Hope creep

The R&D leadership of a large Integrated Oil & Gas Major struggled with this question at one of our recent workshops: “How do you end someone’s favorite project?”

Large R&D and product development organizations need to balance a portfolio of innovations, and they constantly face trade-offs between different projects that look more or less promising at different stages. This particular Oil & Gas R&D leadership team coined a new phrase, based on the common project management concept of “scope creep” (when project scope gradually expands beyond the budgeted resources): they referred to their conundrum as “hope creep”. The leaders observed that the more a researcher has invested time and effort into a project, and  the more he or she has looked forward to success down the line, the harder it becomes to then admit that “this will not work out”. They ask themselves: “What if I try this or that little tweak? It might still work.” At every stage, a little more hope creeps in.

We started resolving the question of how to end a pet project by looking more deeply into the researchers’ motivations. What kept them hopeful? In addition to regret for the sunk cost (the resources already spent), we came up with: the desire to publish and build reputation; the desire to contribute to something that will make a meaningful difference to the company.

We then used these three “sources of hope creep” as starting points for change. Once a compelling case can be made that the current project is unlikely to have as much pay-off as potential new ones, what conversations are useful? Can the regret of the sunk cost be balanced with the opportunity cost: is there a clear case that the researcher’s future time would be spent more productively on a new project? Can the desire to publish still be satisfied, e.g., by publishing lessons learned from the discontinued project, and/or by publishing about the new one? Can the desire for impact be satisfied by the principle that we must focus our scarce time and resources where we believe we have most likelihood to succeed – and that we are doing the right thing by adapting our assessment of that likelihood all the time, as we learn more about each project?

When learning becomes a critical source of pride and motivation, decisions to end projects can be just a little bit less difficult.

Creating followership

This weekend, I had breakfast with a successful executive of one of the large Telecommunications firms. He had just completed the turnaround of an underperforming business unit. After years of gradually declining sales, the unit is growing profitably again. “I think I now know how to motivate the team against a goal,” he said. “I’ve set a clear direction, I’ve identified and celebrated early wins, and I’ve recognized those with a positive attitude while ignoring the cynics and reducing their power. As a result, they have all rallied around the objectives, and the unit is doing much better now. But I’m not sure whether they would follow ME, as a leader, regardless of the goal. What does it take for a leader to create real followership?”

As we brainstormed this question, we raised a few new ones. What sources of intrinsic motivation can a leader tap into, that create followership and commitment beyond the “goal of the day”?
We came up with the following possible things that would motivate his team members at a deeper level:

  • developing new skills
  • doing the right thing for the business and the community
  • living by a valuable set of principles
  • stretching to accomplish a very challenging objective
  • being proud of one’s effort and progress (rather than only of one’s accomplishments)

The most effective leaders use the work itself to build people’s self esteem. How can you help your team members see how much their efforts matter?

Cascading the message down the line

This week, two of our clients each asked the same question: “What are best practices for cascading a leadership message down the line? Somehow my message does not seem to arrive at the front line; it gets stuck in the middle.”

One of the most frequent causes of failure that we see in top leadership communications is a simple lack of intensity and frequency. Lou Gerstner and Gordon Bethune both say it very well (in their books, respectively “Who says elephants can’t dance” and “From worst to first“). You have to repeat and repeat and repeat the message until you are utterly bored and sick of hearing yourself, and most leaders don’t do that – they believe that if they say it very clearly once, then people will know. A rule of thumb is: we have to hear or see or experience your message seven times before it arrives.

The second most frequent cause of failure is lack of “walking the talk”: we say one thing, but we do another; one process (e.g. our strategy cascade) says one thing, another (e.g. our budget process and daily planning realities) says another. Better NOT to send a message than to send it and proceed to contradict it in action – a leadership message that doesn’t align with daily experience will only foster cynicism.

We find that cascades that include bottom-up elements tend to be more effective. E.g., for a strategy cascade: a planning process that includes a specific time/process for lower levels to raise issues and propose solutions, and then works that information back into the top-down part, tends to work better than one that goes straight down from the top. The underlying principle: people are more interested to hear about themselves and their own ideas than about anything else you could possibly want to talk to them about.

The structure for planning a cascade depends on the communication’s objectives, and on disciplined related success metrics. Some options: Just inform; Inform + test understanding; above + receive feedback to improve; above + get commitment statement; above + embed (e.g., in sector plans that trigger budget and initiative reviews). 

When the message must be heard throughout the entire organization, we recommend using multiple media at the same time that reinforce each other, the more specific the better. Examples include personal change stories, video, town hall meetings, game board sessions, gallery walks, magazine interviews, and viral/community building approaches.

Lastly, top team alignment on the strategy and operating model needs to be strong an visible – which sounds like, but is not a no-brainer. If the top team disagrees, this translates down surprisingly effectively without any particular communications effort!

People believe what they say themselves

People generally believe what they say themselves. Strangely, they don’t believe what YOU tell them nearly as often.

What implications does this have?

Perhaps you can illustrate the point you want to make with a powerful story, rather than provide the facts and the argument of the case. Perhaps you can give your colleagues or customers the same experience you had, that led you to your point of view? If you must provide rational argument, perhaps you can start it from what you know they already believe.

For example, rather than explaining your call center statistics, can you tell the story of Bob, who called to replace a defective product – can you describe what Bob said, what responses he received, how many times he was put on hold, for how  long, and what music was playing in the background? Rather than describing the rationale for moving your offices from New York City to Poughkeepsie, can you relate the conversation you had about the relocation with your concerned spouse last night?

How can you help others say it, and believe it, for themselves? How can you do this while remaining genuine and not manipulative?

The definition of manipulation

A frequently-asked question in our work on change and leadership is: what is manipulation, and how can I make sure I am persuasive, but not manipulating others?

Our preferred definition is as follows: “manipulation” is when you are trying to make someone do or believe something that they would likely choose NOT to do or believe if they knew your intent.

The solution is simple. State your intent up front. Then use any persuasion approach you wish – as long as it is legal and ethical, of course!