First Make It Work, Then Make It Work Well

Imagine you are lost in the mountains in late autumn. The temperature begins to drop and snow begins to fall. You have no tent or blanket and are in for a very rough and dangerous night.

What do you want in that moment? What you want is to come across a well-appointed log cabin in the woods with power, heat, running water, a roaring fire, a stocked pantry, and a phone so you can call for help.

But what do you truly need in that moment? You need a safe place to sleep.

Given a choice between a builder who will create your log cabin that you can move into in 9 months, or MacGyver1 who can build you a shelter in the next hour, which would you choose?

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An Experiment in Accountability – Interim Results

In May of 2023 I started an experiment in accountability. I committed to publish one post per week for the remainder of the year.

And, to ensure that I fulfilled my commitment, I auto-scheduled all the posts for the remainder of the year with an embarrassing message that I had failed to deliver, and how to contact me (via email or phone) to encourage me to do better.

Interim results: I’ve published one post per week. That’s 24 posts since I began the experiment. And 24 posts is approximately the same number of published posts I had on the site when I started the experiment.

Put another way, I produced the same number of posts in 5 months than I did in the previous 9 years.

On the goal of writing and publishing more frequently, the experiment is an undeniable success.

Along the way I’ve observed a few things.

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The Household Budget Prioritization Method

Prioritization is the #1 thing that leaders struggle with. Prioritization can then be considered the top priority for leaders.

But wait, managing budgets, hiring and maintaining a top-notch team can’t be less important than prioritization!

This is true, however all leaders find a way to manage budgets and hire teams. And in some way, all leaders prioritize. But do they follow a specific, repeatable, transparent process? Generally not.

And part of the challenge is that the prevailing wisdom on prioritization is simplistic and wrong.

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The ABCs of Prioritization

When you begin work on an initiative or something smaller like an individual feature or deliverable, it is important to know that not every piece of what you are about to start will have the same priority.

There will be items that are mandatory, items that are important, and items that are nice-to-have. Unless you can identify and classify which items are in which category, you run the risk of wasting time and effort on lower-priority items.

And, if you are in a complex environment where the needs of customers evolve quickly, you need a prioritization method that encourages fast feedback.

Here is a simple prioritization method that will help you identify the priority of the items within your work.

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Quick Take: The Question Ratio for Leaders

As a leader, you juggle many competing priorities. You are accountable for delivering against your department’s goals, staying aligned with your leader’s goals, managing budgets, putting out fires, planning for the future, managing performance of your team, and so on and so on.

Hopefully among all those competing priorities is a desire to grow the capacity and the capability of your department and the members within it.

You want your group to become stronger and more effective over time. To do this, you must develop the leadership capacity within your department.

There are many ways to develop leadership. Some are expensive, some are complicated, and many take a lot of time and investment.

One, however, is quick, easy, and you can implement it immediately: improve your question ratio.

Your question ratio is measured by comparing how many sentences you write or speak end with a question mark versus a period. The more questions you ask and the fewer declarative statements you make, the higher your ratio.

If you want to develop your leaders, you need to increase your question ratio. You should be asking more questions.

As a leader the people that work for you listen to you. They listen to you and they do what you ask them to do. They have to as you have a large amount of control over their livelihood. This makes them inclined to go along with what you say, whether they agree with it or not.1

And once they hear that you’ve decided something or formed an opinion, it is in their best interest to listen and act on that decision or opinion. When you share your opinion, it often signals the end of the conversation, even if your team has a lot of other great ideas or open questions.

I am sure that you became the leader of your group because you have excellent experience, ideas, communication skills, presence, vision, and so on.

And yet, it isn’t possible for you to be well informed on every topic. You cannot be part of every decision. You cannot review each piece of work output before it is delivered.

Simply put, your organization cannot increase its effectiveness if you as the leader become the bottleneck.

So how do you begin to help your group become more effective? Ask more questions.

When they bring you a decision and ask for your opinion, don’t give it to them. Resist the urge to reply with a sentence that ends with a period. Reply with a question instead.

Instead of saying, “Thank you for sharing, I think we should do X,” or “I think we should to X rather than Y,” ask a question.

“What are the implications of doing X?”

“How does X compare to option Y?”

“What did you consider but ultimately discard in favor of X?”

“What if it wasn’t X or Y? What would option Z be?”

When you reply with a question, you help them analyze the decision in different ways. You help them learn to think more like a leader by considering additional possibilities. Asking questions is one of the most powerful ways of helping them grow and develop.

So rather than, “You haven’t considered the budget implications of this plan,” try “What are the budget implications of this plan?”

Phrasing this as a question rather than a declarative statement keeps the dialog going. If they have considered the budget implications, they will have an easy answer (and you won’t have accused them of not being thorough in their work).

However, if they haven’t considered the budget implications, then they quickly understand that they have more work to do before they can bring the topic back to you for a decision. And, they will learn that in the future, they should bring the budget analysis with them the first time.

To increase the capacity and effectiveness of your department, help your leaders learn what questions they should be asking. Do this by increasing your question ratio.

The next time you have an urge to declare your opinion in front of the people who work for you, pause. Pause and reformulate that statement as a question.

Or to restate the above in a different way…what would happen if the next time you wanted to share your opinion with your department, you took a pause instead? What possibilities might emerge if you found a question to ask instead of making a statement?

See how that works better as a question?

  1. I learned this lesson firsthand when I moved from being a technology leader to being a coach. I had exactly the same great ideas as a coach as I did as a leader, but I soon found that when I suggested something, people didn’t immediately take what I said and put it into action. Either my ideas had become bad overnight, or maybe the primary reason people listened to my suggestions is because I was their manager. ↩︎