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How to Help Your Team Plan Its Way Through a Tough Time

In many companies today, both employees and leaders are fearful about the future. It may not be clear which direction to take, how to get there, or how to get the resources you need — and that’s before considering whether you’ll get cooperation from your team.

It’s not practical to assume you’ll be able to develop a grand plan and then sell it to your employees in a few all-hands meetings. If you want everyone to move forward together with assurance that you’ll hit crucial goals, the employees will need to have a sense of confidence about where they’re heading and a feeling of trust that their leadership will both share the journey and take everyone fully into account as decisions are made.

That’s a tall order. It’s definitely achievable, though, if you can show employees that you’re working on shared goals; the burden of change will be borne by leaders and workers alike; and you have a sturdy, flexible framework for specifying and managing the necessary work.

Shared Goals Create Shared Commitment

Describe how and why the future will be brighter — for both employees and the company. If employees trust that you’re committed to their future in tangible terms, you’ll be able to forestall their resistance and defensiveness, and avoid questions like, “What’s in it for me?” If employees don’t believe in what you’re doing, they might stonewall, ignore new directions, hoard resources, or find fault with details. Remember, we’re all harder to deal with when we think we’re not getting our due

Leaders Must Adapt First

Most people don’t accept change all that well, including leaders. That’s why it’s crucial for the leader to jump into the pool first. Coaching clients often ask me, “Why should I have to change? Why can’t my team/ colleague/ boss change? Why do I have to be the one?” In response, I ask them three questions: “Are you satisfied with the way things are today? Is your team/colleague/boss likely to up and change in a way that will make this whole thing wonderful? Do you want things to be different?” 

Typically, their answers are no, no, and yes. “Okay, there you are,” I say. “If you want the change, you have to lead it by changing yourself — no matter where you are in the hierarchy, whether you’re actually ‘in charge’ or not.”

Create Three Levels of Planning

When times are really challenging, people often feel so threatened that they do the equivalent of huddling together with their fingers in their ears, singing la la la la la la — as if pretending the threats aren’t there means they’ll magically disappear. But here’s a road-tested approach to helping your team envision how things can actually work out for the better.

Level 1. Have employees blue-sky about how wonderful the future could look three years out if things go well. Capture those ideas. Then identify what resources, structures, and people would have to be in place for that vision to be realized. Document everything on a white board, mind map, or sticky notes on a wall. 

Next, work backwards: What would have to be the case in 30 months for the 36-month vision to be true? Specify again the resources, structures, and roles. Reiterate this for 24 months, 18 months, 12 months, nine months, six months, three months, one month, two weeks — always working backwards.

Level 2. For the second level of planning, map the stream of decisions that would need to occur to make the 36-month trajectory come true and also allow employees to satisfy the specific requirements that currently exist. These decisions should cover conditions like customer deadlines, regulatory requirements, tax filings, and system cutovers — all major events that either exist already or will be crucial to reaching the goals you’ve specified. Work both backwards and forwards — for instance, if a decision about marketing has to be made in 180 days, then note that a decision about the product offering must be made 90 days prior. 

Level 3. Lastly, assess which actions need to be taken by individual decision makers or work groups. Now you’ve blocked out all provisional decisions, timelines, events, deliverables, and responsible parties for the next three years. 

Direct the responsible individuals and groups to collaborate on reconciling the three levels of content; smoothing out the timing; and identifying potential pitfalls, operational problems, and conflicts that will need to be resolved. 

Meet the Future Together

By eliciting employees’ participation, demonstrating your own willingness to make hard changes, and wrestling with the elements of implementation, you and your team will share both the challenges of accomplishing a successful outcome and the practicality of the steps needed to reach it. You’ll be crafting a credible vision of the future that’s both accessible and realistic — and increase the chances that employees will join fully in the journey.

Onward and upward —


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