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Is Winning a Secret in Your Organization?

Tell SecretIt feels good to win – in business as well as sports and almost any other endeavor.

We all know winning when we see it or feel it. It’s that moment of excitement and exhilaration. It’s the urge to jump in the air and pump our fists; to give high-fives to our teammates. It’s that intoxicating feeling of accomplishment, knowing we conquered something and prevailed based on our expectation of excellence.

So why is winning such a secret in so many organizations?

I’m glad you asked, because I have an answer.  Not the answer, mind you, because looking for the right answer often gets us in trouble. Or it causes us to miss opportunities we might otherwise see. Instead, I have one answer that may help us all see things a bit differently.

One of the deepest instincts for adult humans is to achieve excellence. In other words, to win. Yet, in the workplace it’s rare to see and hear winning defined in ways that minimize interpretation; that create such clarity that even a fly on the wall could see it, hear it, and know it.

Why do we find it so hard to clearly and consistently articulate what winning looks like in our organizations?

Too much daily clutter.

You know what I’m talking about. The incessant interruptions of cell phones, email, voice mail, texts, tweets, etc. The poorly managed meetings that go nowhere and get nothing done. Having more on our plates than any two people should attempt to handle. These ways of working have become so ingrained in our daily lives that we can’t see their negative impact on our focus and productivity.

Contrary to popular belief, the antidote to clutter overload isn’t multi-tasking. That only makes us less focused. The solution lies in slowing down to go fast. By that I mean taking the time to get very clear on what winning looks like for our organizations. Having clarity around winning provides important guideposts for measuring how we’re spending our time – a key factor in keeping everyone focused on the right things. 

Too much same-o, same-o.

To conserve energy and free it up for high-level cognitive tasks, the human brain likes to take shortcuts. We call these shortcuts “habits.” In our personal lives, they save time by allowing us to go on autopilot for getting dressed, brushing our teeth, and other mundane activities. Unfortunately, habits also pervade the work world. As a result, we tend to end up doing things the same old way we’ve always done them – even when evidence shows that the reasons we’ve always done them that way are no longer valid.

Habits can be beneficial, as long as we focus on building the right habits. Such as starting each day by taking 3 to 5 minutes to identify what we need to focus on to support winning. Actively seeking out new ideas, different perspectives and sources of information that present a contrary point of view. Providing regular feedback to employees to keep them aligned with our vision of winning. Pausing to get refocused when distracted by cell phones, email, social media and all the other interruptions that come at us throughout the day.

It takes practice to build the right habits, but it can be done.

Too much thought bubbling.

As leaders, we spend a lot of time thinking about and planning how to win. Lack of clarity around winning occurs when we think about it so much that we forget to catch up the rest of the organization on our thinking. We’ve already built the neuronal pathways about winning in our brains, and we then assume everyone else automatically thinks the same way.

Instead of checking for clarity around winning, we assume it exists. Instead of constantly communicating the destination, we assume that everyone knows where we’re going. Instead of painting a clear picture of what the finish line looks like, we assume that everyone understands the results we want and what to do to get there.

To avoid unproductive thought bubbling, build a formal system into your calendar for checking in with employees on a regular basis. At least once a month – at team meetings or individually – formally communicate your vision of winning to employees and ask for their feedback to ensure understanding. Also, set up a system that reminds managers to discuss the goals and strategic planning framework elements with employees on a regular basis. However you do it, never stop communicating what winning looks like.

Unveiling the Secret

To prompt yourself, and others in your organization, to define winning with the specificity required to avoid any misinterpretations, look at it like you were creating a travel brochure.

First imagine the end state as if describing a picture. For example, don’t just say, “I want to go to Southeast Asia,” say, “I want to go to Hong Kong or Bali.” Then describe what it will look like and what you will do when you get there. Provide as much detail as possible in rich, vivid language.

At the same time, use language that minimizes the possibility of differing definitions of winning.  If you ask 10 people to define success – a fairly general concept – you will probably get 10 different answers.  Instead, use very specific words that leave little room for personal interpretation.

Next, expose the thinking process that got you there.  What data do you/the team have to support your vision of winning? What does that data mean or indicate to you/the team?  What do you/the team assume should be done based on these conclusions? Why does your current plan represent the best course of action/end state?

Even when you communicate about winning clearly and frequently, don’t assume understanding. Have employees feed back to you their interpretation of what they heard you say. Ask what winning means to them and how they see your picture of it impacting their jobs. Encourage them to ask questions to improve clarity. Ultimately, everyone in the organization should be able to articulate your vision of winning with the same clarity and specificity as you.

When it comes to winning, secrets do not serve us well. Lift the fog of secrecy by constantly bringing your vision of winning to life for everyone in the organization and you will greatly increase the chances of getting there.

Call to action: Make a list of five ways you can bring winning to life in your organization. Then focus on one item each week.

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