Creating an Outcomes Based Culture (or how to eliminate stupid meetings)
Unlike many of my friends, I don’t spend hours every day in staff meetings, or collaboration meetings, or touch base meetings or in all the different forms of meetings that exist for one reason only – to make sure that quality work is getting done on time and on budget.
I also don’t spend hours editing reports or enduring the constant back and forth so common when a bunch of different people are attempting to produce a written document.
The reason? At Association Laboratory, we’ve developed an outcomes-based culture of accountability that eliminates the need for much of the managerial follow-up so common in so many organizations.
The Benefits of an Outcomes Based Culture are Obvious
The benefits to an outcomes-based culture include less wasted time, more responsiveness, higher quality work and better team morale.
We have fewer meetings so we can devote more time to actual work. We don’t have days of back and forth while documents get edited, revised then edited again. The team doesn’t get exhausted by meetings, constant follow up and (dare I say it) micromanagement.
The team knows they are responsible for their own work and take satisfaction in producing it with the freedom they need to make it great. They know mistakes don’t get punished and great work celebrated.
The result? Everyone is more productive and happier.
Now I’d like to say I’ve done this because I’m awesome (which I am). The reality is different.
We’re a distributed company with team members from California to Chicago and on to DC and Florida. We have clients in North America and Europe and partners in Asia.
Everyone is too distributed and travels too much to meet face to face. The nature of our work makes a business model where everyone drives to the office and works together impractical (if not impossible).
This creates an environment where everyone needs to be able to operate independently without sacrificing work quality. People need to focus on accountability and outcomes – not process.
4 Rules for an Outcomes Based Culture
Over the years, I’ve developed just a few simple rules to create and reinforce an outcomes-based culture.
Rule #1 – There are no drafts.
The expectation at Association Laboratory is you do your best work the first time. This doesn’t mean you can’t ask for advice or help. It means that we expect you to do everything in your power to produce a finished work. The first time.
This reduces editing time. It reduces the time the next person has to spend adding their own insights. Nobody is going to check spelling, grammar or sentence construction. That’s your job as the principal author. Nobody is responsible for “fixing” what you do. They are responsible for building on what you do.
Rule #2 – The first version is client ready.
I tell my team that anything they send me (or anyone else) has to be client ready. The reason? I may just hit forward on email and send it to someone else. Without review.
In 2017, we had a young person just out of college develop a brief white paper regarding online community. When she sent me her report, I hit “forward” and sent it with almost no review to a prospective client interested in the topic.
While it freaked her out a bit, it reinforced the concept of client ready and, showed that I trusted her to do client ready work.
Rules #1 and #2 create high expectations of quality. It forces everyone be fully accountable for their own work.
Rule 3 – Don’t just talk about it; fix it.
Has this ever happened to you? You send a report or letter to someone for advice or comment and they send back to you notifications about a spelling error, or a “need to clean this up” comment? Of course, you have.
At Association Laboratory we don’t highlight peoples’ mistakes or problems, we fix them. See a spelling error? Fix it. See a complicated paragraph that could be written more simply and clearly? Fix it.
The purpose of collaboration isn’t to find fault. Collaboration is an additive process that incorporates one person’s insights into another person’s ideas. When all you do is critique, you aren’t adding insight.
I learned this lesson from my favorite editor of all time, Cecilia Sepp, CAE. She fixed what was broken and challenged me to write more clearly and concisely (not always successfully). She gave me great advice for articulating complicated topics.
I apply Rule #3 very easily. When you send me back a document that I’ve asked you to review, I hit “accept all” in review mode and don’t even look at what was changed. That way I can focus on the actual comments designed to improve the work itself.
Rule #4 – Everyone is responsible for everyone else’s success.
When people travel, work in different towns and time zones, it is difficult to avoid feelings of isolation. You don’t have the coffee talk or informal back and forth that’s common at the office.
The key to reinforcing an outcomes-based culture of accountability is to constantly reinforce how everyone is on the same team and can rely on others at any time.
During my time at Association Laboratory, I’ve seen the following.
- With less than 6 hours’ notice, a team member packed her bags and flew to a different town to run a 2-day facilitation when a last-minute conflict (jury duty) prevented the original person from attending.
- I’ve seen a team member initiate a client engagement with nothing more substantial than an introductory email.
- I don’t bother to count the times I’ve seen team members contribute, review or otherwise help with a client report at 10 pm or over the weekend. No comment. No complaint.
Most importantly, I’ve seen the genuine happiness and support for a person’s accomplishments and good work. Everyone knows they are on the same side. No interdepartmental bickering, no hidden agendas. You trust everyone else because you know they can trust you.
Once you know everyone else supports you, it makes it easier to contribute your own time and energy to help them. You know they have your back; so, you have theirs.
My Job is to Create the Atmosphere that Makes Accountability Possible
Creating an outcomes-based culture is easier than it sounds. Here’s what I’ve learning over the years.
Recruit for outcomes.
Outcomes-based people thrive in an outcomes-based environment. Process-oriented people do not.
For example, I once had a team member that asked the CEO of a client to approve a simple edit to a survey (from “a” to ”an”). They were used to a culture of sign-off and written approvals. Everything he did required someone to give approval or sign-off.
He didn’t last 90 days.
When I look at resumes, I read to see if they brag about process (managed a budget) or outcomes (increased membership by 12%). I look for evidence that they take independent initiative; without approval or permission.
The more people talk like a bureaucrat the more likely they will act like a bureaucrat.
Live the outcomes brand.
Trust is the critical foundation of an outcomes-based culture. You must trust people to do their best.
You can’t tell people to do their best work the first time if you do not. If you say you’ll forward their work without review, you should. If you tell them to run a project or initiative, let them run it.
Micromanagement is the death of an outcomes-based culture.
At some point, every new person on our team comes face to face with the reality that we live an outcomes-based culture; nobody reviews your work. Nobody approves it. We just hit send.
Now we’ve had some “interesting” incidents over the years. Reports with substantial editing mistakes for example. But when balanced against the benefits of improved staff morale, work quality, productivity and time savings, a few embarrassing edits are an easy price to pay.
To be clear, I’m not immune to these mistakes. I once successfully closed on a client but inadvertently bragged about our experience in the wrong industry throughout the proposal.
I was informed of my mistake during the internal kick off call when the client team kept asking me why I was referring to the wrong profession.
If I don’t say anything; it’s approved.
Like many of you, I often get sent reports for my “approval” or “review”.
My instructions are firm. If I don’t respond, comment or anything else, it’s approved.
I refuse to take responsibility for someone else’s work; it sabotages the outcomes-based culture of accountability I’m trying to reinforce.
I also don’t want to be a road block getting in the way of someone else’s responsiveness to a client or team member.
If you tell them they have the freedom to produce what they think is best, you can’t change it when they accept you at your word.
I am the safety net.
My job is to act as a safety net for the team and the company.
Get in trouble with the client? My job to fix. Analysis paralysis with a research project? My job is to help you work through it. Struggling to get a job done within the established timeframe? My job is to help you figure it out, up to and including, do the work.
Most importantly, it’s my job to put you in situations that, while testing you, allow you to be successful.
Learning is not failing.
Finally, an outcomes-based culture is not built overnight. I’ve had a variety of people work for us who were initially challenged to take full accountability for their work within this culture.
It is critical to help your team understand that learning is not failing.
If you understand what worked and did not and if you demonstrate a willingness to constantly improve within the context of an outcomes-based culture, you’ll do fine here.
Just some thoughts from my seat at the bar.