Why are we always in the weeds?

January 24, 2016 3coze

Many of the leadership teams I work with are perpetually stuck in the weeds. They add value about 3 layers below where they should be. This yields two atrocious outcomes. First, while you’re trapped in the weeds, no one is paying attention to the opportunities and threats emerging in the outside environment. The risk of being annihilated by the competitors grows. Second, while you’re mucking about in the weeds, you’re tromping all over the autonomy of the people whose job it is to be doing that work. (Not to mention negating the value of the layer in the middle, who are the ones who should be directing the work.)

In case you’re wondering whether or not your team is in the weeds, here are a few dimensions that are useful diagnostics. Your team is in the weeds if:

  • Now versus later. You spend the vast majority of your time as a leadership team talking about things that are happening within the current week. You seldom discuss anything beyond the current quarter.
  • How versus what. You go beyond identifying the key issues to coming up with the solutions and action plans. You short-change the important discussions (about the desired end state, strategy, measures, and thresholds) and instead tinker away uniformed trying to come up with a solution.
  • Information versus insight. You squint at PowerPoint presentations full of unfiltered data and text in less than 14pt font. Your team is the first to see the data so you’re doing the low-level processing and focusing on data points instead of patterns.
  • Trivial versus important. You get caught in details that won’t affect the success of the initiative one way or another. You word-smith, rearrange the deck chairs, and otherwise add zero value to the outcome.
  • Individual versus collective. You spend time debating an issue that is completely within the purview of a single member of the team. You hold leadership team workshops on someone else’s job.

How’d you do? Does your team score 5/5 on being weed-dwellers? Here are some of the most common reasons why your team might be spending so much time in the details instead of adding value at the appropriate level.

  1. You lack a clear strategy. When you’re without a clear strategy, you have no horizon on which to fix your gaze. That causes you to navigate by looking at the ground directly in front of you. It also makes you skittish and prone to investigating each and every change in terrain.
  2. You are in too much of a hurry. When you want the data “hot off the press,” you don’t leave sufficient time for the layers below you to add the value they are supposed to add. You shove them right out of the equation and spend your time on the less strategic work of sifting through to differentiate between signal and noise; point and pattern.
  3. You have incompetent or inexperienced people beneath you. When the people below you aren’t capable of doing the work they should be doing, you get stuck doing their work and your own. Sadly, if you do their work for them, it will never get better. (More on that in my next post.)
  4. You have incompetent or overly anxious people above you. The depressing news is that much of the micromanagement behavior I see is a result of neurotic bosses who expect you to be in the weeds. They come crashing in expecting to know the minutiae of an issue and you follow them down.
  5. You have never learned how to add value as a leader so you keep adding value where you know how: as an individual contributor. To be fair, you might share some culpability in getting your team into the weeds. Do you jump into the detail, either because you genuinely love the hands-on work or because you just love to roll up your sleeves? Time to reset on the role of a leader.

There are many important discussions that your leadership team needs to be devoting significant time to. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough hours in the week to talk about the important stuff if you’re constantly in the weeds.

For further reading

Wasted time in meetings

Using humor to sustain positive changes

How to work for an insecure leader

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