Don’t Fix It

In a provocative post, Swati Jena looks at the trend towards “problem-solving” as a virtue among leaders of organizations. She points out, however, that problem-solving taken to an extreme can lead to several problems, one of which is almost an excuse not to prevent problems from occurring in the first place.

And what’s worse, she notes, organizations reward the fixers when they should, in fact, be rewarding the preventors/planners to a much greater degree.

How have we gotten here? The problem, in a nutshell, is that it’s hard to know how many times the Secret Service prevents the President from being shot (prevention), but it’s plain to see when he has been shot (problem).

In other words, we’re straight back to making the case for strategy and planning instead of waiting to fight fires when they occur. And indeed, it’s axiomatic that when we fail to plan, we plan to fail. Why? Because planning involves communication (written and oral, internally and with customers) at its heart, and there’s abundant evidence that most projects and even large-scale initiatives fail due to a lack of communication.

Get planning done

There is considerable research about how to use incentives to change behavior. One such area is around taking medication and making healthy lifestyle choices. As summarized in Harvard Business Review, the research points to several steps companies can take to increase adoption:

  • Make the rewards visible to all
  • Take the rewards away for noncompliance — “It also takes advantage of our natural aversion to loss (people work harder to retain something than to earn it).”
  • “…make the smaller incentives easier to see and, therefore, more influential.”
  • “Construct teams so that individual efforts become group achievements. For example, rather than merely encouraging individuals to walk more, create teams whose success depends on each member walking a minimum amount (say, 7,000 steps a day). Teams would also compete against each other for prizes or bragging rights. By enlisting social norms, you capitalize on the most powerful of human motivators.”

I maintain that these lessons could apply to planning within organizations. This is for two reasons: 1) they ask users to trade doing nothing (not eating healthier or not having project kickoff meetings), and 2) they both encourage rewarding interim results, not just long-term results.

Think through incentives

How would this apply in your organization? How can we get teams to stop and plan instead of moan and react? It could be all about the incentives.

One way, leveraging the work above, might be to have teams benefit in some way — financially or otherwise — from successful project outcomes, thus giving them skin in the game. Make the rewards visible to all. This can make it feel good to meet the outcomes — and make it hurt not to meet them. Managers could have a bonus tied to successful outcomes as well. Consider a group reward tied to individual contributions (the project equivalent of walking a certain number of steps) in order to reduce the freeloader problem.

Another possibility is to focus on project milestones and tie rewards to meeting them along the way. This makes sure there isn’t a gulf of months or even years before rewards are enjoyed, which dampens enthusiasm. Even make it — gasp — fun. (Think of the difference in telling your kids they can get a piece of candy for cleaning their room or an entire candy bar for cleaning the entire house. They often choose to clean their room.)

However you do it, though, project planning is important. It not only avoids time wasted in putting out (preventable) fires, but it frees your people to plan even bigger and better things to benefit the company.

And let’s not forget that success within organizations has a way of becoming contagious.

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