Gear up for a strong start
The start of a new year is a good time to think about how you and your team are spending your time at work. As American author Henry David Thoreau said:
It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?
If you want to make a difference in your organisation and have a team that makes progress, it’s important to consider the meaning of time.
People often use money as a metaphor for time. The logic is that once time has been spent, you can’t get it back. And you can’t spend “future” time – because you can’t spend what you don’t have.
If you follow that line of reasoning, it’s the present that you should be most concerned with. Why? Because it is only the present time that you can be certain you have.
However, that’s really not the case. To thrive in today’s complex working environment, leaders need to consider all three aspects of time – the past, the present and the future.
Reflecting on the past helps with learning. Thinking about the future helps with goal-setting. Being present and using your time wisely helps advance you towards those goals.
Ask yourself and your team members:
• Which of these elements do you spend the most time on?
• Are you dwelling on the past?
• Are you so focused on the present that you don’t chart future plans? Or
• Are you so fixated on the future that you don’t know how to enjoy the present?
Reflecting on the past and thinking about your future goals while staying focused on what you need to do in the present is a delicate balance. Influential leaders know how to balance all three.
They recognise the need to look behind – but not for so long that they get lost in the past. Reflecting on past experiences and learning from them is essential, but being fixated on something that has passed – and which you cannot change – is very unhealthy.
Influential leaders also understand how to focus on the present – but not to the extent that their concentration on the present precludes them from planning for the future and making decisions that have long-term, sustainable outcomes.
Looking ahead means a leader scans the horizon and thinks ahead. They take a step back and see the bigger picture.
This perspective is important as it helps them understand what may be changing in a global and societal context, and what they need to do to help their team and the organisation make good progress, and stay ahead of the game.
Dealing with change
This balancing of perspectives is particularly important if your team has gone through a lot of change in the past year and is therefore feeling fatigued and weary from disruption and adjustment. They need to see the progress they have made and to work through the challenges they’ve faced.
The word “progress” commonly means to “move forward” or “advance”. Its definition implies that progress is always a forward action.
But progress isn’t that simple. It comes in many shapes and sizes. And it’s certainly not a one-way street. When you’re making an organisational change that’s complex, it can feel like one step forward and then one step backwards. It’s certainly never just a straight line to the finish.
As Harvard academic Rosabeth Moss Kanter said:
Everything can look like failure in the middle.
Persevering despite setbacks and pushing through the hard middles isn’t easy. It’s much easier to lose focus, and to divert your attention to something else that looks easier to achieve.
However, change that is hard to achieve is worth striving for. If it was easy, everyone else would have already done it.
If you want your team to stay the course, there’s a critical factor you must consider – finding ways to show progress.
Take some time to reflect on how you and your team progressed in 2016, then reset their focus and re-energise for the progress they need to make in 2017, especially if there are incomplete business goals or targets from the past year.
It’s demoralising when you think progress is stalled. However, when you check your progress, you may be surprised at what you see. You may have progressed further than you think.
The importance of progress was demonstrated by a 2010 study reported in the Harvard Business Review. Researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer asked leaders and employees what they thought motivated employees the most.
There were five options:
• Recognition for good work
• Incentive and rewards
• Sense of progress
• Clear goals and targets
• Inter-personal connections
The managers thought the answer was recognition for good work. But for the employees it was progress.
The researchers found that when workers thought they were making headway in their jobs, or when they received support that helped them overcome obstacles, their emotions were positive and their drive to succeed was at its peak.
In contrast, on the days when they encountered roadblocks and setbacks, their motivation was at its lowest, which goes to show that it’s incredibly demotivating when progress is impeded.
Staying in the game
Leading change can be challenging and as the reality of change hits home, leaders can become uncertain as they see momentum waning and milestones slipping. The team starts to question their ability to deliver, and teamwork starts to suffer as people look for someone to blame for the lack of progress.
It is at this point that project deliverables start to be de-scoped, activities are re-prioritised and the project team is often restructured. This, too, is the time that change leadership really needs to come to the fore.
Everyone wants to see that they are making headway, and that their contribution is making a difference.
Make the progress visible. Don’t miss out on celebrating achievements and keep the support system strong when team energy seems to be slipping away.
Michelle Gibbings is a change and leadership expert and founder of Change Meridian. Michelle works with global leaders and teams to help them accelerate progress. She is the author of Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work. For more information, visit www.michellegibbings.com or contact firstname.lastname@example.org