3 Ways Leaders Undermine Their Teams and Innovation

Last Updated Jun 30, 2011 2:26 PM EDT

According to the old saying, success has a thousand parents but that failure is an orphan. But leadership expert, consultant, and venture capitalist John Hamm says that managers are often partly to blame. They either miss signals and neglect to take the corrective action that puts projects on track, or they create situations that make failure inevitable.

Hamm, who wrote Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership, said in a phone interview that when pursuing aggressive goals, teams often lose faith in what they can accomplish. When that happens, they look for elegant ways to explain away the failure they expect. A leader has to see what is actually going on, Hamm says: "a set of symptoms not obvious to the untrained eye, but obvious to that person."

Set the impossible goal
"Big hairy audacious goals are amazing in terms of getting people to really go beyond where they thought they could," Hamm says. But set too aggressive a goal and a leader can make it impossible for the team to succeed. Hamm calls it the three minute mile principle. "If you try to get people off the couch to train for the three minute mile, they're not interested," he says. "They have to believe that the goal is just out of grasp."

Leaders have to establish credibility by creating goals that are compelling but not impossible. "If you have a tyrannical boss -- they might not say it to his face, but no one's on that plan," Hamm says. A good metric is that everyone should feel the goal to be about 10 percent out of their reach. Much more, and the team shuts down at the beginning because the members think success can't possibly happen.

Measure the wrong things
A second management mistake is to choose the wrong metrics and encourage a team to deliver censored data. Hamm offers an example of a manufacturing company in which the salespeople kept asking for product changes because they were requested by the customer. But the CEO checked to see how many of the change requests resulted in orders. Very few. So the CEO asked the sales team to track that conversion rate by salesperson. Suddenly, the practice stopped.

Measurement ties back directly to the goals, as well. "There's a lot of human behavior that goes to work every week in organizations, but it goes to work attempting to achieve something," Hamm says. "So you should make sure that they're clear on what they're supposed to achieve. If you get those goals 20 percent wrong, you should go to the woodshed. You can't blame the construction crew for building to the blueprints and not liking the house." Proper measurement helps determine whether the efforts or the underlying goals are off.

A related problem is the manager who embraces optimism and hates hearing bad news. Employees will tailor their reports to better fit the expectations and prejudices of the leader. That may be comforting in the near term, but the practice will undermine all goals and performance.

Missing employees' warnings
When things are going badly, the truth will out, even when there's still time to take corrective action. Unfortunately, the employees don't directly communicate with about the problem. Instead, they offer clues, such as "sophisticated covering up," "humble blame-shifting," and "justifying what will happen." They may offer excuses why things are off track or might change focus from the hardest aspects of a project to easy tasks that may not be critical items to ultimate success.

Effective leaders always watch "for are these sophisticated indicators that the team has lost faith in the goal" and then work on using metrics and well-designed goals to insist on a commitment to succeed.

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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.