#434  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 11          November 1999

Don’t Tell Me What To Do
by Robert J. Ballantyne

Mr. Ballantyne is principal, Ballantyne & Associates, Bowen Island, British Columbia, Canada (phone 604-947-0815; robert@ballantyne.com; www.ballantyne.com), helping organizations achieve their goals.

Our culture and language generate a leadership situation that can reduce creativity among members of our teams. We are the boss, so our employees expect us to tell them what to do. It is better to articulate your vision without instructing them how to do it, but the language to accomplish this can feel awkward. We haven’t yet adopted the familiar phrases that adequately express our missions, goals, or even simple daily objectives. In this grammar lesson, I hope you will discover how to express your requirements as nouns, not verbs.

To illustrate, here is a common situation. I arrange an appointment with someone in their factory. It’s in an unfamiliar part of town and I ask for the address. The response is usually something like this, “Oh, you’ll be coming from the north; so you drive down Main Street past the shopping mall, go two traffic lights and turn right, then...” I politely explain that I have a map. All I need is the address and the nearest cross street. I asked for a place, and I was told what to do. What if I were not coming from the north? What if I didn’t expect to be in my car because I was going to be dropped off by a helicopter? My point is that if I’m told what I have to do, I must follow that single pipeline of instructions or become lost. I do not have the freedom to solve the problem my own way.

Notice that when I’m given the address, and maybe a description of the destination, there are no verbs. What I receive is a clear vision of my objective. I know that if I am not at that place, and at the specified time, I have failed. Since I’m the one who is accountable for showing up, why shouldn’t I be responsible for choosing how I get there?

Creativity and Objectives

Look at most mission statements, or project objectives.  You’ll most likely see a list of actions to be taken: “To develop...,” “to supply...,” “to assist...,”  “to build...,” etc. Verbs! The assumption is that if the actions are successfully completed, the goal will be achieved. Often that’s true, but there are three disadvantages to this form of expression.

First, the real objective isn’t described, only the effort expected to achieve the objective. This results in a lack of clarity of purpose, and the associated lost opportunities for creativity. If my objective is to paint (a verb) the wall white, it’s true that when I meet the objective I will have a white wall. Unfortunately, the real objective: the white wall, is merely implied by this objective. So the objective focuses on painting, not a white wall. If, instead, the objective is stated as a smooth white wall  (a noun modified with a couple of adjectives) the objective is clear and the associated thought process lets us consider the quality of the objective. Any discussion will involve such things as whether “white” and “smooth” are really necessary--or even if a wall is required.

Second, the objective demands painting. The people who will do the work will focus their thinking on of the variety of paints, and conditions suitable for painting, because they know they’re accountable only for painting. If, instead, they were responsible for a smooth white wall, they may decide that it can be constructed of smooth white material that never needs painting.

Third, the people doing the work are held accountable for the effort expended, not for the results. It’s no wonder that employees are often more interested in what they’re supposed to be doing than what they’re accomplishing.

When we have to be clear about real objectives rather than instructing the team members what to do, our job is often much harder. Now we have to articulate something that seems obvious to us, but is grammatically strange. Many of us became leaders because we demonstrated that we know what to do. In our mind, we think we can see the job that needs to be done. So, when we issue marching orders, the job may be done, but the doers may not really understand why they are doing it. And they don’t have the opportunity to develop their own novel approach. You have insisted that your way is the only way.

If you are going to make this concept work for you, you must be prepared to change your thinking. Even if you agree with this, here’s an example of how easy it is to lose this focus.

We pride ourselves on our problem-solving abilities. Most people know that prior to suggesting a solution to a problem, they should take the time to be sure that they really understand the problem. It is possible that you even go through some exercises with your team to generate options for solving problems.

This is what happens when people become enthusiastic about an action that seems to solve a problem. Someone said that the solution to the problem is to drive to Toledo; and everyone agreed. After that, the work became planning and executing the car trip to Toledo. However, if all that the problem required was, “Julie in Toledo,” (or, “Julie in Ohio”) many other actions are possible. Stated this way, Julie is free to consider a flight, hitchhiking, train, rafting, and teleconferencing as options. First you need to decide that Julie really has to be in Toledo before you work on getting her there.

As soon as we are clear about a problem, everyone wants to be the person who thinks of a clever solution. And solutions are almost always something that somebody does (verbs). As we leap from the problem to the solution, we are missing a step in the creative process. And because of our culture and our language, this is hard to explain, let alone understand and act on it. Your problem (as you have stated it) recognizes a need or a deficiency--and maybe an opportunity. If you are to address it, somehow you’re going to make the world a better place. Before you commit to an action plan, express that vision in words that you can use to hold your team accountable.

The Power of Nouns

The key words will be nouns. This is why you say, “I think we need a smooth white wall,” instead of “paint the wall white.” The smooth white wall is visionary--it doesn’t yet exist.

If your people understand this use of language, it is even better if you can ask them to suggest the vision. Ask them, “What is needed here?” not, “What do we need to do?”

The first time someone encounters this language, it sounds as if we are just playing with syntax, and are saying the same thing. Please think about it. As this idea sinks in, you will discover that you are surrounded by high-sounding, but meaningless objectives. Verbs are the tip-off. For instance, you sit on a community board, and when you read the mission you discover that your purpose is, “to help,” “to promote,” “to foster;” and you will find yourself realizing that those are worthy things to do.  But why are you doing them?  Why isn’t the real purpose expressed instead of the actions? It will teach you to question such purposes, and to ask, “Why?” As a leader, when you find yourself about to prescribe a task, ask yourself, “Why do I want this done?” I hope the answer will be something like, “We need a smooth white wall.”

Your Own Mission?

Just for fun, pull out and read your organization’s mission and objectives. Do you see verbs? Are you being held accountable for work (lots of effort) or for actually accomplishing something?

The task here is to state the vision or goal, and to avoid prescribing actions. Try stating the difference or benefit that should occur as a result of the work of your team, for whom there is benefit, and at what cost (all nouns). With long- and short-term goals like this, you’ll be holding your team accountable for results, not just hard work.

When you use nouns for your mission, goals, purposes and objectives, some of the traditional distinctions among those words vanish. I know that it’s often taught that a goal is the destination or vision and the objectives are the measurable milestones to reach the goals. I find it easier to make no distinction between goals and objectives, and to use the word mission to refer to the overarching goal that contains your whole operation. For the actions that are chosen to attain the mission and goals, I use the word strategies. In all cases there is no poetry--although it may be poetic.

It’s possible to describe your whole operation as a hierarchy of goals. The advantage is consistency in everything you do. Can you be clear about the benefits or results expected of your project? If you find this difficult to do, probably your purpose isn’t clear in your mind. The harder it is for you to articulate this, the more you need to do it--or the more you should be concerned about the future and existence of your operation.

Don’t be tempted when an employee asks, “What do you want me to do, Boss?” See if he is clear about what’s to be achieved. Then challenge him to tell you what’s needed. Can you approve only the goal, and leave him responsible for the actions? Certainly, deal with his processes and skill development. Finally, and only if necessary, suggest what he might do; but be clear that you’ll be pleased with a more creative approach.

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