The Process is as Important as the Product: 7 Tips to Manage Both

Imagine leading the charge into battle and at the crest of the hill, turning around and discovering there are no troops behind you. This was the situation the leaders of Southern New England Telephone Company (SNET) faced in 1994 when Connecticut deregulated the local market.

SNET had been thrown into uncharted waters as Connecticut was the first state to open its telecommunications markets to competition, more than a year and a half before the United States Congress passed the federal Telecommunications Act (1996).

Having had advance notice, the leaders had worked diligently with a top consulting firm to create a comprehensive strategic plan that would make them competitive. It involved restructuring into wholesale and retail operations and providing an array of new retail services. 

However, a few months before the “go live” date (July 1), during a day-long meeting, the officers of the company realized the people who would need to implement the plan were ill-prepared. They did not understand and were not committed to the significant changes that would be needed in their attitude and behavior if the company were to become a competitive retail service provider.

The officers realized that unless they did something drastic, the competition was likely to eat their lunch.

They immediately began a high-involvement initiative aimed at engaging a “critical mass” of the employees, including the union leadership, in confirming the strategies, in identifying a vision of the new culture and the values needed to guide behavior and decisions, and in identifying roadblocks that needed to be removed.

Fortunately the leaders had taken a look behind them and noticed the troops were doing business as usual before they led the charge. But even so, it now required a lot of time, effort and angst in the eleventh hour.

Why did they find themselves in this difficult situation?

The officers of the company had done their planning in isolation, not asking for input from those outside their “tower,” and they had neglected to consider how they would transform the sleepy monopoly culture into a customer-oriented culture.

If they had involved wide representation of management and front-line workers during the earlier planning process, their people would have joined them on the journey from the beginning. Not only would there have been better understanding of the strategies throughout the company, the officers would have gotten good input on feasibility of the strategies and what would be needed for successful implementation.

Why did the eleventh hour initiative make a difference?

The officers approached the situation in a completely different manner than they had during their previous planning effort.

They had the courage to ask their employees, “Do you think this plan is a good idea? What do we need to do to make it work?” And then they listened and trusted that their people would know best what was needed.

7 tips to help ensure the troops will be behind you.

It’s a balancing act. If you are too process-focused, you are in danger of losing momentum. If you are too results-focused, you are in danger of losing your troops. The key is to involve people as early as possible in order to create a “critical mass” of support while continuing to moving forward. Keep these guidelines in mind:

  1. You can craft the most wonderful solution or plan, but if you do it in isolation, you might be surprised by the lack of enthusiasm it generates. When people participate in creating a plan, they have a deeper understanding of what’s needed and are more invested in its success.
  2. Taking the time upfront to involve people can be frustrating for those who already have ideas or are feeling urgency. Remember to have patience with process. Go slow at the beginning in order to go faster and smoother later.
  3. The planning process itself creates learning and change for those who participate in it. If you wait to pull people in at the end, they will not understand the issues the way you do, nor will they share your enthusiasm.
  4. Instead of jumping straight into problem solving or planning, first consider who needs to be at the table – who are your stakeholders, what will be required of them for implementation, and how to best involve them.
  5. Any plan for a new initiative, for change or for problem-solving, should include a plan for how you will inform and/or involve the people who will need to support it.
  6. As you proceed, pay attention to how, not just what, you are doing.
  7. Trust your people. Have the courage to ask, listen, and let go of control. You will actually be a better leader as a result.

14 comments to The Process is as Important as the Product: 7 Tips to Manage Both

  • Kemi Tobais

    Wonderful piece.

  • Luanne

    Thank you for the post, and thoughts on how important teamwork and planning are. Your analogy used in the opening sentence is very engaging! Great tips!

  • David Hollingshead ( @drhollingshead )

    Jesse,

    Another outstanding post. I love the suggestion to get the “troops” involved in the planning stage of the process. That absolutely gets them invested in the concepts. So many times it is difficult to get team members to buy in to our solutions, because they don’t understand the problems. Getting them involved in the solution planning forces them to become familiar enough with the problem to embrace the solution.

    Thanks for the insights,
    David

    • Thanks, David. I appreciate your comment that being “involved in the solution planning forces them to become familiar enough with the problem to embrace the solution.” Another thought that comes to mind is that it needs to be a genuine opportunity for involvement. Even if you already have a solution in mind, it is a good idea to be open to the input of others because they may think of things you haven’t considered.

  • Great post Jesse!

    Love the story, the point and the tips for success. This part of your post resonated with high volume, “The officers of the company had done their planning in isolation, not asking for input from those outside their “tower,” and they had neglected to consider how they would transform the sleepy monopoly culture into a customer-oriented culture.”

    It is so powerful that the officers of the company checked their flanks, and adjusted their behavior.

    Your story reminded me of a post I read on SmartBlog for Leadership this summer. Titled “The answers are on the floor.” http://smartblogs.com/leadership/2012/06/22/the-answers-floor/

    There is so much information and knowledge scattered throughout organizations, from customers and vendors to front-line employees and middle managers. Far too often that knowledge is overlooked and under-valued.

    • Thanks for your insightful comments and for sharing the article, Chery. You said it well: there is a tremendous amount of knowledge scattered throughout organizations that is not accessed. I’ve been wondering lately why more leaders don’t ask. It occurs to me that one of the reasons is that they simply don’t know how. There are some wonderful technologies available that bring large groups together to surface ideas, solve problems and make decisions in real time. (Which is how SNET made their 11th hour turnaround). Although these technologies been in use for quite awhile, (e.g. Boeing used it to design the 777), I think many people are not familiar with them. This is not the only way to involve people, but it is a fast and easy way.

  • Jason

    Wonderful piece
    Asking team members to design and plan a change is helpful, even if one has thought through what needs to be done. It points out the gaps as well as creates a lot of buyin when everyone has to be taken on board.

    • You make a good point – that even when you think you have a solid plan, it’s a good idea to test it out by involving others. They may see a gap you weren’t aware of. Thanks for adding to the conversation, Jason.

  • I like this a lot because it’s the kind of thing I warn about all the time. Some leaders think they know everything and what they think is best without assessing the talent and accessing their thoughts to see if it’s even workable. The true definition of “team” is everybody, and this company got lucky that someone noticed the problem and got it addressed in time. Great story.

  • As always brilliant and on point. The analogy is great1

    One sentence really hit home for me, The officers of the company had done their planning in isolation, not asking for input from those outside their “tower,”……

    I believe this is true in many organizations where I train and coach and they are always surprised/puzzled/frustrated by the reaction of their organization.

    Only when we highlight that there is another way of doing things…they almost become enlightened…they begin to understand…people are our assets and they have value to bring and by including them, we get their input and their loyalty.

    I always enjoy reading your posts. I learn from you every day.

    Thanks Jesse!

    • Hi Lolly, Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom here. My own experience echoes your own. The officers had asked me to facilitate their discussion, so I witnessed first hand their dismay at realizing their workforce was not prepared to implement their excellent new plans. It is also a wonderful story because what they did next reflected the courage that you write about so often. And as a result they were able to turn the ship around. But that is a longer story for another day. This one is about the wake-up call. And hopefully, as you say, shows leaders that there is another, and better, way of doing things.

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