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Promoting Performance: Three Ps

March 22, 2010

If people did not have to accommodate or adapt to change, we would not need leaders. The relentless nature of change, despite discontinuities in its pace, demands leaders who can keep people engaged and motivated in spite of the difficulties they confront.

Most of us experience change as loss. It requires us to adopt new ideas, adapt our beliefs , and abandon familiar routines. All the while, we are expected to maintain a sense of calm, confidence, and comity.

When I was young, my father often told me, “Prior planning prevents poor performance.” He called his mantra the Five Ps. He often repeated it to underscore with me his belief in the importance of practice as a means of preparing for and successfully managing change, including unexpected and even unwanted events.

Over the years, I have had many occasions to reflect on my Dad’s advice. Indeed, it has occurred to me more often than not that productivity and positive performance involve a great deal more than planning.

That said, planning, as opposed to plans themselves, are an important part of the puzzle. And the act itself suggests many of the additional elements required to encourage success.

So, although I am not prepared to abandon planning altogether, I have come up with a different formulation that involves only three Ps:

  • Preparation perspicacity, purpose, planning, practice
  • Presence paying attention, praising, participating, protecting
  • Patience prioritizing, parsing, pausing, persistence

Preparation is the first and most important step. And although it incorporates planning, it also recognizes that the best plans engage others in a clear purpose motivated or informed by a clear and compelling vision. Even then, those participating must be well-versed and skilled in the routines and actions required to execute the work. If these elements are in place, a really detailed plan is often not required and would probably not reveal much less remedy all of the potential pitfalls anyway.

Getting people to support and implement a plan requires positive reinforcement. An effective leader has to shape the vision in ways that allow others to see what is expected of them. As people proceed, they need to know the leader recognizes and supports their efforts by providing the resources they need to succeed, including information about and a connection to others’ efforts and their common objectives. This step often involves a willingness to promote the interests of those involved while taking actions to protect them from the inevitable miscues and mistakes that happen along the way.

When a leader takes a positive approach to engaging others, this becomes manifest not only in how the leader acts but also how fast. Even when projects operate within tight timeframes where quality is a secondary concern to cost, leaders have to manage expectations by setting clear priorities and breaking large, complex projects or deliverables into bite-sized chunks. Even then, a degree of determination or tenacity is required to see people through rough patches when everything seems too daunting. As stress mounts, the leader must encourage the team to take time to reflect on what’s working and why.

In the end, success is gauged not simply by completion. Another change is always just around the corner. And quality matters even when it is not the primary consideration. Indeed, the quality of a project — how things get done rather than what gets done — is often the central issue requiring the leader’s focus and attention, and its almost always the thing that most directly influences the confidence and cooperation of others along the way and into the future.

To this end, one of the most important and often overlooked elements of leadership is not passion, but compassion. Empathy for others and an innate (if not necessarily intimate) understanding of how much people can take, and what they need to do what they can for you and one another is not only at the heart of successful planning but project management in general.

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