How to Create Greater Urgency in a Team

Jason Jennings_High Speed Company

Sears and K-Mart are the latest in a long line of big companies that have failed to react quickly enough in this fast-paced business climate. If managers at every level can’t keep their teams in the fast lane, they may too find themselves and their organizations left behind.

Jason Jennings

Brittle. Slow. Bureaucratic.

These are the terms that Jason Jennings uses to describe the companies that have fallen by the wayside since the Fortune 500 was first published in 1955. In the last 60 years, the majority of those original companies are gone.

Jennings, author of “The High-Speed Company,” says that managers must create a sense of urgency and growth in this “nanosecond culture,” or find themselves in the same boat as Sears and Kmart. (He compares these companies to “witnessing a train wreck in slow motion.”)

The key for managers, he says, is that they must create a sense of purpose for their teams if they hope to drive a sustained sense of urgency.

For example, he recently spoke to a group at Silgan Containers, a company that makes 50 billion aluminum cans a year. While it’s a “decidedly unsexy” business, Jennings pointed out to employees and leaders that “what you do has changed the world.”

“I told them how they saved hundreds of thousands of lives every year because they offered food safety,” he says.

After the speech, a 24-year-veteran with the company approached Jennings and told him, “This is the first day I’ve been excited to work here.”

Jennings says that the Silgan employee is representative of many other employees at other companies who are never told about why their jobs have purpose. “That’s the first challenge for any good manager,” he says. “You have to let them know their purpose – you must identify it so that you can attract, unite, ignite and fuel people.”

However, it’s also critical that you express that purpose as succinctly as possible – about 12 words or fewer. “If it takes more than a dozen words to explain why what you’re doing is good, it will be hard for anyone inside your company, let alone outside, to remember the purpose,” he explains. “You’ll miss the opportunity to evoke a strong emotional connection between your company’s work and doing good in the broader world.”

Other keys for managers who want to create a sense of urgency for teams:

  • Provide guiding principles.  These are the “shalls” and “shall nots” that keep everyone true to their stated purpose. It’s not enough to just put the principles on a website – they’ve got to be fully explained to workers. Jennings says that of 220,000 companies his company has studied, there were fewer than two dozen where everyone knew the company’s guiding principles and used them when making tactical decisions.
  • Connect the dots.  “Everyone who works for you should know how their role creates value for the company,” he says. “They should especially learn the economic value they create and how it can be measured, by you and by them.”
  • Be clear.  Instead of giving vague, general directives that are steeped in jargon, be willing to say “I don’t know,” if that’s the case, he says.  It’s OK to ask others for feedback or ask for more time to clarify a strategy. “Invest the time to come up with clear, specific, prioritized, and conflict-free expectations for your team,” he says.
  • Make it OK to make mistakes.  “Until you stop your organization from thinking, ‘Mistakes mean I’m stupid,’ you’re doomed to think slower and move even slower,” he says. “Fast companies gain velocity by making it OK to make mistakes, by being careful to learn from their failures.”
  • Learn to listen – and hear.  Schedule an hour-long “discovery” conversation with one of your team members every week to really learn what motivates the person, the person’s strengths and what he or she wants to achieve. “Begin aligning people’s responsibilities with what they want to achieve, not only with what you want them to achieve,” he advises. 

“You know, it’s easy to get a team together and get them all jazzed up,” he says. “But then that motivation generally fades when the door hits them in the butt on the way out. The only way to maintain the momentum after the mood of the moment has passed is to follow through on these ideas.”

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