Continuously shifting priorities is the root problem here and often goes hand in hand with a leader impaired by the shiny object syndrome.
There are many reasons that this happens. In fact, it is not always priority shifts. Sometimes it is a reframing of the original goals that makes it feel like a the earth moved beneath you.
Sometimes this is a simple byproduct of an evolving understanding of the market or changing consumer tastes. Other times the leader of the group is simply sharing unbaked thoughts which are not meant to be more than thought experiments, yet they are interpreted as directives by the team.
If you don't understand why you are tasked with an objective, you need to ask what the definition of success is. You have an obligation to understand the WHY of what you are investing your time into – this is exactly what you should be counting on your Product team representatives to provide you.
As a servant leader, your goal is to establish goals and guidelines to provide enough context of direction without overly subscribing a path.
For example, if you are in New York and need to get a special document to Florida you should not describe the exact method an employee should use to deliver the document. Instead you want to provide the context of what success looks like.
Your team is made up of professional Olympians. You need to treat them as such. If you give them the latitude to take charge of an objective then they will step up. The more times they have the opportunity to practice this, the more autonomous they will become.
For example, the above objective success criteria may look like:
- I need confirmation that they received the information.
- I need it delivered before the end of next week.
- I need you to spend less than $1000
- We want the customer to feel a personal touch with delivery.
- I need you to understand the document so you can walk them through the contents and answer any questions they have.
Those all highlight success without prescribing how to achieve it. Overly prescribing the HOW should be avoided at all costs or you will destroy the sense of autonomy and ultimately limit their buy-in.
“But what if my team cannot execute with limited guidance?”
Explaining the context and why the objective is important should always be your initial stance. Yet, if you find that the employee or team needs more direction to complete the task, or is taking largely sub optimal approach then you must step in and coach them up.
For example, if they decide to rent a submarine to hand deliver the letter then they are clearly lacking knowledge about cheaper alternatives.
- What if they want to hop a $200 train ride?
- What happens if they can hop a $200 flight?
- What happens if they ship the document through a personal currier for $200?
- What happens if they opt to use DocuSign and a video conference to walk through the document.
The key is to give reasonable autonomy and allow them to execute.
Be cautious of adding your 2 cents to “improve” the solution. This attempt to make it moderately better, should be generally avoided.
Not diving into the tactical details and puppeteering execution is hard for many leaders because this action is how your success was judged prior to becoming a leader. Yet, as a leader, your idea upgrade will often result in a motivational downgrade for your employees.
It may even seem like you moved the goal post or altered priorities – causing doubt and chaos. Worse yet, it could inadvertently shift acceptance criteria or alter scope. Doing this occasionally it is not a huge disruption, yet if it happens frequently or is a large scope shift then it will multiply the chaos factor.
It is also important to note that if you make decisions and do not take the time to help your teams understand the reasoning behind your decisions, then you are falling into the invisible decision trap previously discussed. This is where followers cannot see why the path changed and they only feel the tug of being pulled onto a new path.
Think of this as grabbing someone by the ear and yanking them in a new direction. Has this happened to you in real life? Someone pulling you by the ear? Infuriating, right?
Unfortunately, it is not much different when done in a figurative sense. Instead, you should think of yourself as an usher at an event after the lights have been dimmed.
As the usher you have been helping visitors get seated in your section for 45 minutes. You know where there are available seats and where there are not. For the last 5 minutes you may have been sending visitors to row C. The usher up the stairs has noticed this and told the next group of visitors to go down to C, yet you know that row C is now full and the visitors need to sent to row E. You cannot simply grab the first person in the group by the ear and pull them to row E. No, you need to use your flashlight to signal them to the new isle.
They may stop and ask for clarification based on their discussion with the previous usher and wanting a row closer to the action. Instead of telling them "because I said so", you know that you need to inform them that their party will only fit in row E. At this point they now know what you want them to do and why. They may still be disappointed in the result, but they will understand the reasoning behind the decision and are likely to comply.
What can you do when you are the overly reactionary leader?
To combat this villain you must have a well defined vision, have established decision making principles, and agreed upon decision making processes that allows everyone to agree on the destination and proper path to that destination. This helps keep you on track and not jumping from shiny object to shiny object, or fire drill to fire drill.
Ensure that you are using an effective productization process such as the triple diamond execution blueprint (Problem Space -> Solution Space -> Productization Space). This will help you and the team follow a prescriptive process that eliminates much of the whiplash effect by providing transparency to why the shift in direction is happening.
To this end, make sure that you are open with your team about where your validated market understanding lies. If you are still in an early market and the problem space objectives are in hypothesis form, then be clear about what the hypothesis is and how the current actions are expected to exercise that hypothesis.
If you have a validated problem space understanding of your 10x problems then you are in the solution space in search for understanding the optimal solution. Make sure your team knows what is solid ground and what is still in learning phases. This will allow them to see further down the productization path and not over invest in shadow areas.
Finally, when you have a formal understanding of your problem and solutions spaces, you are ready for true productization. Yet if you are still validating the implementation path then be clear about that.
These milestones provide a lot of clarity about what are firm decisions and which are more likely to change, creating a calm environment and eliminating the whiplash effect.
So what can you do when you are working for hyper responsive villain?
One co-worker once taught me his rule of three which worked for him when dealing with villains exhibiting shiny object syndrome. What he would do is wait until the leader asked for something three times to ensure that they really wanted it. If they didn’t, his thinking was that they were not that interested and were likely just thinking out loud.
I’ve since learned that this willful avoidance is a much more common approach than I imagined. While I do not believe this is a highly productive approach, I do believe it is a great signal that it is time for you to have a very transparent conversation with your leader explaining that you cannot tell when they are brainstorming versus when they are really asking for you to take action. Once you have this level setting conversation, your future interactions become much easier: “Are we brainstorming here or is that a task request?”
On the other hand, when you feel the whiplash effect, that should be a signal that you are missing underlying context for the decision and you need to ask why there has been a change in direction. Your leader should be able to easily provide you with the missing context. If they cannot … well, we will talk about that villain later.
But what if the new request causes a lot of pain for you or your team, such as significant waste or rework?
Make sure that your leader understands the implications of the track change. If they understand the full cost and decide to continue with the change of directions then at least you can feel good that they were able to make an informed decision with your assistance – even if it causes some of your prior efforts to be wasted.
Corrective Advice Recap
- Have longer vision defined and stick with your plan directionality unless evidence is pointing you in another direction.
- Document and communicate your North Star, and ensure that teams recognize how their effort contributes to the North Star.
- Employ more of a servant leadership style providing milestones and desired end destinations – not turn by turn instructions.
- Document and discuss your decision making principles (Corporate and Product Principles).
- Ensure that everyone understands: what problems are we solving, why, and what do customers think about these problems?
- Ensure that everyone understands: what are solutions traits that optimize upon desired customer outcomes?
- Ensure that everyone understands: what is the ideal productized journey of the optimized solution and how will customers feel about it?