Recently, one of our team members was feeling frustrated at things not moving at the desired pace in her team. The team was having good meetings, and everyone seemed to be in sync. And yet, many of the issues that had been aligned on before kept surfacing back in subsequent meetings.
This is quite common. A seemingly great meeting can up everyone’s enthusiasm levels—fresh ideas emerge, many issues are discussed, and the entire group feels energetic about moving forward. But, once the meeting ends, the energy and excitement fade. Things come up. Priorities shift. People get busy. By the time the next meeting rolls around, not much has been accomplished. So, you end up discussing the same issues again and again, meeting after meeting—with very little to actually show for it.
This sums up an enduring and all-too-familiar mystery in the corporate world: why do people fail to follow through?
For a leader, this can be incredibly frustrating. You know that your team members have great potential, you know what they need to do to achieve the common goal, and you have even got their buy-in—still, things simply refuse to move ahead. The fact is that nine times out of ten, the failure to follow through isn’t driven by a lack of individual desire and effort. It is caused by numerous other factors: insufficient clarity at meetings, absence of follow-up, ambiguous communication, and a laissez-faire attitude towards completion of tasks.
Meeting fatigue is another result of the lack of follow-through. “What is the point of all these meetings when nothing ever changes?” people complain. And they’re right. Without follow-through, the most brilliant ideas and plans in the world are essentially useless. This failure to transform words into actions holds back the team and impacts their long-term success, not to mention that of the organisation.
So, drawing from this, my message this week focuses on how to cultivate and encourage follow-through in your teams. Instead of simply creating castles in the air, turn them into reality by maintaining momentum.
What I have noticed is that many leaders tend to be cavalier about follow-through. They assume that the team members should figure this all out on their own. So, here is a five-step strategy to get better at follow-through:
1. Create and share common meeting notes
In order to improve follow-through, we need to go back to the basics. Yes, everyone might be jotting down their own thoughts, but it’s important to have a master version of the meeting notes. Either assign someone to take down common notes during the meeting, or pool individual notes at the end to build a shared version. Common meeting notes should be easily accessible for all participants—place them in Google Drive or share them through your common team folder. This document lays the foundation for follow-through, so it must clearly include action items, responsible individuals, and timelines:
- Highlight action items. Okay, so you’ve made lots of great decisions in the meeting—but decisions aren’t enough to spark action. Each decision then needs to be broken down into action items. Dispense with vagueness and make each task as clear-cut as possible.
- Assign ownership.Next, each task needs to be assigned to a relevant team member. Ownership should be limited to one person—resist the temptation to give the same task to multiple individuals as this dilutes the responsibility for completion. In such a case, the item may not get done at all, or it may get done twice—a real waste of time! It’s okay for the task to be supported by additional people, as long as one person takes the lead. Make sure you don’t assign tasks to people who are not present, as they cannot negotiate or commit.
- Decide on deadlines.Instead of implying a default deadline (“by the next meeting”), fix a date that makes sense for the project and is agreed to by the responsible individual. Strive to give team members timelines that they find reasonable, with the limits of the larger business context.
2. Create a sense of urgency
Once the What, Who, and When are in place, you need to work towards sustaining the feeling of energy and momentum. Send all participants a snapshot of the next steps within 24 hours of the meeting. Then, assign someone to follow up with regular check-ins—an effective way of keeping the tasks on people’s radars until they are completed. Encourage the person in charge of reminders to increase visibility in innovative ways: they could put up a list of action items where the team simply can’t miss seeing it, or give out reminder sticky notes with individual tasks. (You can assign the task of follow-up during the meeting itself, so everyone is aware of who is in charge. This responsibility should ideally be taken up by each team member in turn).
3. Build accountability
Ask explicitly for commitments from each team member – “Do I have your commitment to achieve this”? Being specific about commitments sends the signal that this really matters and that it is not an empty promise. Also, it enables you to build the foundation for follow up discussions if things go off-course and if the commitment is not met.
Effective and timely communication is also crucial for creating a culture of accountability. Encourage your team members to send an update if it looks like they won’t be able to complete their task. Last but not least, begin each meeting with a quick check-in about the previous meeting’s action points. Which items have been completed? Was non-delivery clearly communicated? What obstacles got in the way? How can these be addressed? What do you need from me to make it happen? This clearly demonstrates to your team that follow-through is critical.
4. Demonstrate understanding
Last week, I wrote about how compassion makes you a more effective leader, and this applies to follow-through as well. In his Harvard Business Review article, How to Get Your Team to Follow Through After a Meeting, Paul Axtell emphasizes the importance of getting to know your colleagues and their work context:
‘Each person on your team has a complex life—much of which is unknown to you. You are not the only person asking for their time. People are usually on multiple teams and often have more than one person to whom they report. By being interested in each of your colleagues, finding time to chat, and working to understand their current reality, you can gain their respect and permission to ask them to do what they say they will do, reliably—almost every time.’
5. Work together
If you’re unable to raise the follow-through rate through personally driven initiatives, turn it into a team challenge. Conduct a problem-solving session to identify roadblocks and come up with solutions. Paul Axtell recommends the following list of questions to guide the discussion:
- Is each action item essential to completion of the project?
- At the time we commit, do we fully intend to do whatever it takes to deliver?
- Are we clear about what needs to be done, who will do it, and when it will be done?
- Do we have the ability to say no or negotiate when we can’t fully commit?
- Is it OK if someone follows up to check on our progress?
- Do we have a system to keep track of action items and their completion?
- Do we have an agreement to communicate if something comes up that might interfere with our completion of the task?
Actions speak louder than words—this is a message that needs to be clearly communicated in order to improve follow-through, accomplish key objectives, and elevate team performance.
The secret to turning your common vision into reality is nothing mysterious or unrealistic—it simply comes down to creating greater clarity and accountability during and after meetings. And the best way to do this is by following a process that works, without giving in to the temptation of leaving out the specifics and skipping steps.
And finally, it is important for each of you to follow-through and uphold your individual commitments – to your teams, to the organisation and to your supervisors. You can’t expect your team members to follow-through if you don’t follow-through yourself.
As always, I look forward to your perspectives.