Over the past few weeks I’ve been involved in a number of situations where urgent requests have been made of people and teams, and they have diligently run off at pace to deliver an appropriate response only to discover (days and weeks later) that their interpretation of the request wasn’t correct, or worse yet to come back together as a team to discover that big pieces of the request have been missed completely.

Time and effort were lost because:

  1. People failed to clarify the request and ensure that everyone (requestor and requestee) were on the same page in terms of what needed to be delivered; and
  2. Teams failed to review the request, identify the deliverables clearly, and assign clear ownership and timelines to each piece of the puzzle to ensure that things got done.

A colleague likened it to a firework – a senior executive makes a high level request and expresses urgency but may not provide the level of clarity the team needs to drive forward to a successful conclusion.  Without framing the request or problem clearly (either in the original request or by the team replaying their interpretation for confirmation) the drive for urgency lights a spinning firework rather than the direct rocket that was intended.

Whether you’re working on a one-pager to summarize a business case or a multi-million dollar project there is significant value in spending the time up front to frame the problem/project and ensure that everyone is clear on roles and accountabilities.  Often people start to sprint before they figure out where they are going or what is needed (running before they walk) and after a few days they lift their head and realize they’ve been running a big oval track and haven’t actually achieved anything.

Oval tracks were invented to allow spectators to easily watch an entire race within a contained area, unlike spectators at a marathon who will only see the runners pass once.  Oval tracks have a great purpose for spectators in this sense in that they can view feats of athletic strength with no presumption that the runner is actually going anywhere.

In business an oval track is caused by lack of clarity and it sucks productivity out of our teams.

In reality, business leaders are the high paying spectators that are sitting at the finish line of the marathon – they have no interest in the path or the journey that the runners took to get there, they are only interested in them crossing the finish line they have drawn in an acceptable time frame.

If we can’t get clarity at the start of the marathon our runners will take unnecessary laps at the stadium before leaving for the road portion of the race adding unnecessary delay to their arrival at the finish, or worse yet arrive at the wrong finish line causing rework and additional effort to back-track to the right destination.

As a leader it is vital to ensure that you frame your request clearly and ensure that your teams understand exactly what output you are looking for, what it’s purpose and audience are, and when you expect to see it.  It is equally vital that you check in with them both at the time of the request and during the journey to ensure they feel comfortable asking clarification questions to ensure they wind up at the right destination.

As a member of a team it is critical for you to validate your interpretation of requests that you receive, take time up front to break the request out to the specific deliverables, and assign clear ownership and timelines for each of the pieces.  Taking a little time up front to ensure that you understand the route, the milestones, and who is running what leg of the race will do wonders to reduce churn and spin and to help you to get to the finish line faster.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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