Build routines for higher performance – Harvard Business Review

clockThere is a fascinating article in Harvard Business Review this month about the power of ‘routines’. Todd Warner writes about research into leadership effectiveness, which for once has come up with something both unexpected and interesting. Warner’s work is showing that high performing leaders don’t focus on competences and capabilities (or at least don’t do it using those words, which are the province of the HR department). Rather, they work hard at establishing and using routines – regular ways to engage people in conversations about making things better. Warner writes about his time leading the learning function at mining company BHP Billiton:

“Our best leaders were defined by the execution of a collection of very discrete day-to-day routines, such as how they planned for meetings. We made leadership development discussions about application, not abstraction.”

Warner is clear that it’s not about defining particular routines which every leader should implement – that’s part of the context of the organisation and will differ from place to place. What is important, according to the article, is keeping the focus of these routines practical, regular and frequent. So, this isn’t about a once-a-year 360 appraisal or employee survey, it’s more about simple daily and weekly routines to get everyone talking about ‘how to be better’.

Here at Host Leadership, we are big fans of simple and everyday ways to work. In our book Host, one of the roles (the ‘Gatekeeper’) is explicitly about helping people understand and use routines as part of a regular way of working. This both helps everyone know what’s going on, when are the moments to raise issues or deal with certain topics, and it helps all to be confident that those opportunities WILL come along regularly. It also, perhaps even more potently, helps to define who ‘we’ are – this team, this organisation – by the way we use routines in ways which newcomers learn, old hands appreciate and everyone joins in with. From page 142 of ‘Host’:

There are all kinds of rituals and routines which help give coherence – these can range from the very simple (an operational meeting for the management team every day at nine a.m. to set priorities) to the bizarre (all new members must survive a ritual rolling in a filthy barrel – the traditional initiation for newly qualified whisky-barrel makers, or coopers, at the Speyside Cooperage in Scotland). Some make excellent operational sense; some act as defining the organization; some are rooted in history; some show a purpose in reminding people of why things are how they are.

Beginnings and endings are good times to set up routines and rituals. Even a simple process of starting a certain meeting by asking everyone what they are most pleased with at work at the moment can both produce valuable sharing of information, lift the energy of the room (people enjoy talking about their successes, and they sometimes get little enough chance), and announce that we are here again and that things are running as they “should.” Perhaps there are enough surprises in the world already, so we don’t need any more than really necessary in the workplace?

So, a couple of small actions to get going with your routines:

1. What kind of conversations would you like to have more of, in your workplace?
2. What is the smallest routine you can start to have the conversations with your people and colleagues?

(Remember, a routine isn’t a routine till you have done it three times – the first is an action, the second may be a coincidence… it’s number three that moves your small conversation into a routine!)

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