You're excited. You've come up with a new plan for your team to roll out. It's going to mean big things for your business. You've made the timelines clear; you're excited by this new phase. You check in a week later. Nothing has moved. Sally says she's waiting on Simon who says Luke never gave him the information he needed, and Luke says he couldn't have followed through because Simon said he'd come and explain the context and never did. You're pissed off. You might even be a bit shouty at everyone. The same thing happens next time. Why does this happen? What can you do?
Those who have worked with me know that one of my most common refrains is that ultimately, we're all just big kids. I don't mean it condescendingly; it's just that we still all struggle when expectations are not clear. When we don't know our explicit task, we'll likely only ask for clarification if we feel comfortable doing so. None of us wants to get into trouble for not having done the right thing and, as a result, many of us (and in reality all of us if the context is right) will feel we are justified in passing the buck if someone else has not delivered on their part in the process. Finally, like a teen not packing the dishwasher, it's what gets noticed that gets done; if no one checks in with us, we're likely to get off task.
Clarity and the space to ask for even further clarity, then, is critical to execution. Here's how to achieve it:
Articulate who is accountable for outcomes.
This is the most critical thing you can do. If it is clear who will be accountable for the delivery of an outcome, it ensures they know they have to deliver and empowers them to do so. It means you have someone to hold to account. It means people working on the project know whom to go to when they need a decision. It means if Sally is accountable for a piece of the project (or even the whole thing), she has ownership of ensuring it will be delivered or communicating the roadblocks that exist to you and others who are waiting on her output.
Articulate roles and responsibilities.
The usual response to this is, "oh yes, we have position descriptions", but this isn't what I mean. Instead, when you have a piece of actual work to be done, make sure everyone knows at a macro level what their roles are in it and their actions. This might be done in a group or by the person who has been identified accountable. Ideally, it's a consultative process, but often you won't have time to canvas everyone's input. You don't have to assign them; the team itself could do this, but it must be clear to everyone involved broadly who does what.
This does three things. It means everyone knows whom to follow up with if they need information. It means everyone knows whom to follow up with if they are waiting on another person to complete a task before they do their bit. It can create a sense of collaboration and purpose whenever one understands how their work will contribute to the outcome.
Require people to demonstrate ownership and to follow up – no can-kicking
While we have articulated who is accountable overall and/or for significant components of the project in our first step, it's critical that you expect and reward accountability across the board. For example, unless someone tried multiple times and through a couple of channels, the excuse that something didn't happen because someone else didn't follow up when asked isn't good enough. This is one reason ownership of roles and responsibilities matter – it doesn't allow the can to be kicked down the road.
Ask about and remove roadblocks.
Whether you're directly involved in the project or not, your role as a leader is finding out about and removing roadblocks. Maybe it's that you need to advocate or act on your team's behalf for more money, access to information or an outcome. Or perhaps you need to address an issue with one of those people identified as accountable to ensure they're delivering. These are just a few examples. It's not that you should swoop in and fix things others are capable of fixing like a helicopter parent (unless things are entirely out of hand); instead, what is needed from you is that you use your power to resolve issues that sit beyond the realms of what others in the team can do.
Notice unique achievements
To maintain momentum (also just because it's an excellent human thing to do), it's imperative that you see and comment on what you see people doing well and articulating your appreciation for their work. This isn't just saying "great job Julie"; it's saying something like: "Julie when you did A, it ensured B turned in to C. Thank you for seeing that connection." This leave people feeling like their personal contribution mattered and was seen. Being seen contributes to our feeling of belonging. Belonging contribute to our engagement with our work. Engagement contributes to our performance.
As a leader or business owner, it can feel frustrating that you can't just tell people to do a thing and have it done. In reality, we all struggle to get out of our own way. Clear lines of accountability and ownership; knowing that you, their boss has their back and finally, that their work is of value will be transformative for your team. And for you! It'll speed up the delivery of essential outcomes and save your voice!