What’s a Leader to Do When They Are in the Ditch?

When managing initiatives, predictability is key. As leaders, we must prioritize effectively addressing initiatives that fall into the “red” condition. It happens to us all, and great teams have a culture, policy, and practice for responding to their REDs. In my world, “red” means your initiative is not on time, on track, or on budget, and there is no plan to respond. This is crucial because we need to get done what we say we will, and initiatives are interdependent, requiring high degrees of alignment and transparency.

Setting Realistic Initiatives

The first lesson learned is that we need to be honest and thoughtful when we set initiatives. What can we really expect to get done? A vital aspect of improving our initiative tracking is assessing the extent to which the volume of work is clear and achievable, as well as the effort required to complete the work itself. A leader’s “hit rate” for initiative completion should be high, indicating that most initiatives are completed as planned.

Encourage team members to set initiatives that are clear and attainable. Remind them that their completion rate will be part of their assessment – it reports on how well they know their work and its environment. Initiatives should be realistic, considering available resources and timeframes. Emphasize that it’s not about who can set the most goals but about the alignment, agreed priority, and interdependence of initiatives—each team member relies on others to fulfill their commitments.

A leader will always have more initiatives to work on than they can possibly fix given the resources and time required to fix them all. It is the responsibility of leaders to consider their work situation, identify the work that is of the highest value, consider the resources required, as well as the demand the initiative places on support from linked teams, and then come forward with a plan.

Managing to the Plan

Promote the habit of regular check-ins to monitor progress and make adjustments as needed. Ensure that color codes are updated with a frequency that respects the speed of the initiative. Some will be weekly, some will be daily. Stress that while goals can be flexible, they must remain realistic.

Regularly scheduled check-ins help monitor progress and make necessary adjustments. Again, this should not thoughtlessly default to “weekly” but should consider how quickly an initiative can go off the rails. It’s like driving a car in an area known for lots of police – you check your speedometer more often than at other times. The situation dictates the review frequency.

Emphasize the need for honest and transparent reporting. Explain that this transparency allows the team to provide the necessary support to address any issues promptly. Create a culture of transparency where team members feel comfortable reporting challenges without fear of negative consequences. Pilots, who face real life-and-death situations, are taught the 3Cs—climb, communicate, and confess. This principle, focused on safety and support, applies equally to a work team.

Urgency and Response When Critical

When an initiative is not on time, not on track, and not on budget (red condition), it’s crucial to address it promptly. As leaders, we manage for results – not busyness.

Critical Initiatives

For critical initiatives that turn red, the entire team must collaborate to bring them back on track. Critical initiatives are like shots below the waterline—they can sink the ship if not addressed. These initiatives should be clearly known to all team members. Not all initiatives will sink the ship, but those that can need special attention. For these, have a plan and strategies for team intervention, such as reallocating resources, communicating to all impacted stakeholders, and/or adjusting timelines.

Non-Critical Initiatives

For non-critical initiatives, the owner must take accountability. The owner should confess the “red” condition as soon as they know it, highlighting the interdependence of the team. Individually or with appropriate supporting team members, the initiative owner has the responsibility to create a recovery plan and share it with the team for feedback.

Learning Loops

The good news is that each planning cycle can be viewed as a learning loop. By assessing the variance from the plan in terms of the number or percentage of initiatives completed on time, track, and budget, we can learn the reasons behind the deviations and make changes that improve predictability (hit rate). It might be a culture of completion, a policy that says we will address all RED conditions as a team, a practice of holding “deep dive” problem-solving sessions, or the knowledge and skill development of leaders.

Whatever the root cause, viewing each planning cycle as a learning loop allows leaders to transform variances into opportunities for improvement. This continuous assessment and adjustment process enhances predictability and ensures that future initiatives are more likely to stay on track.

Reinforce the importance of setting realistic goals, making accurate assessments, and providing collective support for critical issues. As leaders, it’s our responsibility to ensure our teams are equipped to handle challenges effectively. By improving our initiative tracking and addressing “red” conditions promptly, we can enhance our overall performance and achieve our objectives.

About the Author

Paul Doyle
Paul Doyle is the founder of LeaderWork. He brings more than 35 years of diverse business experience, including 15 years as a CEO, leading manufacturing companies. Paul has been active in North America with companies ranging from $20 million to $450 million in revenue.