Operating, Gardening and… Grave Digging?

leadership and management skills

How to avoid being buried alive in ideas

Good ideas can live or die on a manager’s desk. This responsibility is often heavily influenced by the tasks surrounding operating the business and managing the day to day. Management in slower times can be tough but one of the things it can afford you is some breathing room to progress or even resurrect projects or ideas that have gone by the wayside. In a normal operating environment, time for these tasks can be scarce.

We have the tools and ability to carefully water, prune and foster the growth of ideas into fruitful initiatives

As a leader/manager, the list of ideas and initiatives that come across one’s desk can be daunting, bordering on impossible. In a Small-to-Medium Enterprise (SME) this can be even more so. The manager is both the gardener and the gravedigger. We have the tools and ability to carefully water, prune and foster the growth of ideas into fruitful initiatives. At the same time, we are at odds with the role of the gravedigger, where an easy flick of the shovel can send an idea to its grave.

As a manager in a SME with some of the brightest people I’ve ever met, the ideas are endless. The quantity is heavy and the quality is often fantastic. The issue lies in the tension between the role of Gardener / Grave Digger and that of a third and just as critical one, the Operator.

Where the seeds of today are planted (or aren’t) yields the fruit for tomorrow

In a SME, the number of issues that come across one’s desk can be insurmountable and the burden of resolve lies squarely with the manager in most instances. In my particular experience, employees are encouraged and empowered to resolve issues but SMEs are all too often resource-constrained and managers have to always be prepared to step into the breach.

This result for the business in the short term is fantastic: issues are resolved, customers are happy, money is coming in and staff are functioning well and feeling positive. The danger lies in the medium to long term. The issue where the seeds of today plant (or don’t) the fruit for tomorrow. In the operating role, seeds are often not planted. If they are, it’s not in a carefully curated manner, it’s the result instead of a short burst of effort and the result of half-attention paid to an idea or initiative.

But don’t despair, this behaviour is common and the mechanisms for countering this can be simple yet effective. Outlined below are some of the techniques I have tried myself and can recommend for trial for yourself as a manager. These are not required solutions nor will they work for everyone, so pick and choose what suits you best. Feel free to share your own techniques below.

1. Make a List

This seems simple and old fashioned, but its effective. I keep a headline list of recent ideas / possible projects that sits right next to my to-do list. It’s the “Simmer List”. Ideas go there to rest and marinate. If they have legs or continue to be something we go back to, they progress. If they were someone’s ‘grand’ idea that they haven’t thought about again, I scratch it off the list.

2. Manage Expectations

The thing you learn (or don’t) very quickly is to manage expectations. The fountain of ideas, especially in an ideas-based organisation can be overflowing at times. The first part of managing expectations is to make sure people understand that their ideas don’t always merit action. If someone feels passionate about an idea, that is where #3 comes in. If they don’t, then help them understand that the idea will remain what it is, an idea. When you manage expectations effectively, people tend to know what will and won’t fly and don’t get upset either way.

3. Put Ideas Through the Wringer

Unless you work for a think tank or are in brainstorming mode, there is such a thing as a ‘bad idea’. That doesn’t mean the person should feel that they are unimportant or unheard. To balance people’s need to express ideas and be heard with the fact that this is a business, use a mini-business case template. I am not talking a full-blown project scope or even a business plan. It can be simple with fields such as: idea, cost, area of relevance, champion, stakeholders, summary brief. This sounds very basic but putting a small hurdle in place can make a world of difference. Ideas are easy to throw around, putting pen to paper helps ensure the ideas that matter to people get attention and that people don’t have unreasonable expectations that an idea from a meeting will all of a sudden become a priority (refer to point #2).

4. Be Comfortable with Saying “No”

When we are busy or in a meeting, someone will throw an idea to us as managers and we’ll just run with it. Saying no is hard and not fun for anyone, so we say things like “sure, I’ll put this on the list” or “that sounds interesting, let’s discuss it later” when the reality is the idea should go through a formal process (point #3) or be given proper attention via another means. If we say no after an appropriate vetting of the idea, this helps manage expectation (point #2) and allows everyone to move forward without damage to the relationship. This doesn’t mean throw around the “No” word, it means use it when appropriate and fair. It also means saying no to those above us when appropriate, as the process needs to be fair and equally applied.


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