Raising the bar by pushing for perfection?

Raising the bar
by pushing for perfection?

Pushing hard is not efficient
so use iterations instead!

‘Good is not good enough’ and ‘You’re only as good as your last results’ are common management phrases indicating that the bar will be raised again and again. Whereas it may be good to stretch employees both for personal development and revenue/profit, it may become counter-productive if a manager starts stressing people instead of stretching. I have personally most felt such an aggressive push to raise the bar during budget negotiations. Even when I thought that I already showed quite some ambition to aim high, it always seemed to be too low. Top-management wanted to make it look like that the budget approach is ‘bottom-up’ whereas in reality, they already have an idea on the numbers they want to see. As a result, a lot of effort is wasted by lower management to come up with a proposal, thereafter still being overruled. Giving the mandate and then withdrawing the mandate, can ruin the whole intention of developing ambition and taking ownership at lower levels.

Stretch but not too far

This kind of top-down push may also result in other side effects. It could be that in the next budget cycle, employees and lower management will make sure that their first proposal is as low as possible to create a better negotiation position, by putting more emphasis on threats rather than opportunities. A forced commitment could also result in staff just pushing the numbers for the sake of pushing the numbers not bothering about sustainability or risks. Raising the bar could thus in both cases have a negative impact on long-term sustainable performance. The question is therefore how to stretch but not stress employees to avoid this kind of resistance? How can managers improve good performance while increasing staff involvement?
Before I will answer these questions, I will share some examples of a completely different approach to increase results based on my personal experience when attending a strategy session. It was already pretty special to participate in a strategy session as mid-level manager as most companies perceive strategy development as a highly secretive, very exclusive job for the very top of the organization. Later on, top-management wonders why the strategy is not working, only then realizing that not all relevant aspects have been taken into consideration and low involvement resulting in poor acceptance by lower levels. Asking management and staff ‘below’ for their input and engaging them in the strategy development process can have created a better strategy that will have more support and ownership throughout the organisation.

Apply iterations to improve the outcome

There were also some other valuable insights that I gained during the strategy session that proves that working smarter is more effective and fun than working harder. The organizers of the session explained that the whole process during the session would be based on iteration. Research has shown that stretching becomes harder when approximately 85 % of the perfect outcome has been reached ( ‘the law of diminishing returns’). The last 15 % for reaching 100 % could be as a hard as getting to the 85 %-level. Instead of pushing harder, and harder, striving for perfection, we had to apply iterations to improve the outcome. That implies that we had to aim for 85 % of the goal in a relatively short timeframe. Thereafter the direction would be adjusted with a new assignment again aiming for 85% of the perfect solution. This is similar to ‘sprints’ in ‘agile-working’ as in both cases the goal is not to develop the final perfect solution but rather some tangible outcome that can be tested and used for further improvement.

During the strategy session, we already made a number of these steps when we reached the phase where we had to simulate a presentation of the plan so far to the Board. The group was split into three teams, each having to deal with different requests from the Board; The first team was challenged to see what could be done if the Board would double their budget; the second team was asked to see what could be done if the Board would cut their budget by half; and the third team got the challenge to see what could be done with the budget as requested but in 6 months instead of 12 months. It was interesting to see that different assignments for improvements could have such different results. The team that got additional money lost track as they started fantasizing about the wildest ideas; the team with money constraints, started threatening to kill the most important projects in some kind of revenge but later came up with some good ideas; the team with time constraint was able to further reduce activities and was most focussed on short-term delivery. There is no right or wrong here but the observation is that different assignments could strengthen the outcome in different manners. The process of iteration creates a new impulse for additional input on the available strategic options.

Change the approach good progress has been made

After incorporating these new insights, we moved to the next round of iteration. This time we had to simulate a town-hall presentation to all staff as presenting the strategy is a crucial step in implementation. If the presentation is not crisp and clear or fails to create some excitement than it is not likely that executing the strategy will be quick and smooth. So we worked hard on the presentation making it clear what the positioning, the segmentation and the proposition were considering macroeconomic developments. While we were busy with the preparation using all these fancy business-buzz words, the workshop organizers warned us that the audience to assess the quality of our presentation was extremely capable to give direct feedback on the clarity and excitement of the presentations. We did not worry too much as we believed that we were well prepared with our power-points slides and beautiful graphs… But then they brought in a group of children between 10 and 12 years old! You can imagine that this iteration step resulted in quite a drastic review of our presentation as this critical audience felt that our presentation was not excited nor clear and they made it very clear that they were bored until we could visualize how the experience of engagement with our organisation would become much more exciting.

So how to make sure that employees do not show resistance for stretching? It is recommended to change the approach a bit after some good progress has been made rather than repeating and pushing for perfection. This can be as easy as changing the goals or the conditions a bit. What can we do more, better or different when it comes to the end result? Or could it be that we that we can challenge ourselves by imagining what we would do with fewer resources? It is quite remarkable that less can create more as the strategy workshop showed that getting less time to execute the strategy brought the biggest improvement in drafting a strategy that works!

Raising the bar by pushing for perfection?

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