In human behaviour, consequences are more important than instructions. To facilitate change, leaders must regularly be present where the work takes place. They coach people and teams on improvement efforts, which at the same time teaches people the method by which improvement is achieved. The coaching should focus on thinking and behaviours, not results.
A well-known, progressive CIO once told me in an agitated discussion about goals: “Apart from setting goals and clarifying constraints, there are no other means by which leaders can influence work”.
I think I understand his reasoning, but I disagree. In fact, I think he got it backwards. Setting goals is certainly not all you can do. In fact, goal setting is not even that important.
Before you stop reading, let me explain: It is common among modern leaders to “manage by objectives”. This is a debatable practice, but it comes from a good intention: As leaders we should avoid interfering in operational details and allow people and teams to organize the work themselves.
But what they forget is how humans work.
Organisational Behaviour Management (OBM) is a field studying human behaviour in the workplace. OBM has murky roots in behaviorism, but also some interesting findings. One of them is the ABC rule. ABC stands for Antecedent-Behaviour-Consequence.
- Antecedent: What comes before, for example training, instructions, orders
- Behaviour: What we do as a result (not what we avoid doing)
- Consequence: What comes after, good or bad, for example attention, recognition, frustration, removal of gratuitous fruit.
The ABC rule states that to most people, the consequences are more important than antecedent. In other words: What happens afterwards is more important than what sets it off. For example, if a manager presses on her team to improve quality (that’s the antecedent), but no action is taken, the manager never speaks about it again, and quality problems are still ignored (no consequence), we should not be surprised that, after a while, nobody cares about quality improvement. Makes sense, right?
The ABC Rule (in simple terms): What happens afterwards is more important than what sets it off.
Applying the ABC rule to goals tells us that it’s more important to follow up on the progress on goals than it is to define them. This is often surprising to leaders. Leadership teams tend to make a big fuss about next year’s goals or next quarterly objectives, seduced by the alluring feeling of control. However, taking an interest in the work, ensuring teams make goals their own, learning how they approach the work, what they are trying and what’s standing in the way, is not as popular. Managers tend to wonder why there is so little progress on the goals. Armed with the knowledge of the ABC rule, we know why.
Taking us back to the CIO in the beginning, that’s where he got it backwards. It is more important to be present and take an interest in how things are going than to set objectives.
This series is about organisational change, where the ABC rule applies as well, of course. That means, setting up a vision and mission, perhaps even a North Star and getting teams trained in PDCA is all well and good, but it’s what happens next that matters.
To me, there are three things that are important here:
- Show up at the place of work
- Interact with the teams, listen and ask open questions
- Focus coaching on thinking on behaviours, not results
“Success is 50 % just showing up”, is a common saying. The best leaders are present where the work happens (in Lean often called the gemba). Not to control, but to observe, interact, teach, and understand how people think and how the work works. Just being present now and then, listening and observing will take you far.
Even better, talk to teams. Ask open, curious questions and listen actively. Not just their words, but their tone of voice, body language, etc. What does that tell you? What’s their current way of thinking? Can you help them in some way? Look at you, now you’re coaching teams!
Finally, remember that weird abbreviation in the title: WYAFIWYG? It means: What You Ask For Is What You Get. This guideline informs us that a leader’s questions will tell people what is important to them (and probably the organisation). If leaders and people are aligned, people will then try to bring more of that. Why? Because of the ABC rule. Leadership attention and genuine curiosity are the reinforcing consequences. (Note: It has to be genuine. Don’t fake it.)
WYAFIWYG: What You Ask For Is What You Get
So you have to ask the right questions. If you mostly ask about deliveries and say: “When will it be done?”, people will take away that project management and deliveries are of paramount importance here. Experimentation, learning, improvement, health, safety, collaboration, feedback, etcetera – not so much. This is a clear symptom of a manager with a command-and-control mindset.
Instead, I suggest asking, not for results, but for the behaviours that you believe will lead to great results. If you want improvement on quality, for example, inquire what the team is trying to do about it. Ask questions that reveal that you assume people are working on it using your agreed improvement method. Here are some powerful questions around improvement you can ask:
- What are you trying to achieve?
- What experiments have you tried so far and what happened?
- What obstacles do you see and which one are you addressing now?
- What will you try next?
- When do you think we’ll be able see the result from your next experiment?
Faced with these kinds of questions, a team will understand that experimenting to learn and improve is really important here. This will intensify their efforts. It will also, gradually, teach them the scientific method of continuous improvement. And suddenly, you’re on your way to a learning organisation. That’s the power of WYAFIWYG.
 These questions are derived from the Coaching Kata of Toyota Kata, by Mike Rother. Watch this video for a 5-minute introduction to Toyota Kata and the role of the coach.
Previous posts in the series on organisational change: