How many times have you had a great idea but lacked the traction needed from a staff member to move it forward?

When I first met my client, “Sarah”, she was stressed out and struggling to get everything on her plate done. She was the head of a division in a medium-sized business with a handful of direct reports and a team of about 200 people.

She described the challenges she faced with follow through on a productivity initiative she wanted to launch. She was looking to her team to drive this initiative, so that she could focus on a unique strategic opportunity that had come up for her division.  The company had recently purchased some land adjacent to their facility that was hers to develop and use. After several months, she hadn’t come up with a proposal for the use of the space. Her time was so filled with day-to-day work that she had nothing left for the big picture.

One of her main frustrations was with her Chief of Staff, Michael. He just wasn’t understanding what she wanted.

“Well, I asked him to go to the craft store to pick up supplies for the bulletin board,” she said. “You know, one of those crinkly borders and some of that big paper, and he hasn’t done it yet. I don’t know why. It seems so straightforward to me.”

Remember, Sarah is the head of a 200-person division who’s highly educated and competent.

“Craft store?,” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“I want us to have a bulletin board in the staff room where everyone can see how we’re doing on the various productivity metrics. The first step is to have a visible indicator of where we are so that everyone knows where we need to make improvements.”

In the rush of the day-to-day activities, Sarah and Michael hadn’t had a good hand-off about the project. Michael hadn’t understood why she wanted the craft supplies and didn’t see the vision Sarah had about how visibility would feed the broader goal. He just kept hearing her ask him to go to the craft store.

Poor Michael couldn’t figure out why that was so important to her! He hadn’t done a craft project since middle school, so he kept putting it off because it didn’t seem as important as the other work on his plate. And, as a result, Sarah got more and more frustrated.

Meanwhile, she was inundated with follow up on other tasks with other staff members and couldn’t focus on what to do with the new property.

When a staff member seems like they’re dragging their feet on a simple, straightforward task, all of that follow up distracts you from important work, and that can be very frustrating. It shouldn’t be so hard!

Sometimes, like Sarah, we get caught up in the details of what we want and forget to talk about WHY we want it done.

Other times, the opposite can happen. We can see the big picture outcome we want, but we hold off on delegating because we can’t yet see the path to getting there. We forget that our team members can actually be a vital resource in defining that pathway.

In my work with Sarah, we focused on how she could get Michael engaged in the bigger picture. He took on the overall task of “making our productivity visible” and even the bigger picture of “increasing overall productivity.”

He didn’t end up going to the craft store in the end. As his ideas came into the mix, they agreed on a different solution that would be easier to implement. As Sarah applied these lessons to her work with other staffers, she was able to let go and finally focus on the strategic priority of developing the new land, which helped the company successfully expand into a new market.

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