My Top 10 Strategies For Enabling Productive People

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This post was first published on my business blog, which I’m closing down now that I’ve retired, so I’m archiving some of the better posts to this blog.

Since the focus is this blog is enabling productive people I thought it would be useful to share my management philosophy. A philosophy that I’ve developed over the last 20 years, often involving some painful mistakes. Before we get started though a few words of context are required.  My approach to management is heavily influenced by the fact that I ‘suffer’ from Asperger’s Syndrome, this means I’m never going to be an inspirational leader, I like to avoid shouting, large meetings and conflict and sometimes struggle to fully understand the people I’m managing, reader beware.

I like to think my management approach is simple on the surface, no management text book required, but it has subtle depths, it compresses down to a nice little top ten list:

  1. Set a clear direction
  2. Lead by example
  3. Don’t micromanage, but coach and promote discussion
  4. Help people develop skills to be proud of
  5. Encourage experimentation and side projects
  6. Provide challenge but not too much
  7. Promote peer group support
  8. Encourage team work
  9. Be honest and agile
  10. Support and encourage

I’m going to quickly step through this ten point list to explain how all of the items work together to create a whole that’s greater than the sum of the parts and that creates a culture of excellence, teamwork, trust, loyalty, adaptability and pride.

  1. Set a clear direction, this is critical.  It’s not possible to avoid micro-management unless you set clear direction.  I’d often spend days in discussion with my team working on clarity of direction, objectives, accountabilities and approach before starting a project.  Start a project too early and you have chaos, the only way out of chaos is micro-management or a reset
  2. Lead by example, I like to think I lived by the adage “don’t expect anyone to do something that you’re not prepared to do yourself” and I expected all my team leaders to do the same.  I liked to set the productivity and quality bar high for myself and that way I rarely had to spend time pushing the team to achieve, they already knew what was expected of them
  3. Don’t micromanage, but coach and promote discussion, there’s nothing so annoying as being micro-managed but you need to earn the right not to be.  The best way to earn that right is to demonstrate that you are not afraid to come to your boss with bad news, to discuss important issues and to reach out for coaching.  Come appraisal time I always spent a lot of time talking about these skills, learning to balance being too independent and too needy
  4. Help people develop skills to be proud of, all good people like to master new skills and there’s nothing more comforting for an individual than to have a set of solid skills that are in demand in the marketplace.  I’d always look for ways to help people develop valuable new skills, even if they did it on side projects.  I knew I’d benefit from the skills and from the extra loyalty that comes from looking after my teams financial security.  I never had problems with people leaving because they had attractive skills, because being in a good team was more important to them
  5. Encourage experimentation and side projects, side projects are contentious, they distract people from their current objective.  That’s not the way I see it though, side projects allow people to develop the skills they need for their next project, they are motivating and provide a release from the pressure of day to day work.  A good employee knows how to strike the right balance between delivering today and preparing for tomorrow, trust them and nudge them in the right direction
  6. Provide challenge but not too much, challenging work is key to motivation, but too much challenge isn’t sustainable.  Sometimes I’ve asked people to work unsustainably hard, other times I’ve had to stop them working too hard, rarely have I had the problem of someone working at a level that’s not challenging them, unless they’re burnt out or depressed (but that’s a different problem)
  7. Promote peer group support, I like to promote a culture that identifies when people are struggling and encourages their peers to rally around to help.  90% of  traditional ‘management’ can be avoided if you get the culture right.  Peer group support only goes so far though, team leaders and managers need to be there for their teams too.  I like to think that you can’t be too empathic (ironic to see this on the list of someone with Asperger’s), everyone has problems and it’s best not to try and paper over them. Give people the time, space and support to solve them.  Get everything else right on this list and they will find their way back to productivity as soon as they can.
  8. Be honest and agile, as a manager you need to be prepared to take the hard decision to embrace change and to make sure your team doesn’t fear it.  Ideas don’t work out, teams don’t gel, customers relationships can become dysfunctional, technologies don’t work, projects slip, budgets get cut, politics gets in the way.  Managing means being agile enough to cope with all this disruption, while keeping people motivated, keeping teams together, quickly adapting and regaining momentum
  9. Pick and/or develop great leaders, it’s often not possible to hand pick everyone in a team but I believe most people want to do a good job, create the right conditions for people to thrive and they will.  This is much easier if you hand pick the leaders and 80% of the time that’s what I’ve been lucky enough to do.  The other 20% needed quite a bit of support to develop, one of the best tools for this is allowing them to shadow or at least frequently observe good leaders in action
  10. Invest in high performance teams and keep them together, team work can’t be taken for granted and it doesn’t automatically follow from getting the other 9 things in this list right.  Creating a high performance team often requires short term sacrifice in terms of communication overhead, careful attention to team composition, exceptional team members feeling held back.  After a few months though a team starts to gel, they understand each others quirks, strengths and weaknesses, they support and respect each other, they provide collective moral support.  A high performance team can sustain and even enjoy incredible levels of challenge and deliver exceptional creativity and productivity.  It’s worth the investment.  It’s rarely justified to break up a high performance team

Look carefully through this list and you might notice that all ten strategies have one thing in common, they are all positive.  There’s nothing about managing negative behaviour, putting in place metrics, managing by objectives.  If you want to understand why try researching positive psychology, or do yourself a favour and listen to this hilarious and inspirational TED Talk.

If this top ten list is too much for you, you won’t go far wrong with following Dan Pink’s framework for motivation: Autonomy, Purpose and Mastery which Graham describes very nicely in his post on the topic.  Graham and I applied this framework in an important strategy session only a few weeks ago and it worked very well.

The inspiration for this post came to me as I was mulling over a conversation I had recently with a couple of people who used to work for me, I was humbled when they said that this experience provided their happiest and most effective time at work.

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

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