How to improve productivity in uncertain times

Leading by objectives helps improve productivity

Over the last 3 weeks of lockdown we have spoken to a number of business leaders about the impact that this period of change is having on their business and the different demands it places on their leadership. After the initial phase in which most leaders described a need simply to affect the changes necessary to keep the business functioning, came the need to explore new ways of working that were going to meet the challenges of the uncertainty we are all facing. For many this requirement was driven by teams being forced into working at home and far away from the central hub of business activity.

Many leaders have learnt quickly how to use technology in order to help people stay connected. For many, this is clearly a straightforward and natural process of adaptation. For others, it runs counter to how they prefer to lead. For some, the idea of having the majority of their team working from home is scary. How do I know they are doing the right things? How can I trust them to do what they say they are going to do? This often drives an over-dependence on the technology to ‘check-in’ with people – what they really mean is ‘check-up’.

Same but different

Talking to a senior leader in the world of banking last week we heard that those leaders who appear to be thriving currently are those who have already developed strong, high trust, relationships with their team members. In our research on how the most effective leaders ‘show up’ day to day with their followers we identified 5 essential human qualities that exist in all of us that we can practise consciously in order to build engagement and develop high performance: Determination, Compassion, Balance, Discovery, and Perspective.[1] Leaders develop their credibility with others by building these capabilities through deliberate practice. When the context for leadership changes dramatically it appears these qualities matter more than ever.

For many organisations, of course, the transition to a more distributed workforce happened a decade ago and they are largely untouched by this hiatus. Listening to Mark Mullenweg, Founder of WordPress, being interviewed recently on Sam Harris’s wonderful podcast on the future of work[2] you get sense of the massive benefits of having a globally distributed workforce. Find the best talent in the world and provide them with innovative ways to connect and magic will happen. However, many organisations are still organised on more traditional lines and therefore have leaders at the helm for whom navigating this new context remains tough. It rubs against their strong need for control and for systems and process over the more human qualities identified above.

Managing by outcomes

It is an old idea, but could Managing by Outcomes be an approach that would help such leaders succeed in this new order? Simply put, managing by outcomes means defining organisational goals; communicating these objectives clearly; rigorously measuring performance against those goals and then continuously managing the organisation in line with those goals and measures. It strikes us that a structured, goal-focussed approach, makes sense when followers are outside of a leader’s line of sight for extended periods of time.

In this approach, leaders give people the big picture because they recognise that the most talented performers prefer to work with high levels of autonomy. They then manage by outcomes rather than by tasks.They spend a lot of time with people agreeing on what must be delivered. They make crystal-clear contracts about the real results to achieve. From then on virtually every performance conversation will start by concentrating on the agreed outcomes rather than get into supervising the tasks or justifying their working week.

In our experience, organisations who use this approach well:

  • have a clear vision of why they exist, what they want to achieve and how well they are achieving against this;
  • plan their work keeping in mind a clear set of individual and team goals
  • take stock of their progress by monitoring, measuring, reviewing and re-evaluating as they go;
  • learn from success and failure, then modify what they do and how they do it in response;
  • report openly on their results, promoting transparency and providing a basis for dialogue about future decisions in the team

Interestingly they do not stop there. They also aim to deliver in a manner that is consistent with the values and principles that characterise the organisation. They encourage people to focus on setting the bar high when making decisions on how they go about their daily work.

A number of organisations we work with have successfully shifted to this way of working. One in particular, until recent events took over, had all their staff under one roof, but have moved seamlessly to becoming a distributed workforce. The leader tells us that clarity is vital and their role is to communicate the big picture, provide structures and frameworks to guide people and be world class at goal setting and reviewing. Each team member’s role is to make clear contracts about their part in achieving the goals. If people get out of bed a little later than usual or take time out in their day to teach their child’s English lesson, can we learn to live with it – so long as people are delivering what they say are going to deliver?

By David Pilbeam (MA) Leadership coach and coaching supervisor


[1] Pilbeam, D & Wallis, G.P., (2018) Leader iD: Discover your leadership profile – and how to improve. Pearson, London

[2] #194 The New Future of Work, A Conversation with Matt Mullenberg on Making Sense with Sam Harris, Podcast

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