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Stick and the Streamer Leadership

Posted by on in Awareness
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Have you ever had front row seat to watch a good initiative fail? It can be breathtaking. Literally.

Several years ago I was given the challenge of driving a major initiative in a Fortune 500 company. Our goal: find ways to significantly increase revenue and to reduce expenses in one of the company’s business units.

Several of subject matter experts were taken out of their “day jobs” and gathered to form a team. We took the charge and ran with it. After about 4 months of intense research, analysis, and voice of the customer assessment the team had identified half a dozen opportunities that had the potential to generate tens of millions of dollars of either savings or additional revenue.

About that time there was a change in leadership in the sponsoring organization. Uh oh…

The new leader wasn’t convinced that new initiatives stemming from detailed customer research was the right direction, and preferred to make smaller, more incremental changes in another part of the business unit. Of course, the decision wasn’t made as clearly as that. It really occurred slowly over the next two months and came in the form of multiple, smaller course adjustments, like redeploying key team members and delaying important go/no-go decisions.

It essentially died a slow, painful, and dreadful death. It took our breath away.

Eventually a skeleton crew was all that was left of the once proud team and the only remnants of the savings were the two simplest initiatives that were the easiest to execute and least politically risky. The team was sent back to their “day jobs” exhausted, disillusioned, and cynical. Leadership lesson here: Don’t do this. It’s really short-sighted and the “soft costs” cost way more than you can ever know.

Stick and the Streamer

Does this sound like an initiative you have experienced? What happened? Among other things, this illustrates the fact that many leaders fail to acknowledge the reality that any decision they make takes time to execute. In fact, it takes an exponentially larger amount of time and effort to execute than it took to come up with the plan in the first place. And the larger the scale of the initiative, the longer it may take to execute. I call this the “stick and streamer” effect.

Picture if you will a stick and to the end of that stick is fastened a streamer. If it helps, imagine the ribbon that is used in rhythmic gymnastics. Use this tool to represent the stick and streamer model for leadership.

The stick represents the leader. The streamer represents those being led.

Notice how the smallest flick of the wrist (a leader’s decision) has a much larger proportional impact on the streamer (the led). The same thing happens in every organization. It takes time for each action to make it to the end of the streamer. The more severe the shift in direction, the longer it takes to ripple to the end and get the rest of the team in line with the new direction. The impact to those at the end of the streamer is also more significant. Paradoxically, the smoother and more subtle the action, the more alignment there is between the stick (the leader) and the streamer (the led).

As a former U.S. Army Officer, there is a helpful rule of thumb that each new lieutenant learns that might also help in using this model. It’s the one-third/two-thirds rule. In short the rule says that the leader should take 1/3 of the available time to plan for a mission and then allow his unit 2/3 of the time to prepare and execute the mission. Stated another way, it is going to take your team at least twice as long to execute your initiative as it took you to plan it.

 

So, when it comes to making your own leadership decisions, remember the lesson from stick and the streamer. You can make decisions, but allow your team the time to execute and make that decision successful.

 

In your leadership role, do you really give enough time and patience in allowing ideas to blossom and grow to their desired potential? Do you build correct expectations into your plans so that that you are communicating realistic time lines to your superiors? Do they gives ideas enough time to grow and mature? Or are you or your leaders cutting  ideas time lines down and not providing that needed time frame to engage and fulfill the dream? I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Please share!

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This post, as well as others from Dave, can also be found at http://linked2leadership.com/author/dhasenbalg/

He can be reached at dhasenbalg@customized-solutions.com

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Dave Hasenbalg has spent the last 20 years leading, coaching, and consulting businesses to find solutions to real-world challenges by illuminating blind spots, building better teams, and coordinating action that produces results. He has an expertise in developing leaders, bringing about change in organizations of all sizes, and eliminating the impediments to effective execution. His practical background is as a military officer as well as a leader in cutting edge, non-profit, and Fortune 100 companies.

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