6 Ways to Build a Team of Do-ers and Decision-Makers

The death of strategic planning has been greatly exaggerated. But it’s true that we’re at a moment in time where top-down planning is less and less effective. Rather than set a plan and rigid parts to have others deliver on it, as a leader it’s more efficient to set strategic direction and then hand over incremental decisions to smart specialists. In Linchpin, Seth Godin uses the example of the fast and complex Japanese transit system which operates on schedule and on budget, not by top-down directive, but by a large pool of empowered employees making the best decisions in the moment. “Letting people in the organization use their judgement turns out to be faster and cheaper–but only if you hire the right people and reward them for having the right attitude.“

Construct an organization built for good decision-making and rapid iteration.

1. Set the table. As with the tipping point, there’s always a lot of behind-the-scenes greasing before the big visible result. Make sure you’re developing a culture that features baked in autonomy and rewards independent thinking and teamwork.

2. Hire leaders (or linchpins). Lots has been said elsewhere about how best to hire proactive employees but here are two favorite tips. 1) Learn “critical incident interviewing” and, like the cleaning products company, Method, 2) Hold tryouts.

3. Celebrate improvisation. In order to learn how to be spontaneous, it’s important to create a hierarchy that leaves room for failure. Think of good decision-making as a skill to be fostered in your organization just as you might keep employees up to speed with new technology or processes. It might even be a good idea to incentivize failure to encourage innovation.

4. “Brand” your mission. Every team should be be well versed in its purpose. A brand is purpose distilled to its essence. Is your mission as simple to understand as a good brand? If not, work on it. Do this relentlessly so that your employees are guided at all times by the team’s mission.

5. Allow freedom of movement. Employees never cite money as the #1 factor in determining work happiness. #1 usually has something to do with autonomy and freedom. If you encourage cross-functionality, knowledge sharing, openness on projects, you create an atmosphere of respect and openness.

6. Encourage side projects. Successful main projects almost always started out as side-projects. Think about it. I know of one company that held an internal product competition. Think about ways you can get employees solving problems that may not be directly related to their roles.

Self-delusion is One of the Greatest Inventions in Human History: The 2013 99U Conference Recap #99conf

“Self-delusion is one of the greatest inventions in human history.” – AJ Jacobs on how to “act your way into a new way of thinking”

The Benefits are in the Seams

The 99U Conference is my favorite conference of the year. The smaller size and bias towards action turn out creative types striving for excellent work who are making big ideas happen. This year’s conference was different for me, since I was there primarily to conduct Office Hours and hopefully catch a few speakers if they aligned with my official duties.

As Scott Belsky, co-founder of Behance, stated in last year’s opening address, “The benefits are in the seams,” meaning the real paydirt at a conference like this is meeting new people, having conversations, and reveling in the other spontaneous moments not on the official program. And he’s right.

Highlights for me included seeing the book for the first time, meeting Sean Blanda, Associate Editor of 99U, chatting with Mark McGuinness, Elizabeth Grace Saunders and John Cadell, hanging with my friend Dan Blank and his pal Christina Rosalie (who smacked me upside the head with a question that won’t go away), and attending the speakers’ dinner, where I had a chance to have real conversations with some the amazing minds behind this year’s conference like authors Cal Newport and AJ Jacobs, Leah and Kevin Busque from TaskRabbit, photographer Jeff Sheng, and Charlie Todd from Improv Everywhere. Whew. So inspiring.

Time for Office Hours

But it’s all about doing stuff, and at this year’s conference I was part of an experiment: 99U Office Hours. Sponsored by OPENforum, attendees were offered one-on-one coaching from four 99U writers in short ten minute bursts. Attendees could choose from one of four areas of focus: Time Management, Risk Taking, Productivity for Creatives, or Client Management.

Over the course of two days, I coached 33 conference attendees on Client Management issues, covering a wide swath of challenges. As a business growth, hiring, and leadership development professional by trade, I found that many of the topics discussed generally overlapped with organizational, productivity and leadership issues.

I missed seeing most of the conference speakers in favor of my coaching duties. But like every conference you take away what you put into it and the experience of talking with conference attendees in a personal way was so rewarding. Overall, Office Hours elicited good feedback and powerful themes of the stuff creative professionals and business owners are truly concerned with as they strive for excellence and manage the day-to-day. It was a focus group on steroids.

Here are some of my takeaways from 99U Office Hours. Do they apply to you too?

The conference attracts attendees who are dynamic, professionally focused, and intent on getting even better. I’ve attended past 99U Conferences so I was prepared for quality: smart, self-aware, and ambitious professionals. But I was surprised at just how inquisitive, prepared, thoughtful and open Office Hours participants were. It allowed us to actually accomplish something useful in just ten minutes, to identify a real issue and begin to chip away at it.

It’s normal to seek validation before jumping jump into the unknown. Many Office Hours participants seemed lit up by a big idea for a new business direction, a new set of clients, or a new product, yet lacked the gumption or know-how to jump right into it. They were asking for permission or validation for the idea. (I was happy to oblige.) In most cases, it was a huge ambitious goal that would be more approachable split into smaller chunks. At any rate, my advice was uniform: just start. You can tweak or build upon it as you go.

The rift between creative professionals and more traditional business roles is real, and navigating it is hard work. Again and again, I encountered challenges associated with the working relationships between creative professionals and their business counterparts. The two are suspicious of one another, with incongruent motives and competing measures for success. This kind of challenge goes for all teams where personalities, intentions, and styles clash. It’s a matter of building a common mission, committing to teamwork, and developing clear consistent communication.

Dealing with clients is mostly a matter of managing communication and strengthening one-on-one relationships. Speaking of communication, most client issues tend to be about relationships. On several occasions, I heard stories about people working comfortably on a project for a client, when the project was killed or stalled inconceivably by a high-level person sticking their finger in the pie. It’s helpful to find champions of your work on the client team and educate them on how to communicate with their bosses about the work. Also, it never hurts to meet the decision-maker early; start that relationship with the higher-ups so when issues arise you can talk them out.

Selling and delivering quality work is one thing, but honing your process for delivery and building a platform is where the magic happens. Any discussion of client management includes the big business development question: how do I get more of the clients that I love to work with? There’s no easy answer. But having a platform for what you sell–an integrated philosophy or worldview that is consistent with your work–really helps, as does differentiating and selling your delivery process along with the end result. I found myself recommending Jill Konrath’s book, Selling to Big Clients over and over.

Huge heartfelt thanks to everyone who participated in Office Hours at this year’s conference. I’m grateful to be able to talk about the stuff that matters. I really hope it was at least a tiny bit helpful.

It was a gratifying experience for me, and feedback was great, which is why I am going to continue the practice of Office Hours in some capacity this summer. Sign up for the Even Better list or just email me indicating your interest and I’ll be sure to let you know when Office Hours are officially unveiled.

What do you think. Are short mentoring or coaching sessions useful in a conference setting? Is it possible to accomplish anything in just 10 minutes? Let me know in the comments.