I was participating in a performance review meeting with a successful division of a global technology company. In this meeting, the team members responsible for leading the key strategic initiatives were updating the entire management team on the status and progress of their initiatives.
With slight variations, pretty much every presenter jumped almost immediately into the details of the metrics they are tracking, the status of these metrics and the activities their initiative team is involved with.
None of the presenters provided any higher level context on the purpose and objectives of their initiative, or where they aim to take it. Based on these updates you could tell how efficient the team was at tracking the metrics and activities they chose, but not the impact and value of their initiatives, or the greater potential of their initiatives to reach a new level in the future.
Many leaders and managers have the same tendency to jump right into activities. I see it all the time. In fact, many leaders think that the higher purpose and objective stuff is “fluff” and “nice to have”.
These leaders are so mistaken! They are oblivious to a different level of powerful strategic approach.
When it comes to creating and achieving powerful strategies and extraordinary results, there are three levels of the game a team could be operating at: Activities, Outcomes, and Breakthroughs.
Most leaders operate at the activities level. Managing and tracking activities is the easiest and safest strategic approach. You think about where you want to be and then you identify and commit to the activities that you assume and hope will get you there. In many cases leaders don’t even spend much time on where they want to get to, they just identify activities, because that is what they are most familiar and comfortable with.
In the activities approach, there isn’t typically a conversation about commitment, and if there is it is about promising to carry out the activities. People tend to take on comfortable, familiar and realistic activities in order to reduce the risk of challenging the status quo or thinking outside the box.
In the performance review meetings, the activity oriented leaders give a detailed account of what they have been doing and what they will do moving forward. In this approach, success is ‘ticking the box’ on on-scheduled activities.
What can happen is that you carry out all the activities and you still don’t achieve your results. Usually, when that happens activity-based leaders come up with excuses or they blame the circumstances and others; things like: “We did our part but they didn’t do theirs” and “We were on track but the circumstances changed”.
If you push on the activity-oriented leaders to promise the end results, not the activities to get there, they typically get nervous and defensive. They would tell you something like “How can we promise outcomes that we don’t have enough control over“.
Accountability for Activities is no accountability at all!
Leaders who focus on outcomes want to know “What are we out to achieve?”. For them, the activities are a derivative of the outcomes, not an end in themselves. As, the circumstances or the status of the outcome change, so do the activities.
I work with a powerful technical leader who has become outcome oriented. Every time one of his managers gives him a report on what they are planning to do he stops them and asks: “What is the outcome you are going to achieve with all these activities?“. As he has shifted his managers’ orientation from activities to outcomes, they have been able to elevate their results and impact.
Outcome-oriented leaders want their managers to promise outcomes, not activities. This shift is a big step up. Sometimes the outcomes are clear but many times they are not, and the team needs to engage in a deeper and more powerful strategic dialogue to align around what they want their future state to look like.
You can only reach the breakthrough level if you are oriented around outcomes.
If you move from “What will we do this quarter?” to “What outcome will we achieve this quarter?” you are making a big step forward, but it still doesn’t mean you have taken the game to a new level. In order to generate a breakthrough mindset and conversation, you need to promise an outcome that is beyond what is predictable; you need to put a stake in the ground for a bigger, bolder future that requires you and your team to think, behave and work differently together. You need to ask: “What breakthrough outcome are we going to cause this quarter?“.
You could call it a stretch goal. However, in most organizations stretch goals are driven down from above. If you want to create a breakthrough orientation in your team you need everyone to think bolder and believe that they can shape their destiny, set the bar and achieve more than what is predictable.
As Alan Kay called it:
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it!”
The most powerful leaders feel comfortable to promise a bold future state and trust themselves and their teams to get there without knowing how to do so in advance.
You can do it too!