Simon Terry

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Slow Motion Disasters

In a competitive global economy, organisations want to improve their execution. With manufacturing paradigms, organisations often choose to focus on improving the teams doing the work of delivery. Management literature is full of processes and approaches to improve project and other forms of delivery.  However, organisations often fail to diagnose that the causes of poor execution can also lie around the teams and processes of the work.

Story: A Slow Motion Disaster

Yesterday I decided casually to make some sourdough bread because I thought I needed to use my starter again. My starter wasn’t quite ready but I thought it was close enough and I would push on. I was distracted when starting because I had a bit going on in the kitchen and I accidentally added a little too much water. I tried to fix that upfront with more flour and I thought I had it under control. The excess water made the dough loose and sticky and hard to knead.  I convinced myself it would work. When I finally had some shape to the dough, I left it to prove. As the dough proved, I found that it became too sloppy again and I took some steps to fix it but mostly failed.  

Now deep in the process, I tried to push on shaping a loaf into a basket and leaving it to prove overnight. When I turned that loaf out of the basket I no longer had a loaf. I loaded a collapsing mound of sticky dough into the oven hoping against hope it might rise a little in the oven. What came out of the oven was a flat mess. The entire process was a slow motion disaster from the beginning.

The output – half flat and half rounded. Tastes fine.

There are many points in that process where my execution of the sourdough bread failed. However, the bigger challenges were not my techniques of delivery but in the environment and mindsets surrounding the work:

  • I didn’t have a clear reason to start
  • I didn’t get ready to execute properly
  • I didn’t focus exclusively on getting the job done well
  • I was distracted by other goals
  • I kept convincing myself it would work out OK if I kept going
  • I tried to make late changes to fix earlier errors
  • I didn’t have any help, other viewpoints or external checkpoints to make me review my decisions
  • I fell into the sunk cost fallacy trying to finish when I should have seen the failure and started again
  • I felt the need to get the job done, rather than the pressure to do the job well.

Avoiding Slow Motion Disasters

Having been involved in many corporate projects, I have seen organisations experience many of the issues of delivery that I experienced above. These issues shape the ability of the team doing the delivery to manage the project and to succeed.

Talents are variable. Circumstances change. Mistakes will happen. Obstacles will get in the way. The challenge of effective delivery is how to design work so that the job gets done despite the skills, mistakes and the obstacles. That takes organisations to think through the goals, the support and the environment of the project to help those doing the delivery to best adapt to what happens. Process and talent won’t get you there alone.

Effectively delivery demands an environment where:

  • Clear outcomes are set and the outcomes matter most to the team and the stakeholders of the work
  • Work is put into preparation and clearing the path for the team doing the delivery to focus on their work
  • Hard conversations are had and clear choices are made to start, stop or continue based on progress towards the outcomes
  • Accountabilities are clear and teams are supported with autonomy, trust and support to achieve their outcomes around and through challenges
  • Issues are addressed properly as they arise
  • The environment, support and collaboration enables the project to work through issues, to make the needed changes and to pursue the agreed outcomes that define success. 

Poor execution is not a mystery and it is not always the fault of the team’s at work on delivery. Often organisations need to take a hard look at the contributions of leadership, debate, decision making and collaboration in achieving effective execution. Execution is as much an artefact of the culture of an organisation as any other activity.


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