Why "action planning" is an oxymoron

“Whatever strategy planning work you did in 2019 to prepare for 2020 went out the window. And it was gobsmacking.” - Silicon Valley Bank CHRO Chris-Edmonds Waters

COVID forced organizations across every industry to throw their expensive, detailed action plans out the window.

Almost overnight, an unprecedented work-from-home economy popped up. The percentage of Americans clocking in remotely shot up from 2.9% to 42%; in the UK, as many as 1 in 2 employees stopped going into the office.

But while 2020 was an unprecedented year, the problems with action planning are not new.

Here's how traditional action planning works: Leaders pour countless hours and millions of dollars into gathering data about their team’s performance and engagement. But then they get stuck. They don’t know how to move teams to exactly where they need to be, and struggle to rally people to work on what matters most. And so, months later, they’ve wasted time spinning their wheels, losing money, energy, and credibility along the way.

That's why only 8% of employees strongly agree that their organization makes positive changes based on surveys.

The organizations that have best weathered the crisis—and that will be the ones to emerge from it stronger than ever—were those that de-prioritized intensive planning in favor of helping their teams become agile, responsive, and able to succeed no matter what comes next.

Action Management

Action management isn't about building a meticulous 5-year forecast for an unpredictable future. It's about empowering people to build the habits and skills that will allow them to quickly respond to change.

At Humu, we’ve developed an action management platform that helps entire organizations continually improve. But any leader can make adjustments to the way they think about managing action today, that will benefit their businesses tomorrow.Here are some tips to get started.

Focus on the team level

Most efforts to drive action focus on the individual (through training or coaching) or the entire company (via communications). But at Humu, we see that the needs of small teams often differ dramatically from those of the company as a whole.

To drive measurable improvement, start by looking at each of your teams and answering questions like: Do all team members feel included? What unspoken norms exist? Has the group composition changed over time? How have organizational changes affected the team? Without this information, you won’t be able to effectively achieve quick wins or drive longer-term improvements.

Focus on a few, high-leverage behaviors

To successfully move your entire organization to exactly where you want it to be, you have to tie personal development to key drivers of business growth. Say people within a specific team want more acknowledgement for their work, the department in which they sit is struggling with retention, and your organization’s goal is to become more innovative over the next few years. You could come up with a plan that addresses each of these problems. Or you could cast a wider net by simply encouraging managers to start recognizing small groups of employees who come up with a new way to help customers.

Even better, have them weave in testimonials from the satisfied customers. With one new behavior, you’ve hit on all three issues within your organization (and built credibility while saving yourself a lot of time and energy). The recognition helps people feel seen for their hard work. The customer stories remind them of why their job is meaningful, which is a proven driver of retention. And by rewarding experimentation, you create a culture in which employees are incentivized to think more creatively.

Meet people where they are

Improvement is a journey that starts with awareness and ends with action. The immediate support you need to offer a specific team depends on where they are along that journey. Some teams might be ready to take action, while others might need to first learn more about the “why.”

Improvement journey

1. Awareness: Do they realize something is a problem?

2. Attitude: Do they care that it’s a problem?

3. Motivation: Are they ready to take action?

4. Control: Do they believe they can make a difference?

5. Goal-setting: Do they know what they need to do and when?

6. Follow-through: Are they doing it?

Action planning only focuses on goal-setting and follow-through (i.e. it assumes awareness and motivation). Action management, on the other hand, helps people improve in areas they might not even have known about otherwise.

Create fast feedback loops

Of all the things that can motivate employees, the single most important is feeling like you’re making meaningful progress.

You can reinforce continuous improvement within your organization by helping employees and managers give each other regular, useful advice — both positive and constructive. This provides employees with the support they need to keep learning, and helps make change within the team noticeable. Encourage managers to invite feedback, foster open discussion in team meetings, ask their teams intentional questions (“What’s one thing we could do better? How do you think this project is going?”), and let people know that it’s okay to suggest solutions when they recognize a problem.

Want to learn more about action management? Download our "Why action management beats action planning everytime" eBook.

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