Apparently, someone forgot to tell my Houston Texans that they had a game last week. I couldn’t help wondering what went wrong after they were embarrassed 27-0 at the hands of the New England Patriots.
Maybe a better question is what went right? The game was full of dropped balls, missed tackles, stumbling players, and ineffective play calling. Nothing they tried seemed to work.
Before their next game, it will be the job of the coaching staff to evaluate the team’s performance and figure out what needs to be adjusted. This is our job as leaders, too.
Our teams will not always be successful. Projects won’t get completed on time or within budget. Key goals and targets will be missed. Customers will be disappointed.
How we respond as leaders will play a major role in how our teams rebound.
How do we decide the proper actions to take? It depends on the problem. We need to diagnose what went wrong, and then respond appropriately to correct the issue.
In sports, there are three main ways that teams lose: poor planning, poor execution, and bad luck. These same three issues plague our teams as well. Here are a few ways that you can diagnose and address these problems to improve your chances of future success.
Poor execution is the most commonly identified problem when something goes wrong. In sports, it can be easy to identify errors in execution such as missed passes, fumbles, or miscommunication. This type of problem is easy to observe and identify. Our attention naturally focuses on the obvious, physical mistakes that players make.
It is easy for us to focus on obvious execution errors with our teams as well. Missed assignments or due dates, calculation errors, typos, poor decisions, and communication errors are easy to identify and blame for our failures.
The execution problems that we don’t typically see as fans of sporting teams are the mental errors. Were plays executed as designed? Did everyone follow their assignments? Were the proper decisions made? The only way we can evaluate this properly is if we know the plan. What was the team trying to accomplish? How did the actual execution differ from this plan?
The same is true for our teams. We must compare our plans with how things actually unfolded if we are to see the execution errors that were made. Were actions and tasks completed as intended? Did the steps occur as designed? Were the appropriate resources available for use? Were there any communication errors?
Once you understand the execution errors that your team struggles with, you can begin to address them. Here are steps your team can take to improve their overall execution.
First and foremost, define and practice the fundamentals. Just as athletes must constantly practice the basic skills of their sport, we must make sure our team continues to practice the basic skills important to our work. This will require that we first define them. Identify the skills and processes that your team will use to pursue your goals and make sure that everyone is able to perform them.
It is also important to check on progress frequently. Don’t wait until the end of your project to evaluate whether or not the plan was executed. Coaches provide constant feedback and instructions to their teams to help them perform their best. You should do the same for your team. Encourage them to focus on execution at every opportunity.
If your plan was executed properly, the next question is whether or not you had the right plan. Was your plan detailed enough? Did you take everything into account? Were some of your assumptions incorrect?
Take the time to revisit your plans after they are completed. Work with your team to identify what worked well and what didn’t. The only way you will get better at future planning is by learning from your past mistakes.
This evaluation can also be done when the work is in progress. Build specific checkpoints into your plan for checking progress against the plan, evaluating assumptions and effectiveness, and making adjustments.
One of the most important aspects of a football game are the halftime adjustments made by each team. They evaluate what is working and what is not and decide what they want to do differently in the second half of the game. We can do the same thing with our teams. There is no point in continuing to do what is not working. Plan for opportunities to adjust course and give yourself a better chance at success.
Another step that most leaders could take to improve their planning is to think about what could go wrong and develop contingency plans. Things rarely go exactly as planned. Unexpected challenges come up. Conditions change. If we think about these things ahead of time, we will be better prepared to adjust on the fly. Focus on the high-risk aspects of the project and have a backup plan or two. Even if you don’t predict the exact scenario that happens, you will be better prepared having thought through a few options that may apply.
Sometimes stuff happens. Teams can develop a brilliant plan and execute it to perfection, but still lose the game. Unlucky bounces, bad calls, and unpredictable weather are examples of factors that can be the difference between winning and losing in a close game.
Sometimes things can happen in our organizations as well. Unpredictable or uncontrollable factors can be what determines our success or failure. We like to think that our results are entirely up to us, but that is not always true. There are some things we can do to reduce the impact of these factors.
Reduce risk when possible. Use your planning activities to identify the most likely areas for bad luck to strike, then develop plans to minimize this risk. Maybe you work on some back up plans in parallel, just in case. Look for opportunities to work ahead in case you experience delays. Have paper copies of your presentation in case the projector has issues. If you think it might rain, make sure you pack an umbrella. Don’t assume everything will work exactly as expected.
If bad luck does strike, make sure you stay positive. Sometimes there is nothing else you can do. Just because you didn’t get the results you wanted, doesn’t mean you can’t praise the effort. Learn what you can from the experience, and move on. Don’t let your team’s future performance suffer because they can’t let go of past failures.
As I would say to the Texans, learn from your last game, then put it behind you and prepare for next week.
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