Tag Archives: Engagement

‘Negative splitting’ your project plans… critical lessons from the world of athletic performance.

The concept of ‘negative splitting’ is nothing new to those in the world of athletics and endurance sports. Put simply, it means you plan the effort and intensity of a training session or race such that the second half is executed faster and stronger than the first.

Any athlete will tell you countless stories of starting a race too fast, and either trudging slowly and painfully through the back half and falling across the finish line exhausted, or worse, failing to finish. Either way, the pain of unfulfilled potential outlives the physical discomfort, and for some, this can be demotivating and demoralising.

Sadly however, many of the same athletes racing on a Sunday, fail to apply these lessons learned on Monday in their business or project. Whether you are planning a small-scale project or a large transformation program, human performance remains the cornerstone of success, and therefore incorporating the following four key concepts can help you to build sustainable, progressive and winning program plans.

Clarity of purpose and goals

Like an athlete embarking on their preparation to run in a marathon, the formation of any large business project or transformation program naturally brings with it an increased level of excitement and enthusiasm. Often at this stage, the goals and intended outcomes exist only at a high level. Visions of the finish line are formulated and communicated, and the possibilities seem endless. It is at this stage that time must be spent clarifying, in detail, the program’s intent and the principles that will underpin the development and delivery. Without this clarity, the realities and overlay of timeframes, schedules and the need to start delivering ‘something’ leads to self-interpretation, divergent streams of activity, contradictory direction and unnecessary intensity. Each and every person involved must know exactly what the goals are, but more importantly, the phases of the program, the philosophy and design principles underpinning each phase, and the expected progression of intensity. Taking the time early to mentally prepare your people for the road ahead is critical in building the right expectations, reducing anxiety and ensuring that the program understands and can sustain the effort required, right to the end.

Training and conditioning.

Preparing to unleash a winning performance in endurance sport is a process of gradually building both physical and mental capacity and capability. Attempting to perform at ‘race pace’ too early leads to flatlined or reducing performance gains and physical and mental breakdown. Large business projects are no different. We’ve all seen projects that had the potential to deliver huge wins, start off at a sprint, but fail to maintain the early intensity. Sub-standard deliverables, missed milestones, unrealistic expectations, and stressed and burned out staff are the hallmarks of programs that fail to conserve energy for the back half. The program must identify the capabilities required early, so that staff have enough time to build the strengths and capabilities required to get the work done. Working out that key skills are missing during delivery phases is not good enough, and points to failures in defining purpose and intent.

Your staff also need to be conditioned for the pressures and expectations of the journey ahead. This phase is not about slowing to a walk, but about consciously putting in place an environment where the program collectively builds its capacity and capability to remain strong and stay healthy for an extended time.

“…Programs that are crystal clear on their intent, purpose and design principles, have been paced correctly, and have nurtured the health and mental wellbeing of their staff, can expect surges of energy and positivity at the times when they need it most…”

Physical and mental nutrition.

Whilst it seems obvious that a healthy body and mind are key to delivering high performance, sadly in both endurance sport and transformation programs, this principle is forgotten a surprisingly high proportion of the time. Worse still, is a lack of recognition or planning for the health of the participants throughout the program. Whether it is the deadlines set, the need to make profit, the expectation of stakeholders or simply poor planning, the health of the program staff is often neglected in the name of the success of the deliverables. High performance over extended periods requires food, rest, sleep, and validation. Staff irritability, lapses in judgement, reducing levels of collaboration and communication, flagging energy, impulsive decision making, introversion and irrational and emotional reactions are all indicators of a person struggling under the pressure. As program managers, you have a duty of care to identify these signs early, and better still, plan the program to reduce the risk of these symptoms occurring.

Personal development of program staff is yet another aspect of program life that too often falls by the wayside. Lured by the promise of career changing development opportunities, acquisition of market leading skills, unique experiences or exposure to new age thinking, your staff give a lot, and often give up a lot, to join a large project, with the expectation that those promises are fulfilled. The excuse that looming deadlines, tight schedules, or program changes and issues are the reason why staff fail to receive personal or professional development during programs is simply a cover for lack of adequate planning. And simply saying, “just being on this program is a development opportunity” is a cop-out. Your program is nothing without your people, and without growing your people, they will disengage, ensuring that this program, and those that come after it, will not reach their potential.

Building intensity and getting to the finish line to win.

Once the first three principles are embedded, the program plan can safely be structured with a natural and gradual increase in intensity, pace and pressure, backed by prepared, conditioned and engaged staff. The back half of a large project will always require increased intensity of effort. There will always be surprises, issues, challenges and last minute pushes to get it all across the line. This is where the planning of the first half of the program pays off. Programs that are crystal clear on their intent, purpose and design principles, have been paced correctly, and have nurtured the health and mental wellbeing of their staff, can expect surges of energy and positivity at the times when they need it most. In addition, you will retain motivated staff that will push toward the finish line relentlessly, making the finish line the euphoric experience it deserves to be, rather than the all too familiar feeling of: “so glad that’s over, I’ll never run a marathon again”.

Decision Shock… and how you can eliminate it from your business

Decisions made and disregarded or overturned… Decision paralysis… Over-escalation of decision making to management… Disagreement and conflict over impacts… Reducing engagement levels.

Sound familiar? We call this ‘decision shock’ and it is all too common a phenomenon.  And considering that most businesses are now operating in markets and environments that punish indecision, rework and inertia, it is a phenomenon that necessitates a re-think about how decisions are guided, made and communicated within organisations.

Broadly speaking, there are three main types of decisions encountered in most businesses…
Strategic decisions – These decisions are reasonably infrequent, but significantly impact the direction of the organisation, have major and long-term implications to how the business operates every day, and once made, are not easily undone.
Operational decisions – These decisions require leaders and staff to interpret a scenario or inputs, contextualise and take a position in order to maintain operational momentum… often in response to unforeseen scenarios, or changes in the environment. Decisions around product design, pricing, purchasing, marketing, project planning, campaigns and promotions or risk management are all examples of operational decisions. These decisions are far more frequent and are critical in ensuring the organisation stays true to its strategic intent.
Cumulative BAU decisions – These decisions are most often based upon pre-determined policies, procedures and delegations. In theory, the sum total of every one of these smaller scale decisions should reflect a broader policy direction or strategic position.

Whilst Strategic decisions invariably receive the greatest amount of consideration and thought, a lack of relatable context and linkage of these decisions to the operational layers of the business often contribute to decision shock that stalls the understanding and adoption of change, delays progress and halts momentum.

When viewed in isolation, the impact of each smaller Cumulative BAU decision can seem less significant, but given the high volumes, the cumulative effect of these decisions can dramatically alter the outcomes for the organisation. In theory, these decisions should be simple… follow the policy and the end result should line up as you planned, right?.  However, often businesses find themselves way off course due to minor deviations from policy and discretionary exceptions that seem perfectly legitimate in isolation, but when combined with every other exception made, drive the operation miles away from the intended destination. The results of this phenomenon often only become apparent when reviewing quarterly or annual results long after the damage is done.  A death by a thousand painless cuts.

“…In many cases, the right decision will be plainly obvious as the operating model principles paint a clear picture of what success looks like for the decision maker…”

Arguably the most difficult decisions however, are the Operational decisions.  More often than not, your operational staff and their leaders are expected to take responsibility for these decisions.  The reality is however that most leaders and staff are simply not equipped with adequate strategic context and therefore lack the confidence to make the critical decisions expected of them, leading to the types of issues I mentioned at the top of this post.  Worse still, many experience damaging blowback when their decisions are perceived to be incorrect or ill-conceived.  The negative impacts to self-confidence, performance appraisal and engagement can be long lasting, and sadly the real cause of the issue is seldom recognised.

Getting any of these decisions right, relies on those making the decisions to:

  • have a clear understanding of how to interpret and operationalise the business strategy and vision,
  • be in perfect alignment with all other linked or impacted areas of the business, and
  • formulate the decision based on the insights and information available.

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Assessing Organisational Identity… and why staff engagement surveys are missing the mark.

It’s been a year. Time once again to roll out the organisational engagement levels survey. All the Managers action-planned following last year’s survey… surely there’s been an improvement? Time to call the teams together and prepare them properly for the questions they’ll be answering… their interpretations of the questions varied widely last time… Did you notice the collective eye-roll from the staff? Wonder why the energy just dissipated from the room?

A common problem faced by many organisations when testing the “engagement” of their staff is that 1.) their surveys focus primarily on lag indicators, with little attention paid to the drivers of the engagement levels; and 2.) too often the surveys are centred more around the success of the business and management, than those the survey is supposed to be focussed on. It is little wonder that many staff look upon the surveying of their engagement with cynicism, and sometimes downright disdain.

If that sounds familiar, ask yourself… As a Business Owner, Manager or Leader, why are you really testing the engagement of your staff?… What questions are you asking?… And are you using the engagement levels of your staff as a key measure of your own success?

Let’s look at the behaviours exhibited by those who are truly engaged. Commitment, Enthusiasm, Dedication, Perseverance, Allegiance, Loyalty, Advocacy. In a business context, these behaviours are the holy grail, but it is also important to recognise that they are simply outcomes of a far more critical element. Whilst many engagement surveys ask questions about all of those behaviours, most of the questions only address the outcome, and tend to sound like, “How likely are you to stay in your current role?”, “how likely are you to recommend this company to your friends or social network?”, “how effectively have the senior leaders communicated”, “how well is under-performance managed in this organisation?”. The answers to these questions do not provide a clear indication of engagement, as there are more critical personal drivers influencing these answers, that if not understood, can lead to false-positives, false-negatives and misinterpreted engagement results.

“…People will ride out the storms and they will give more of themselves than they or you can imagine, when they can truly see their identity in the results delivered…”


An example of this can be found in the answers provided to the question, “How likely are you to stay in your current role?”. In the absence of other critical context, results indicating that staff intend only to stay a short time could indicate that staff are disengaged… but it could also indicate that staff are in fact perfectly engaged, but have a career path, supported by the development offered to them by their current leader or employer, that sees them moving on to a new challenge. This is not necessarily a negative result. It could also indicate that whilst the employees are happy and engaged, the nature or intensity of the work being performed is more suited to shorter stints before the employee needs to move on and refresh. Misinterpretation of these results can lead to organisations placing greater effort into fruitless retention activities that could be directed elsewhere.

On the flip side, results indicating that staff intend to stay for long periods may in fact indicate engagement… but could also be masking fear, lack of development opportunities, or personal circumstances that leave employees desperate for certainty and continuity of employment. Employees facing these challenges don’t need to be engaged to respond this way. The point is, many engagement surveys and the subsequent action planning sessions that follow, stop short of providing insights into the true drivers of these responses, and as such, employees often leave the engagement survey process feeling sceptical about the use of the information, and less engaged than when they began.

Reflect for a moment on the other aspects of your life that you are truly engaged with… Regardless of whether these are related to sporting, community involvement, volunteering or personal challenges, true engagement is the by-product of the “identity” you have with that particular pursuit or activity. Your identity with an activity is what keeps you returning day after day, week after week. It’s what keeps you motivated to put the effort in when things are difficult. It’s the reason you refer your friends, and it’s the reason that your personal pride in the result does not allow a substandard result. Chances are, you’ve never actually qualified, let alone quantified, your level of ‘engagement’ in these pursuits… but if asked, you will be able to articulate with clarity what it means to you personally, why you care enough to deliver the best result, and how you as a human are a better, more fulfilled person for giving that activity everything you have.

Engagement in a professional workplace is no different. It is the outcome of a team or individual that has an identity and a sense of belonging, can truly relate to their work, can relate to their peers and can relate to the vision of what their value is contributing to.

Creating and fostering identity is however, not a once a year activity. Every day, the entire leadership team must create an environment where your people can relate to how the result is to be achieved, provide each person with a clear view of how their input and effort makes a difference, how their skills are best utilised, how their contribution is valued and understood, how they will be supported, and how their personal development will be enhanced through their work.

These are the aspects that “Organisational Identity Assessments” focus on and are far superior to traditional engagement surveys. These assessments survey the true drivers of human behaviour, provide insight into the values and identity your people aspire to, and ensure that the action planning that is driven from the assessment results is truly focussed on improving the quality of each staff member’s experience. The resulting engagement benefits to the organisation follow naturally… and as an added benefit, you no longer have to manufacture engagement.

People will ride out the storms and they will give more of themselves than they or you can imagine, to ensure the ship stays afloat, when they can truly see their identity in the results delivered.