In his post yesterday Rob listed the reasons why execution was so difficult to master. "It is contrary to what we like to do. We like to hedge our bets so that others can share in the blame of a failure. We like to ignore boring tasks in favor of whatever catches our eye. We like to expand our work to fill the available time, so we don't have to take on much more."
That's all true. But once you define following through (from a leader's perspective) as making sure that what's expected gets done you get a very specific bead on the obstacles and why so much of what a manager expects to be done doesn't get done.
The first big question: "Does everybody know what's expected?"
CBS News execs thought they had expressed their expectations clearly. Yet Memo Gate (or RatherGate) has cut that credibility to shreds. CBS News' reporters and producers looked to all the world like they are beholden to something other than "fairness and truth."
Lots of people believe that their bias blinded them and was the root cause of the breakdowns. I don't agree.
I see a business unit just like many others with tight deadlines, conflicting priorities, and multiple objectives. And I see associates being asked to live up to big sometimes conflicting expectations without executives making expectations and priorities clear.
Start with the introduction to their standards:
"Credibility is essential to every news organization. It is a bond between us and our viewers and listeners. Nothing erodes the bond faster than viewers or listeners thinking that we have an axe to grind or that we are beholden to anyone or anything other than fairness and truth."
The doc goes on with what purports to be specific standards like: "…personnel who are given or otherwise acquire tapes or other material from non-CBS sources must be satisfied that the material is what it purports to be."
But then comes this a head-scratching directive to all associates:
"These rules are not subject to an employee's interpretation. As with most of what is spelled out in this book, when in doubt, ask." (The italics are mine.)
"What precisely does management expect an associate to do when the associate is satisfied that their 'material is what it purports to be' but others aren't so sure?"
According to their own published standards, if a CBS associate is not in doubt about their fairness and accuracy, whether that's because their personal biases, lack of technical training, being under too much pressure to "scoop" the competition or whatever, then the employee has no reason to ask anyone in management to check their work.
Expectations are like beacons that guide the follow-through. Each must be specific, measurable, and accountable. CBS's news standards aren't. They're corporate gobbledygook.
If people aren't working with a clear understanding of the expectations and priorities, especially in situations where the stakes are high and time is short, it's only sheer luck that they'll deliver reliably. CBS News didn't give their associates clarity. That's the root of their problem.
And in complex situations with many competing expectations (to be first, to get it right, to pull big ratings, etc.) somebody must take charge and say, "when push comes to shove, this is what you push and that is what gets shoved." You can't leave it to something as vague as "when in doubt… ask."
Being clear and communicating clearly is hard work; vague ideals must be defined, standards must be measurable, directives must be prioritized, and it all has to be understood, not just said.