You walk into your weekly team meeting expecting the standard updates around the table. Some people are more prepared than others. Not enough information from some, too much from others. Digressions. Side conversations. Devices. One hour turns into two. You sometimes think: "Why do we even have these team meetings?"

After all, everyone touches base with everybody on the team almost daily. There is an open door policy. If something comes up, you let each other know as needed. You talk and e-mail with each other all day long.

Nonetheless, the meeting begins as usual. Until it quickly surfaces that very important Project Q is off track and behind schedule.

It's not clear what happened. Maybe there was a change in specifications that wasn't fully communicated. Perhaps a resource constraint got in the way, a technology glitch, or human error? Is there anyone who can be held accountable? Mr. Red has dropped the ball before.

There are a lot of moving parts with Project Q. Now changes must be made throughout, changes that will require rework by counterparts in another group in another department. They will not be happy.

Time, resources, energy and money have been wasted. There is blaming, complaining, explaining. Everything has been harder since the team recently lost its most valuable player, Ms. Platinum. And her replacement, Ms. Bronze, is still not fully up to speed.

You spring into action and the firefighting ensues. You have a series of one-on-one huddles with the team members you know you can count on in a jam. You take over some responsibilities yourself -- including begging the counterparts in the other group in the other department to redo their part. There are some quick stand-up meetings and long hours of heavy lifting. The crisis is handled and Project Q is back on track.

When you figure out exactly what happened, there will probably be some very difficult conversations, and there will be consequences. Some people might lose their jobs. Even if Mr. Red is not to blame, it's about time you really spoke to him about his stubbornly inconsistent performance.

Once you finally get everything back on track, you are way behind on your other responsibilities. So are your employees. But things are mostly back to normal.

 

WHEN THE FIRE'S OUT

Any manager will tell you that firefighting is part of the job. It's very hard to break the cycle because when there is an urgent problem, it simply must be addressed. Things do go wrong -- fires occur. If you are the manager, you are in charge. You lead the fight. Everybody has to grab a bucket and help fight the fire. But it's usually difficult, time-consuming work. By the time you are done, you are way behind on all of the other work you were supposed to be doing.

The question many managers have asked themselves: How do I make any real progress when there are so many fires to put out?

The question you should be asking is this: How many of the most frequently occurring "fires" can be prevented altogether, largely avoided, or the impact substantially mitigated? In advance? Way in advance? And every step of the way?

The answer is (roughly) 90 percent of them.

How? By consistently practicing the fundamentals, very well: that means maintaining an ongoing schedule of high-quality one-on-one dialogues with every single person you manage. High-quality means highly structured and highly substantive: ongoing, scheduled, frequent, with a clear execution focus, specific to the individual, and two-way conversation. These are not so-called "crucial conversations" when things go wrong, but regular check-ins when everything is going great, wrong, or even just average. This insight is based on 20 years of in-depth research on supervisory relationships in the workplace. What's amazing is that so few managers in the real world consistently practice the fundamentals very well. What's even more amazing is that so many managers think they are already doing it, when they are not.

Look at the manager of Project Q above. At first glance, he appears to be attending reasonably well to the fundamentals of Management 101: holding regular team meetings, touching base with his employees almost daily, open door, and ongoing visibility by e-mail and telephone.

That's what makes this problem so complicated: The manager is following the right steps, going through the right motions. What else could he be doing? If you asked him just before Project Q fell apart, he would probably have said, "Everything is going just fine."

The manager in this story is like the vast majority of managers at all levels in organizations of all shapes and sizes. This manager is communicating with his direct-reports plenty. Just not very well. Not only that, because he is communicating plenty, he is lulled into a false sense of security.

In fact, if this manager is like the vast majority, it is quite likely that the manager's communication is mostly ad hoc, hit or miss, surface level, and often pro forma. I call this "managing on autopilot."

The vast majority of managers do their "managing" more or less on autopilot until something goes wrong, which it always does. Then communication becomes more heated and urgent - sometimes even more accurate and effective. Managers almost always get most thoroughly involved when there are problems to address - large, medium or small - what I've been referring to here as "firefighting."

Most managers think, "Everything is going just fine. It's just that we have a lot of fires to put out and that makes it very hard to get into a good routine. Whenever you get into a good routine, pretty soon there is another fire."

What they don't realize is that they are stuck in a vicious cycle, where managing on autopilot leads to a false sense of security, where small problems have space to fester and grow, so that problems inevitably blow up, at which point the manager (and others) gets pulled into firefighting mode, after which things go right "back to normal," managing on autopilot.

 

HOW DO YOU BREAK THE CYCLE?

In nearly every one of the thousands of cases I've studied, the solution is simple. Not easy. But simple. What's missing is almost always the fundamentals.

At Rainmaker Thinking, in our research (ongoing since 1993), we study what the very most effective leaders and managers actually do that is different from the others. What is the common denominator? An abiding commitment to the fundamentals -- relentless high-quality communication. Consistently engaging every direct-report in an ongoing, highly structured, content-rich one-on-one dialogue about the work that needs to be done by that person. When managers build and maintain high-quality one-on-one dialogue with their direct-reports, they almost always increase employee performance and morale, increase retention of high performers and turnover among low performers, and achieve significant measurable improvements in business outcomes.

Here's the really good news: They spend less and less time firefighting. They get ahead of the problems and prevent the fires. They break the vicious cycle. Then, if they don't slip up on the fundamentals, a virtuous upward spiral begins to build.

How do you break free from the vicious cycle? Those regular one-on-ones are your fire prevention, preparation and training. First you need to make those routine conversations much better.

That's it. That's how you break free from the vicious cycle. It's just the fundamentals -- practiced consistently, and with rigor and discipline.

Bruce Tulgan is the CEO of Rainmaker Thinking, and the author of It's Okay to Be the Boss. This article is adapted from his new book, The 27 Challenges Managers Face (Jossey-Bass).

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