As I’ve written before, one common challenge many teams face is the endless loop of discussion that never leads to decisions. No action will take place without that first step. Even when teams succeed in making decisions, though, there’s another common obstacle to effective action, and that’s lack of follow through.
Do you know what I’m talking about? How often have you had the experience of leaving a meeting thinking a decision has been made, only to come to the next meeting and learn that there’s been no action on that decision? This pattern costs teams time, money, and morale. The good news is that there are some typical reasons this pattern keeps occurring, and steps you can take as a leader to create change.
In my experience, there are three fundamental factors that contribute to this pattern. Let look at each of these separately and consider what you can do to address them.
I remember one frustrated client who described meetings where it seemed as though team members were in agreement with the decision being made – they were making no objections, raising no concerns – but then in the following weeks he would hear indirect feedback that certain people disagreed with the outcome and were taking no action to move it forward. Obviously, this undermines results.
So, how do you ensure that you’re hearing objections? How can you create the conditions that invite people to speak up?
First, pay attention to how you respond when objections ARE raised. Do you explain? Do you list all the reasons why the objections aren’t relevant? Or do you really listen and try to understand? Have you ever changed your thinking as a result of someone raising objections?
Teams pay close attention to how leaders respond when their ideas are challenged – if you want to know whether or not people are really on board with a decision, make sure that you respond to disagreement in a way that invites dissent rather than shuts it down. This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with every objection raised; but you do need to convey that you’ve genuinely listened to somebody’s concerns and clearly articulate why you’re making a different choice.
A second way to create conditions that invite people to speak up is to clearly communicate that this is your expectation. Let people know at the beginning of a discussion that you’re open to hearing all opinions and that you expect them to speak up if they have concerns. (This will backfire if your behavior doesn’t match your words.) Publicly thank people who do disagree, and follow up directly with people who don’t raise objections openly but complain quietly after the meeting.
This was a consistent problem for one team I worked with several years ago. They would come to agreement on a decision, but then no action happened as a result. As a consequence, they wasted a lot of time rehashing old conversations and they struggled to move their work forward. As they became more aware of this pattern, they began ending every discussion by identifying who was responsible for the next steps. Guess what? Follow through increased dramatically.
Clearly assigning responsibility for action isn’t about creating blame or fear of consequences. And being responsible for making sure a decision is acted on doesn’t mean doing all the work yourself. But without what my profession calls “single point accountability,” it’s easy for everybody to assume that someone else will take care of what needs to happen.
I think this is the most common reason why decisions often don’t lead to action. People are busy, and they know they won’t be called to account if they let something slide. While this topic merits a whole article by itself, here are two suggestions for building accountability within your team.
First, begin talking explicitly in terms of commitments. When the team comes to a decision, identify the action steps, assign responsibility for each of them, and then ask each individual, “Do I have your commitment to get this done?” If you hear “I’ll see what I can do,” or “I’ll try to get that to you by Friday,” let people know that’s not adequate. You need to know if you can count on them to produce a specific result by a specific time – if they can’t commit to that, then you either re-negotiate the action step or find out what support they need in order to make the commitment. Asking explicitly for commitment not only sends the message “this matters,” it also creates a strong foundation for a follow up conversation if the commitment isn’t kept.
Second, when someone doesn’t follow through on a commitment, have a direct, clear, non-blaming conversation that’s focused on resolving the breakdown. Here are some quick guidelines for how to do this skillfully:
When you call people on broken commitments in this way, it sends the message that a) you notice, b) you’re unhappy about it, and c) you expect action. Of course, if there’s an ongoing performance issue or a pattern of broken commitments, the conversation will be more involved, but the same general guidelines apply.
If these three factors that prevent decisions from being implemented are present on your team, work with the action steps I’ve suggested here. Gradually, you will begin to build a culture of open discussion and clear accountability that leads to more successful results.
Your turn: What are the ways you see teams failing to turn decisions into action? What have you found that helps?
Sloth photo courtesy of Marissa Strniste, Flickr Creative Commons