Why doesn’t our team follow up on the plans we’ve made?

Members of a divisional leadership team got together to think about how they could lead their division through a major upcoming growth opportunity. They identified a long list of “to do’s” – things they needed to create collectively to improve the group’s effectiveness. You’d be familiar with the types of “organization building” activities they identified – operating model, strategy, roadmap, clear roles and expectations.

 

The energy level in the room exploded as members talked on top of each other about all the things they needed to do next, to address these needs.  “We just need accountability.” “We just need to have an off-site meeting.” “We just need to hash out all these plans.” Then a member who had been quiet said, “But we’ve had this conversation before. We’ve created to-do lists like this – last year, and the year before, and we never implemented the plans. Despite our good intentions and many attempts at ‘accountability’, we haven’t followed through on any of this.”

 

So I asked the group what things they tend to do, instead of following up on the plans they’ve created. They said,

  • When there’s a crunch, we de-prioritize these organization-building activities in favor of more directly revenue-generating ones.
  • We often don’t put our strongest people in charge of the organization-building activities, and we de-value the efforts of the people we do put in charge of them.
  • We don’t put incentives in place to reward organization building activities.

 

Then I asked them why they do these things, despite their good intentions.  They said,

  • We are afraid to challenge the revenue pressure that we perceive is coming from our corporate leadership.
  • We think we must demonstrate client responsiveness at all costs, so we are afraid to put any time into activities that might conflict with that.
  • We are most rewarded by leading our respective teams in directly revenue-generating work activities – both externally rewarded, and internally rewarded in terms of the satisfaction we receive.

 

This team was experiencing what Chris Argyris calls the gap between “espoused theories” (their well-intentioned organization building plans) and their “theories-in-use” (their commitment to client responsiveness and revenue generation). But, even more, the team’s behavior was reflecting their Big Assumption that these two sets of values were mutually incompatible. They assumed that, if they put priority on organization building, it would cut into client service and revenue generation, and vice versa.

 

Does your team have its version of the well-intentioned plan that gets repeatedly re-created, but never fully implemented? Don’t engage in the “flight towards planning,” and create yet another more elaborate plan that’s destined to gather dust. Instead, ask yourselves,

  • What are all the things we are currently doing, that conflict with the intent of our plan?
  • What is motivating us to do those things? What other value are we holding as important – or what undesired outcome are we trying to avoid?
  • Why are we assuming these two sets of values (those reflected in the plan, and those reflected in our current behavior) are incompatible?

 

There’s nothing bad or wrong with your team if you experience these challenges. The assumptions driving current behavior are part of an organization’s culture – behaviors and norms that reflect how we believe it’s “good” or “appropriate” to act. Like the fish swimming in water, we don’t question the water – and we don’t see how it limits our choices.

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