Strategy and big-picture thinking are crucial in HR, but too many leaders are prioritizing them at the expense of real action, a management expert warns.
“I love strategy and I love talking strategy, because you can take the big-picture view and start assembling a solution,” management consultant Alan Hargreaves told HR Daily, “but there are two things wrong with it”.
First, it tends to remove a person from the action; second, it has a use-by date.
The moment a strategy is signed off, the clock is ticking, “especially in the business environment we’re in today, where change and disruption can come so quickly”, Hargreaves says.
In his book Management Reboot, he recalls the excitement and ideas, mission statements and long-term targets his firm would generate at strategic off-site meetings – and how, six months later, he’d find himself saying, “didn’t we have a good off-site about this? Why haven’t we done anything?”.
Hargreaves became so fed up he imposed a rule: no one could leave the last session until they shared one related action they’d take on Monday morning.
“Forget the vocabulary and forget the big theories and visions and mission statements for a moment and just say, ‘yeah, but what are you going to do that is different on Monday?'” he says.
It was often simple actions, like talking to a fellow marketer about a development idea, or reconnecting with a client. In isolation they might seem insignificant, but “action creates action and by taking the first step, we at least start to chip away at the inertia”, he says.
It’s important to remember that: the less people hear, the more they remember; the greater the risk, the more they pay attention; and the less cluttered the mission, the more creative the action.
Four simple steps
HR and other managers can fight inertia by building “a platform for action”, Hargreaves says.
The first step is to get clarity, because a lack of clarity kills momentum.
“Ever sat in one of those meetings where discussion never ends? It’s because the meeting had no clear question to answer,” he says.
“Ask the question. Where do you want to go? Is it solving a particular customer’s problem, building market share, boosting innovation or some big strategic issue?
“If you are going to lead people somewhere, you need to know where that is.”
The second step for leaders is to get authentic by identifying their strengths, Hargreaves says. If individuals can be clear about what they do really well, they can lead with those strengths to make the strongest possible contribution to the organisation.
They also need to bring themselves down to earth by asking questions such as “what can I do? How can I serve? How can I give help?”.
These questions can be particularly helpful for those who are anxious or insecure about meeting expectations themselves, Hargreaves says, because by focusing on what they can do and on others, they will feel less overwhelmed.
Finally, leaders need to be willing to get help when they need it.
“There’s a natural inclination to be a bit quiet about your weaknesses – no one walks down the street saying, ‘hey, look at all these weaknesses I’ve got!’,” but being a good leader isn’t about being good at everything, it’s about being good at leading, he says.
Strong, effective working relationships require colleagues to speak up about what they’re not good at as well as their strengths, and assign tasks accordingly.
Avoid “complexity creep”
Another enemy of action – and creativity – is information overload, Hargreaves says.
“Just as over-informed investors make worse decisions than those relying on less data, simple instructions give people a chance to find their own way through,” he notes.