who is your customer? Who do you think your customer is? And who are you targeting? Impulse buying came into the conversation. Then it went downhill.

So you are targeting customers with enough disposable income to embark on impulse purchases by offering free pastimes in a pleasant and accessible environment with free beverages and use of facilities?

I got a few looks and changed the subject. There was really no reason to walk out of the room having created a bad atmosphere I wasn’t being paid for.

But do stop to think: what are you selling? To whom? If it’s working, instead of trying to change it, find out why it is working and enhance it. A Captain not willing to change course is more likely to crash into the rocks than the one that sees an unexpectedly favorable passage and follows it.

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Posted by on 21/11/2012 in Managing sales


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Sell hard

In the die hard movies, the guy just doesn’t give up. The same should apply to sales people. They should never give up. But. There’s always a but. There’s a difference between working hard on a sale and hard selling. Hard selling is dead. Some sales reps do not want to accept this. Most everybody else was glad to bury it. Influencers, decision makers, managers, you name it, nobody has the time for hard sellers any more.

The hard seller is the sales rep that lives by the belief that they can sell ice cubes to people living in areas adjacent to the polar ice caps. This is the person that you will buy from only to get them out of your life. If it’s a once off sale. “Yes! OK! I’ll take the printer!” and then in the privacy of your own mind “Just as long as you go away and stop bugging me!” The hard seller is the sales rep that that always knows better and believes that he can break your will not to buy. It gets personal and somewhere along the line it’s becomes a contest. And nowadays buyers just don’t have the time. So if you are looking to lose sales, keep the hard sellers in your sales force. As mentioned previously, hard selling kills opportunities. And an opportunity is a terrible thing to waste. Believe me, buyers have developed antibodies for hard selling, similar to anti SPAM software.

Not the way to sell

So the modern sales person uses more sophisticated techniques. They are trained to ask questions. They uncover needs and wants and pick up on motivators and, guess what, the hard sellers are back! Let me recount a personal experience. I was sitting in my office waiting for an acquaintance from another time to turn up when he did. After the pleasantries he mentioned that he was now working for an insurance company. Yes, really, totally different to what he was doing in his previous position. He was in Sales at that. And then he pulled out a laptop. My polite smile froze. He opened it and turned the screen towards me. The PowerPoint was already in slideshow mode. Complete with logos and a corny wannabe catchy title slide. Then questioning technique started

“Wouldn’t you like to know that no matter what might be wrong with you, somebody has you and yours covered?”

“Well, actually…”

“And how would you feel if you could choose any medical facility in the world for your health needs, whatever they might turn out to be?”

“Look, John, I think…”

“Good. You should always be thinking about your health. When was the last time you had a physical?”

The guy just wouldn’t stop. He explained over the coffee, I was no longer happy to have offered him, about the merits of colonoscopy with what I felt was more attention to detail than necessary. In question mode. “Have you ever seen the probe?”, “Have you ever wondered if you are conscious during the process?”.

The technique was in there somewhere. He was asking questions. But he wasn’t paying any attention to the answers or to my reaction or body language. Plus, he didn’t mention during the long-time-no-see phone call that he was actually making a sales call. His fault? No. His manager’s. Or the maybe the consultant that trained the sales force was to blame. Or both. This was hard selling in  sheep’s clothing. Which made it worse. At least the other type comes at you both guns blazing. This was sneaky and had an even worse effect. At some point I began to feel that my intelligence was being insulted. After the first few questions I pointed to the sign on the door. “John, the sign says “Sales Manger” for Pete’s sake. He still didn’t get it. After going through the motions he ended up with a triumphant slide that had a figure on it. “Am I buying insurance, or part of the company?”

“Surely this is an affordable amount for somebody in your position”. He was now making assumptions on my financial status. And it was all part of the misbegotten, misguided training he had received at some seminar called something like “Increase your sales, guaranteed or your money back”.

The point here is that if you want your sales people to be successful, think like a prospective buyer. Sales techniques are meant to be used as facilitators not to be practiced religiously without straying from the path. You need to be listening to your prospective customers, who by the way have done you the favor of taking the time to listen to you, and you need to be hearing what they have to say. Then you need to ask more questions and then you need to decide if you can genuinely satisfy their needs. If not, you need to be mature and honest enough to say so. Then you have gained their respect, the right to call on them again and maybe even a referral. Because you have integrity. If you do believe they need what you are offering, then proceed. Find out how you can tailor your solution to fit their need. Sniff out what they would change if they could. And have an intelligent conversation. Otherwise you are not building a lasting relationship. You are reminiscent of professionals of an adjacent discipline and your discussions are the same as their lines: untruthful and just part of the script.

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Posted by on 15/11/2012 in Managing sales


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Give me some credit

Get a grip on your credit

I’m sure this is one of your main headaches and it is probably getting worse these last few months.

Who is in charge of getting paid in your organization? This is a similar question to who sells in your organization. As, in most cases, we have all accepted (even if it’s just as something catchy to say) that “Everybody is a salesperson”, by extrapolation, the same should hold true for collections: “Everybody is a collector”. I truly believe that everybody in an organization should be selling. It may not be products, it could be goodwill, it could be positive publicity, it might be referrals, it might be keeping your eyes open for new business opportunities to call in to the sales guys. Everybody should be contributing to increasing the top line of the company that pays their rent, food, tuition, gambling debts, whatever. Then we have the professionals: The sales force. These people are actually paid to sell. If the organization is set up properly then a sizable part of their compensation is related to how much and how well they sell. So why do we even need credit control? Don’t allow a sales force culture that shuns responsibility to collect evolve in your organization. Fact: nine out of ten sales persons have issues with using the words “buy” and “pay” in the same sentence, especially when addressing a customer or prospect. Fact: nine out of ten uncollected invoices are the result of a lukewarm reference to credit terms at the closing phase or a lukewarm credit control process. Fact: many sales people consider that their job is done once the deal is closed. This is not true. Think of somebody introducing a new friend into the circle. The introducer is responsible if the introducee has a history of violence and ends up bashing the circle.

In order for your invoices to be collected, you need a close relationship between Sales and Accounts and sales people that believe that a sale not collected is not a sale, it is a liability. If the other guy is not going to pay, let him, nay, encourage him to go and not pay your competitors. In fact, give him a contact number.

Where does credit control begin? Well, contrary to common opinion, it does not begin after the credit period has elapsed. In fact, it begins before the deal is closed. In these times of corporate drought it is increasingly difficult for sales professionals to be selective with their customers. By all means revisit whatever standards can be revisited EXCEPT credit. If during the initial contact phase you get the impression that the prospect will be a credit issue, drop them. Don’t waste any more time. During the fact finding meetings, depending on the selling techniques the sales rep is trained to use, the question of payment needs to be addressed. Make it very clear that you are willing to work with the customer to arrive at a solution but your company expects to be paid on time. There are many ways to say this but that is another post. By the way this does not mean you are discussing price yet. Refer to credit periods, mention payment on more than one occasion and observe the prospect. Even a rookie sales person should be able to tell if they are sitting opposite a prospect for the provision for bad debts line. So the sales force is heavily responsible for making sure the company gets its money.

Having said this, the sales force needs to be diplomatic. Credit control, on the other hand, can be more candid within the framework of its mission. To quote a moth eaten cliché, it’s still all about the follow up. Many companies have procedures in place that dictate how they pay. Some say they issue payments on the xth of each month. I have even seen flowcharts that dictate no payment is made until the supplier has made second contact with reference to the outstanding amount. So do spend some time making sure you have a procedure in place for collecting your money. You should have a procedure for your existing customers and one for new customers. New customers should get a friendly call from Accounts (not credit control) as soon as they receive their first invoice. Have you received our invoice? Are all details correct? Are the charges clear? Do you need any additional information? This save the “Send me the statement, there’s something off” call. As soon as the invoice is due, Credit Control calls and informs that the invoice discussed on the 15th is now due, how will the payment be made? Thank you. This shows the client that you are serious about collecting.Then you wait, send a written reminder and failing this you stop credit and pull out the legal notice. You log all these. You monitor payment behavior and watch for pattern changes as you do with sales. The sales rep should be ccd on written communication to their client. They can then also follow up with the client and help the process along.Also you look rather amateurish if you turn up for a friendly sales call and don’t know your company has threatened your eleven o clock meeting with legal action.

Don’t let invoices go unpaid for three months and then call up people yelling.

By the way, you are not doing a small company a favor by letting them lag behind with their payments. They will just end up not having the cash to pay.

And make sure that everybody fully understands that selling costs, even before the service or product changes hands. You are starting from a loss position. By identifying potential bad payers, you are minimizing that loss.

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Posted by on 08/11/2012 in Managing numbers


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Appraisals and other HR monsters

It shouldn’t be grey and fuzzy

OK, so it’s that time of the year again. You are snowed under, rushing to meet your deadlines, running around closing deals, signing lots of papers, preparing the business review presentation… and then you realize it’s appraisal time. Damn! Damndamn! Admit it.

For many managers this is a pain in the proverbial. Why? Because, to quote a classic, they are doing it wrong…

We tend to set up appraisal mechanisms designed by benevolent people with several assistants to ensure people get a fair review. What they end up ensuring is that a manager (usually with no assistant) up to her neck in urgent matters ends up rushing through the process for the purpose of compliance. This usually happens in the larger type of organization. In smaller operations these items tend to get filed under “BS” and never get done.

In both cases, we are missing the essence of the matter: You need to pay attention to your people. In a small company, appraisals are usually continuous and part of the daily routine. “Nice job, Georgia”, “Let’s take a look at that report you set up, Paul”, “What the hell were you thinking, Jean?” and so on. Fair enough. But if you want to develop professional co-workers, you must first act professionally and treat them as professionals. That means taking the time to pay attention to their performance, taking time to understand what makes them tick and then sit down with them and tock (sorry-couldn’t help myself).

People prepare for their appraisal. Many get stressed out about sitting with the boss. They lose sleep the night before and may even rehearse what they are going to say and try to anticipate your input. So don’t take it lightly. Prepare for the meeting and set aside the time. Avoid interruptions, set up a neutral space (a conference room) and have a numbers based discussion. Yes, it’s back to the numbers. You should be able to build a case by combining the cold facts with the personal reality sitting in front of you. If you have been clear in setting targets for your people, appraisals are so much easier. They have their hard targets, their soft targets, their professional development targets and they know how they measure up against them. If you have not set your targets carefully you are in for surprises. People without clear targets will always assume that they are in the green. Wait for the shocked silences when you paint a different picture. “What do you mean I’m below target? I’ve brought in LOTS of revenue and a BUNCH of new customers!”. Of course when asked how much 5% of LOTS is they usually have some trouble quantifying.

Always make allowance for that annoying little thing called human nature. People have things going on outside the office. Some are good, some not so good, others may even border on the illegal. Try to know if there is a personal reason behind the sudden drop in performance. Then handle it discretely.

Remember, a co-worker should walk out of an appraisal meeting feeling refreshed and focused. There should be a sense of justice, recognition and direction. Otherwise just send the targets through the mail.

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Posted by on 01/11/2012 in Managing people


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What a brilliant presentation! Don’t call us we’ll call you.

We’ll be in touch…at some point

When your sales people say they are making sales calls, what are they actually doing? The assumption here is that your people are in fact putting in the road hours (are they?). Even if they are on the road and visiting customers, many sales people tend to set (if any) vague call objectives. Nowadays it is becoming crucial, wherever this is not endangering the sale and of course without becoming pushy fridge to Eskimo type sales people, to reduce the closing time of our sales. We simply can’t afford to wait as long as we could four years ago for the prospect to sign. The key phrase here is “efficient planning”. This requires sales persons to set targets for each sales call. Just booking an appointment and playing it as it comes once we sit down in front of the customer to be, was never a best demonstrated practice but under today’s circumstances it is criminal. Time is a resource and this is no time to be wasting resources. Customer facing time is a valuable commodity and not a minute of it should be squandered. On the sales person’s side, their company has probably made cut backs so that they are doing more with less. Maybe sales support has been trimmed; maybe some of the lagging sales reps have gone the way of the dodo. Whatever the case, time is money. The same applies on the other side of the desk so prospective clients will appreciate professionals who don’t waste their time.

Make sure that your sales people, especially the less experienced, can rate the success of a sales call. According to one school of thought a sales call always results in a sale: Either you sell them a product or they sell you bull. The more scientific approach is that, barring an outright rejection and the equivalent of a kick in the proverbial, there are two possible outcomes: A continuance or an advancement. In the first case the customer may comment favorably on the presentation, the sales pitch, the excellent brand name and so on, but doesn’t commit to anything. The rookie sales rep feels good leaving the customer’s premises and is satisfied with a job well done. The seasoned sales person recognizes the continuance. The whole process has been pushed to some vague point in the future. What the rep should be aiming for is the advancement. Some deliverable that brings the closing phase that little bit closer. This could be a meeting with the CFO, a request for specific prices or referrals etc.When planning their calls, your sales people should have in mind what kind of advancement they are aiming for, and then go out and get it.

So, are you selling or being sold?

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Posted by on 20/10/2012 in Managing sales


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On assumptions and lost opportunities

Stop assuming and start digging

When I was a kid (all those years ago) I saw a comedian advising his audience never to assume because “when you assume you make an ass out of u and me”. He was right about the assumption part anyway. It is particularly dangerous in a rapidly changing environment to make decisions or act based on unfounded assumptions. This is especially true when talking to sales people about opportunities. It is especially especially true if the discussion refers to existing customers or opportunities that have been examined in the past. The basic message here is that everything changes.

“Have you spoken to client X about product Y?”

“They don’t need it”

“How come?”

“We discussed it last year”

This is the trap many sales reps and even their managers fall into. The point should be that we don’t reject an opportunity unless we can swear on whatever holy book or relative’s final resting place that we have followed it up, revisited it or looked into it and we are sure beyond a reasonable doubt that there is nothing there.

The other common assumption is that existing clients actually know what we sell. Customers build up an image of their suppliers and in many cases don’t even consider them for services or products that for some reason fall outside the scope of what they have come to conceive as your range of offerings. You need to talk to more than the usual contacts in companies and gain a thorough understanding of what they do and which suppliers they use, namely your competitors both direct and indirect. You will be surprised by the number of times you will receive answers along the lines of, “I didn’t know you guys did that!”. These days, in many cases the lines between direct and indirect competition are blurring as companies adapt and become more elastic in their effort to increase share. Throw in commoditization and a reality check and you may be opening up a whole new world of opportunities. How wide is the line that separates two market segments? Can you turn a boundary into a continuum?

Make sure your sales force has disabled preconceptions before they visit prospects. Get out on the road with them and lead conversations that uncover possible hidden opportunities. Give a fresh perspective. Then let them follow it up. They should then go out and emulate this in their own way. Hey! A coaching ride! Stress the importance of meeting with different people in your clients’ organizations. New acquaintances will, most probably, not be familiar with your offering and may well be in other departments that you can cater to with an additional product or by adapting one to their needs. Another assumption you should stop making is that everybody in a client company (especially the bigger ones) is talking to everybody else and knows what is going on three divisions down the road. If your service is something of a commodity, don’t assume that top management actually knows the details. You need to take the differentiating factors to them.

Stop losing opportunities because of routine thinking.

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Posted by on 17/10/2012 in Managing sales


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Action Plans and why they fail

Without discipline and focus on the target, your project won’t even get off the ground

There is an African saying that roughly translated (and I take this on faith) states that next to “I shall do” you will always find “Not done yet”.

Maybe this rings true to most of you. If you are not a “must do” fan, then surely you have heard it all from politicians and inefficient managers. Especially in times of downturn, we should be hearing more “This is what we have achieved so far and that is what we expect to have completed by blah date”. Instead, we still hear what committees have to convene to examine the possible ways forward and propose alternative solutions which will generate plans. Sometime, somewhere over the rainbow, any day now. The road to unachieved change is paved with procrastination. There are loads of proverbs that describe how people will find excuses not to do something while putting up a show of trying to attempt it. On the corporate level, the tool most frequently employed to achieve this is known as an “action plan”. The two words seem to put together a contradiction in terms. In most cases they do. You spend too much time on planning and not enough on action. Semantics aside, action plans under any name are crucial if a team of people is to come together under certain guidance to achieve a specific goal. In a company where people pull out “We need an action plan” too often and leave it at that, the term simply becomes associated with sarcasm and is filed to the bottom of the priority pile. The truth is that we DO need action plans. So how do we go about getting them to work?

In order for an action plan to work, four statements must ring true:

  1. Management is backing it
  2. It is detailed and specific
  3. Everybody involved has bought in
  4. Progress is being monitored

If either of the above does not apply, the goal will most probably not be achieved. If Management is not behind it, people will realize this is not a priority and treat it as such (that’s right, good old human nature again). On the other hand even if managers are selling/pushing/imposing it day-in day-out, if people are not clear on what it is they are supposed to be doing deliverables will not be delivered. Finally, even if a plan is specific and precise, if nobody is following up it up it will ultimately fail.

So why do people take it more seriously when you refer to a Project Plan? Because it has a better reputation. It gets things done. It uses specific tools. It sets time frames and assigns responsibilities. It has a project manager whose purpose of existence is to see the plan through and deliver within budget and on time. Is there a message in there somewhere? Obviously. So where do we start? Well, first of all you need to determine the value of whatever it is you are thinking of drawing up an action plan for. Under current market conditions you need to be constantly questioning which projects and activities are adding value to your organization. Once you have determined that, yes this must be done, then start talking about it. Call in your team and ask for their input. It has to be clear where the buck stops but a Manager who arbitrarily goes about imposing his or her ideas on people runs the risk of rejection, passive resistance and of course missing something. You need different types of people in your brainstorming sessions: experts, visionaries, worker bees and at least one Omega type. Even if you can’t have the others, make sure you have an Omega. These are the types that disagree by default. They always find fault with the reasoning on the table. If allowed to get out of control they can destroy a team and stand in the way of anything getting done. If handled correctly they can be invaluable to the process. You can be sure that they will always find that one problem you overlooked. Whatever you do, don’t put together a team of yes-people. Otherwise don’t waste time on getting input.

The next step is to start putting your action plan into place. Involve people and get their buy-in. There are workshop tools for process building that can help these sessions be productive.

At the end of the process you should have a Plan. Everybody knows what is expected of them. With dates, milestones and measurable parameters. Finally you need control. You have defined what you want everybody to do, you have determined how you will measure progress. Now the whole process needs to be followed up. Relentlessly. No excuses for lack of adherence. Remember? Everybody involved has already signed off on the solution they contributed to.

In our new world we don’t have the luxury of missing opportunities or doing things in a half-assed way. It’s all about discipline. And just a while ago, from the perspective of a generation, we must admit, discipline has not been a strong point. Were this the case we would not be in the predicament we have found ourselves in today.

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Posted by on 14/10/2012 in Managing people


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