Do more by first doing less

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(MoneyWatch) If you want your team to do more, it may be best to start by allowing them to do less.

An executive I know made this point to me as he was explaining his idea for driving a change initiative through his organization. The initiative called for employees to think across functional boundaries in order to look for ways to grow the business. The initiative by nature is proactive -- it asks people to think beyond their jobs.

Strategically the initiative makes very good sense but as the executive explained to me, it would only work if people felt they had the time to think and do differently. So the executive asked his team to find "make-work tasks" that were not adding value to the business. Some of these to-dos are bothersome and if dropped will not be missed.

The beauty of this approach is two-fold: one, it sends a signal that the company is serious about change; two, it communicates the sense that change will only succeed if employees embrace it. Eliminating something onerous to do something more creative has genuine appeal. The tradeoff is rooted in individual actions.

This anecdote illustrates something more fundamental than a corporate strategy. It reminds us that good ideas will only succeed if they are practical. As simplistic as this may sound, it is no surprise how often this is overlooked. Visions and their accompanying strategies fail not because they are not worthwhile, but because they are based upon faulty assumptions as well as an inability to be implemented.

So before embarking on a new strategy or new initiatives, here are two questions executives would be wise to ask themselves:

How can we trust our assumptions? The adage -- "assume makes an ass of you and me" -- may be trite but too often it is true when research is not checked, competitive threats not considered, or assumptions not challenged. It is important for leaders to insist that these things occur and hold themselves and their teams accountable for it.

How do we know our people are ready to make the change? This question focuses on how well the new strategy has been communicated. Do people know why we are making a change? Readiness also involves preparation. Do people have the knowledge and skills to make the change?

Reality reminds us that affirmative answers to the above questions are no guarantee of success. The engagement of employees is critical. Savvy leaders understand this and make it their business to get as close to the action as possible when something new is happening.

As CEO turned author Larry Bossidy put it, "Execution is the ability to mesh strategy with reality, align people with goals, and achieve the promised results."

Savvy executives make visits to the workplace and ask employees how things are going. They listen carefully and, even better, are open to making changes to improve or speed the process. They know that strategies on paper are one thing; people doing the work on the ground is another. Enabling employees to do their jobs better is the real difference maker.

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