Casting the spell of success by asking for what we want

Business leaders must develop the skill of demanding results if they want to tap potential, write Ted Black and Gerard van Hoek.


THERE IS NO TRY: Business leaders in today’s hostile, competitive climate can learn a great deal from the no-nonsense approach of Jedi master Yoda from the Star Wars films.

THE Democratic Alliance’s new team in Western Cape sparked much sound and fury after the election. It raised a critical issue ignored at the time. SA’s future success depends on a few factors. The most crucial, because it drives everything we want to achieve, is to build a new generation of results-driven managers.

The African National Congress has discovered from its time in government that only effective managers make resources productive — not politicians and bureaucrats. To be effective, “There is only do or do not. There is no ‘try’,” as Jedi master Yoda said.

The DA’s Helen Zille knows that and acts on it. When explaining her selection decisions, she said in her typically forthright way about one of them, “He can manage!” In other words, he gets things done.

In 1974, Robert H Schaffer wrote a Harvard Business Review (HBR) classic called, Demand Better Results —And Get Them. Reissued in 1991, it became one of HBR’s 10 most requested articles during the 1990s. Maybe that’s because few managers have the ability, or the will, to set expectations in a way that gets results. It’s the scarcest skill but we must develop it if we want to tap into our huge, untapped potential.

Over the years, thousands of managers, in SA and around the world, have been asked to guess how much more productive they would be if overlapping functions were eliminated; there was more co-operation and less internal competition; people worked closer to their potential; there were less politics and ego-driven behaviour; fewer useless meetings, conferences and projects that go nowhere; lastly, that people had to achieve hard, clear, result-driven tasks — not perform soft, fuzzy, activity-driven “roles”.

Almost everyone selects “25% to 50%” and “over 50%” potential to improve. Compare average and best performance among yo u r units and people if you want proof. And it’s even more urgent to release potential in this hostile competitive climate, with its recession, unions agitating for higher pay, and our need to make the poor productive.

Managers invest a lot to get better results. They buy companies, reorganise, and install new technology, plants and enterprise resource planning systems. Widespread training focuses on continuous improvement, culture change, “empowerment”, balanced scorecards with their countless, confusing “key performance areas” and “key performance indicators ”. Then, after throwing academics, corporate resource groups and consulting firms into the mix, look at the cost to value ratios.

You’ll battle to find links to a positive economic impact. That’s because the activities, as good as they are, become handy bolt holes for managers to avoid the struggle of achieving a big step up with the resources they already have. You only get “breakthrough” when a leader decides his people must and can make a big productivity gain, and then demands it.

Why don’t managers make demands? Pushing for big gains can seem risky. It’s because of the ways we assume the world works. They put a serious damper on ambitions for the better.

If you are new in your job, you could threaten and anger your boss by implying he has settled for less. Or, you may fear ridicule if you don’t reach your goal.

Again, you might irritate peers with your high expectations. Efforts to lift performance may expose weakness, uncertainty and lack of know-how as you challenge the existing way of doing things.

With your people, a clear demand for better performance can stir up conflict and dislike — maybe raise another fear. What do you do if they fail?

On top of these concerns, many in the human relations movement see the demanding manager as a villain. So instead of using power to make demands, you have “vision” statements and “communication” programmes all backed with training, incentive schemes, posters and slogans on display around offices and factories.

These tactics stress process and method but weaken the value of results. Little improvement occurs because there’s no forceful call for it. Test any typical enterprise resource planning (ERP) system or change project for proof. The response is, “It’s very hard to measure. Trust us, the results will come .” Left unsaid is, “Like rain in the desert.”

You’ll never achieve superior results as long as you think the right training and indoctrination will produce them. All it means is we lack the courage to face up to the struggle that’s needed to break down the barriers of inertia and resistance that exist everywhere.

We even sabotage ourselves with our own escape routes. We convince ourselves we’ve done all we can to spell out what must be done and say: “Well, if they don’t know what they have to do by now, they shouldn’t be here.”

We play games. “Look, I don’t know where we’re going to get a 15% increase in sales, but I have to stick it in my plan so you must do the same.” Or, we accept trade-offs. “I’ll increase sales but I’ll have to give bigger discounts to get them.”

We back away from tough demands by saying, “Okay, let’s budget for the same level of expenses, but I’d really like to see some reductions when we get into the new year.”

Often, we set vague and distant goals. “By this time next year, I want to see a significant improvement in material utilisation”. Sometimes there are too many. “These are the 30 key goals that we must focus on this year,” says the executive giving “good slide” to the CEO.

Then there’s the bureaucrat’s response. “If you really want to reduce inventory, then let’s first commission a study to find out how we got into this mess — who ordered it, why it’s not being used —and if we need to rethink our whole approach to supply chain and stock control management.”

As to “performance management”, you get a blizzard of documents that forces huge amounts of energy spent on procedures, not results. In the same way, according to most longsuffering operating managers, putting in ERP systems is like “pouring liquid concrete”.

If you want a breakthrough, you have to master the art of demandmaking. It applies if you lead a team of creative boffins, conduct an orchestra, or run a mine. Nothing happens until you make demands that get a productive response. The good news is you can develop the skill, but not in a classroom.

Rehearse and prepare in one if you want, but learn on the job.

Demand-making is not barking orders. Your aim is to get people to drop, for a while, all the “activities” —the studies, preparations, training, surveys and analyses. Instead, make a successful, first attempt to lift expectations, get a tangible result and use the success as a foundation for ever more ambitious steps.

“We lack the courage to face up to the struggle needed to break down barriers of inertia and resistance”

The essence of the process is that a series of demands, limited at first but becoming more ambitious —each backed by careful plans, controls and determined effort — makes success far more likely than a plunge into widespread change from the start. There are five guidelines for designing the breakthrough goal.

  • It is urgent, and compelling. Focus on improvements that everyone clearly and instantly sees as vital and necessary now. Generate the feeling that the goal is an imperative — not nice to have.
  • Anticipate success in 100 calendar days or less — not many months and years. Chunk down from the large and complex — something that concerns say sales, quality, costs or output — to a short-term, first-step goal. Focus on one product in one branch to one customer; one machine in one plant; one hospital ward; one clinic; one customer; one backlog.
  • Make it simple — not simple to do; simple to understand — one with a physical measure you can plot daily. You trigger change with one number — not many of them.
  • Exploit what people are able, willing and ready to tackle now. To guarantee and build commitment, do what excites them — not what you think they ought to do.
  • It is achievable with existing resources and authority. They must do what they can with what they’ve got. All key people involved can commit without hedging bets and finding ways to duck responsibility —there’s no escape.

Selecting a goal and demanding a result this way creates a “credible crisis”. It generates the “must do” energising forces you find in emergencies. There is urgency, challenge, and excitement. Success is near and clear. The pressure to get things done fast stimulates people to collaborate, experiment and ignore “red tape”.

With a clear, non-negotiable demand, you nail them down. Do that and you often find the imagined threats and dangers never show up. If your people are like most, they will respond to the challenge. They achieve the goal. If they fall short, that’s still a success to build on.

Despite first doubts, most people enjoy working in a resultsdriven climate. It empowers them. They contribute and take responsibility for “doing” or “not doing”. They know if they don’t deliver they’ll let themselves and the team down.

Finally, you achieve the prime objective — to grow your people. You do it fast, measurably, just-in-time, on-the-job. They are more confident, competent, improve relationships and increase their personal value. They grow into more effective managers.

The result, the change in the number from the start of the project to its end, does two things. It keeps you honest. It tells you if your people are growing. That’s leading with integrity.

Black and Van Hoek are affiliates of Robert H. Schaffer & Associates ( They coach, mentor and help managers design 100-Day Rapid Results projects.