I am continually surprised by the number of organisations that I work with who are exploring the ‘higher planes’ of performance management and the pursuit of excellence (using balanced scorecards, strategy maps and so on) who do not yet practice some of the management fundamentals, such as 121s, feedback and coaching. By getting these management basics right I believe that most organisations can make substantial improvements in performance quickly and at low cost.
What is a 121?
A 121 is a planned, structured, documented meeting between a manager and a direct report held on a weekly.
Why are they so effective in improving performance?
- 121s provide the foundation on which managers and their reports can build a genuine and powerful working relationship that provides the foundation for high performance.
- They provide the report with the opportunity to bring to their manager’s attention where they need help, support or permission to act. Providing reports with this opportunity in a structured way will dramatically reduce the time that managers spend reacting to ad hoc requests.
- They give managers the chance to talk about issues that have occurred over the course of the week that may impact on the report – either because of changing priorities in the business or because of some aspect of their work.
- Managers have the chance to talk on a weekly basis about the medium and longer term future. What training and development does the report need to develop their career? What projects and opportunities might be on the horizon that the report may be interested in working on?
- 121s provide the foundation that allows manager’s to make the transition from fire fighting to genuinely managing and developing performance.
I manage 10 direct reports – I won’t have time to do weekly one to ones.
Lack of time is the most common objection to implementing 121s. If the manager has a team of ten, then 121s will take about 6 hours a week – allowing a little time for note-taking and follow-up actions.
After 2-3 weeks of doing 121s the vast majority of manager’s report that they are saving time. Because reports know that they have structured time with the manager they will hold non-critical issues until the 121, instead of raising them whenever they have the chance. Interruptions are reduced significantly.
Regular 121s allow many minor adjustments to be made in the work of, and relationship with, the report. This means that more problems are nipped in the bud and more opportunities are spotted and acted upon quickly – saving lots of fire-fighting time later on.
Scheduling 121s can be a problem. But most managers’ diaries have plenty of space just 3-4 weeks ahead. This is the time to start booking 121s.
If the number of direct reports goes much above 12 then fitting in weekly 121s can be a problem – and they can be made fortnightly instead of weekly. If your team is made up of some full and some part-timers then you may want to schedule 121s with part-timers on a less frequent basis. 121s still work if they are not done weekly, but they do not work as well and the results take longer to show.
Why do 121s have to be documented?
Taking notes, and following up on them, is a vital part of effective 121s. It demonstrates that you are taking the meeting seriously and that you are committing to acting on what is discussed. The notes also provide a comprehensive record of what has been discussed with the report over the year and make annual performance reviews much easier to do. They also allow you to keep accurate records that can be helpful when making a case for promotion or dealing with poor performance. I recommend the use of a simple proforma, which is handwritten during the 121, and stored securely in a file for each direct report.
Making the Commitment
121s show a very real commitment from the manager to each of their direct reports. This commitment has to be maintained so that 121s become part of the management routine. They should hardly ever be missed. 121s have a major impact on organisational culture when they are adopted throughout the organisation as they show a real commitment to people and performance. However if the organisation is not prepared to commit top them as a part of the culture, they work just as effectively for individual managers who chose to adopt them. In fact these managers soon develop a reputation for excellent service delivery, as great people developers and soon stand out from the managerial crowd.
Making 121s work requires both will and skill. Managers can be trained in how to effectively set up and maintain a system of 121s in a half day training session.
Top Down Development
Top down development is characterised by usually a small number of people recruited or elected to develop a ‘strategy’ that will lead to progress.
The ‘strategy’ is usually accompanied by a ‘plan’, where costed elements are prioritised and scheduled for delivery in the full expectation that things will, as a result, get better.
The strategy and its associated plans are usually supported with evidence and feasibility studies showing just why this is the right course of action and how benefits will accrue and to whom. In recent years it seems we have stopped worrying about ‘to whom the benefits will accrue’ and accepting that the trickle down fairy will ensure that any wealth and wellbeing created by the plan will be enjoyed by all.
Top down development is also characterised by:
- delegation down a chain of command to manage implementation – this is not always well managed
- fierce discussions about the correct allocation of scarce resources – this can divert us from real issues and burn millions
- disputes about chosen methodologies and the viability of alternatives – as everyone tries to get a piece of the planning budget
- piloting and subsequent rolling out of schemes and plans – a belief that what worked elsewhere can also work here, and there….
- attempts, with varying degrees of honesty and legitimacy, to encourage participation in the top down planning process – phrases like consultation, co-production and engagement are used liberally.
Bottom Up Development
Bottom Up Development is characterised by people using their power to develop their self interest. Remember self interest is not selfishness but means ‘self amongst others’. One of the important lessons from top down development is that often the best way to develop ones own self interest is to look after the self interests of others.
Sometimes bottom up development is also characterised by groups of people coming together when they have shared self interests. In bottom up development this coming together around common cause requires little engineering. It sometimes just happens. But it can be supported and encouraged. It is often discouraged.
Bottom up development is characterised by:
- Individuals working in their own self interests in the way that they see fit
- Individuals looking for the resources that they need to make progress
- Individuals pondering their options
- Individuals coming together around common causes – forming associations and organising in order to increase their power
Bottom Up AND Top Down
Both bottom up and top down processes of development are necessary in a modern society. Top down to plan and provide the infrastructure required and bottom up to allow individuals and groups to use it effectively. Nearly all development work is done in a top down way. It is my contention that we need to invest significantly in bottom up development and its relationship to top down, if we are to build communities full of active citizens. If we are to encourage civic enterprise.
Don’t do it unless you have to!
If you know what it is that you want to achieve, and you have the power to do it without collaborating then JFDI. Collaboration is a tool best left in toolbox. unless you have the right job for it.
What are you collaborating for?
Be really clear on what you want the collaboration to achieve, both for you, your preferred, chosen collaborator (more on this later) and your service users or customers. What impact do you want the collaboration to make?
Develop the vision and rationale for the collaboration – but leave the detailed planning till later
Finding the right collaborators depends on having a vision that is credible, compelling and achievable. But leave plenty of room for your collaborators to get on board with you in refining the vision and getting down and dirty with shaping goals, projects and plans. You want them to be collaborators remember – not just hired hands…
Choose your collaborators with care
Make sure that your collaborators being resources, abilities, skills, something to the party that you don’t have but that you need to achieve what it is that matters most to you. Collaborations that bring to the game more of what you already have tend not to be very exciting – unless your challenge is simply to ‘do more’ rather than ‘do different’ or ‘do better’.
Surviving or thriving?
For some at the moment the need to collaborate is driven by the scissors of doom, the falling levels of investment and the rising demands on services. ‘Collaboration’ is seen as a way to get more done at lower costs and can be a euphemism for, or a preamble to, merger where back office costs can be cut and we get to live another day. Nothing wrong with living to fight another day, but using collaboration to innovate might mean that you get to thrive rather than merely survive.
Collaboration, like innovation, is an acquired competence
Innovation and collaboration are both complex processes that require certain skills and cultures to enable them to develop and thrive. You can’t just expect individuals or organisations to be innovative and collaborative, any more than you can expect them to walk a high wire or speak Latin. These things have to be learned, and learning takes time.
Get used to failure
Both collaboration and innovation are risky endeavours. They cannot be ‘evidence based’ and guaranteed to succeed. The more you innovate and collaborate the more you will fail. But also the greater the chances that you will succeed. And as long as your successes create more value than your failures destroy then you are winning.
Ponder the ‘non suicidal acts of courage’
Collaboration and innovation both demand courage. For us to leave our comfort zones. To risk failing, looking stupid, provoking disapproval, even anger. There are risks we could take that, if they went wrong, would put us out of the game. These are potentially suicidal acts of courage – and sometimes they may have to be taken. But what are the non-suicidal acts of courage that you might be able to commit to?
If there were any single person in overall charge of the task of supplying shirts to the world’s population, the complexity of the challenge facing them would call to mind the predicament of a general fighting a war. One can imagine an incoming president of the United States being presented with a report entitled The World’s Need for Shirts, trembling at its contents, and immediately setting up a Presidential Task Force. The United Nations would hold conferences on ways to enhance international cooperation in shirt-making, and there would be arguments over whether the United Nations or the United States should take the lead. The pope and the archbishop of Canterbury would issue calls for everyone to pull together to ensure that the world’s needs were met, and committees of bishops and pop stars would periodically remind us that a shirt on one’s back is a human right. The humanitarian organization Couturiers sans Frontières would airlift supplies to sartorially challenged regions of the world. Experts would be commissioned to examine the wisdom of making collars in Brazil for shirts made in Malaysia for re-export to Brazil. More experts would suggest that by cutting back on the wasteful variety of frivolous styles it would be possible to make dramatic improvements in the total number of shirts produced. Factories which had achieved the most spectacular increases in their output would be given awards, and their directors would be interviewed respectfully on television. Activist groups would protest that “shirts” is a sexist and racist category and propose gender- and culture-neutral terms covering blouses, tunics, cholis, kurtas, barongs, and the myriad other items that the world’s citizens wear above the waist. The columns of newspapers would resound with arguments over priorities and needs. In the cacophony I wonder whether I would still have been able to buy my shirt.
Taken from: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Company-Strangers-Natural-History-Economic/dp/0691146462