Completed to-do lists are necessary but not sufficient for getting your team where you need them to go. Giving them a vision of their destination is your job.
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You’re a senior exec leading an important project meeting, and you get two different reports from your team. One person presents their well-enumerated task list, with green “completed” check marks all over the page. The other person tells you, “I think we’ve figured out how to solve that major roadblock that’s been slowing us down.”
They’re both doing their job. And they’re both advancing the goals of the project. As a leader driving a major business transformation, who would you rather hear from?
Strong leaders articulate a clear vision of what success looks like, spelling out the guiding tenets, strategic imperatives and value creation required to get there. Yet, too many senior executives still cling to a tried-and-true, operationally focused management style. Many still think in terms of activities and check lists instead of goals and strategic action.
I refer to this as a “rocks versus boulders” mentality. If you’re building a road it helps to clear out all the rocks in your path. But that really isn’t progress — it just feels like it. If I’m the foreman on a road crew building an amazing highway to the future, no one cares how many buckets of rocks I’ve moved today. Strong managers find the boulders that get in the way of achieving both vision and progress.
Your team wants to know where the road is leading, and how to remove boulders blocking their way. People want to understand what benefits they’ll see when each of those boulders is removed. They want to embrace a shared vision of what beautiful looks like. That’s the work that matters.
What a boulder looks like.
Other than its sheer size, it’s sometimes hard to tells a big rock from a boulder. A boulder is a barrier; something that is getting in the way of progress over and over again. It’s both a figurative and literal diversion that takes you off track. It’s often a single obstacle that’s blocking several paths to progress.
If, for example, your team keeps telling you that a lack of data capacity is slowing a linchpin supply chain, CRM and quality application; or some regulatory hurdle is stalling the delivery of critical parts in your production cycle — then that’s a big boulder. You’ve got to solve that problem before clearing away the small tasks.
Don’t overlook that small rock sticking above the ground as well; it might be a boulder hiding underneath the earth. Yet there’s no way of knowing that until you break a couple of shovel handles trying to dislodge it.
That’s when you as a leader call for — to follow the metaphor — a big yellow excavator. That doesn’t mean you’re running roughshod over your team’s issues and ideas. It’s your job to help them see what’s a task and what’s a barrier. What’s a “to do” task, and what’s a “need to solve” challenge.
Stop asking about rocks.
If everyone on your team shares the same vision of where you’re going, which is your job as a leader, you don’t need to control every step of the journey. You needn’t keep track of every rock they’re pushing out of the way (that’s their job). And if everyone operates using the same basic values (everyone’s job), they don’t have to do things exactly the way you’ve always done them.
Give people room to experiment, grow and develop their own skills. If the goal is to make it to the top of the mountain, don’t insist that everyone use your preferred climbing gear or issue them a map of your favorite trail. Some may choose to climb up the way you did. Others may take a different path, or parachute in or fly a helicopter to the top. Regardless, you’ll all end up in the right place.
Whether you are trying to transform a small workgroup, a corporate division or an entire organization, strong leaders put their time into and attention upon discerning the difference between “task” rocks and “challenge” boulders. It can be very satisfying to rip through a long to-do list; it may even look good in your report. But unless your actions are moving those big boulders you’ll likely just end up with a pile of rocks.