Leading for Tomorrow: Why You Need a Playbook, Not a Cookbook

Posted on: January 16, 2018

Leadership Playbook“How should I lead a team or project?”

There’s no shortage of advice on leadership and project management in books and articles. But leaders today face great uncertainty and disruption. To adapt to this rapidly changing pace, and to reset their thinking and approaches, leaders need to make this paradigm shift now:

Leading today requires a “playbook”, not a “cookbook.”

Many have been leading with cookbooks. Cookbooks consist of recipes, step-by-step instructions of what and how many ingredients you need, and how to put them together. In similar fashion, organizations have built detailed methodologies and processes, replete with templates, that seek to remove the risk of misalignment or failure to complete the work. Their end game: so they can delegate with the assurance it will be done “correctly”. Goals and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) are their dashboards to validate that alignment.

My challenge to clients is … how’s that working for you?

For most organizations I help, they are working hard. Yet the processes, procedures, and templates have become their “safe zone”. If they are using the correct process or form, they assume they must be leading the project in the right direction. Often they express fears about not keeping up with change; they worry if they have enough “strategic-minded” leaders. The stage has been set: action has become equated to progress.

The cookbook has met its limits.

What should we do instead? We need to be building and teaching our “playbook”–a set of micro-techniques. Think of these techniques as plays; we seek to apply the right play we need based on the situation. Now consider how football teams use plays.

Football teams do not design a game plan with a full set of plays for an entire game. Instead, they have a book of plays. Based on their initial game plan, they leverage these plays in response to what they see as the game unfolds. The plays are small sequences that players have practiced repeatedly. They have become rhythmic and reliable amongst the team (people know what to expect). They are driven by a singular purpose (to win), with sub-intents (defense prevents points, offense scores points). Throughout the game, the team assesses, adapts, and adjusts their plays.

Leading for tomorrow requires establishing plays your team can use and apply when needed. These may range from basic techniques for communicating (see BLUF and SITREP), identifying root cause (see Ishikawa Diagram5 Whys), and conducting meetings (see Outcome-based Meeting Mgt) to more complex ones for establishing purpose (see Leader’s Intent) and culture (see Principled Leadership), and making decisions (see 3D QuestionsKnown-Unknowns). These plays are practiced so that they become consistent to the team, like muscle memory.

Just as a good coach does, the leader then shifts his/her focus toward helping the team members to understand when they should apply a particular play based on “reading” the situation. Some plays will be used often; essentially, they become your “base process”; while others may be applied only occasionally.

Next week, I’ll share how to build your playbook. Thanks for reading!


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