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Management Action with Traction

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Traction is when our efforts in the workplace make a genuine, measurable, and lasting difference... when the things we try to do get done and stay done. Vince Thompson explains how to achieve management action with traction.

Banging Pots

The time: Almost 25 years ago. It was my second day at a new summer job, working in the kitchen of a local diner. The dish tank was hot and humid. Behind me sat a row of plastic trays filled with greasy dishes. In front, a busboy was sliding another tray onto the table, slopping dirty dishwater onto my new tennis shoes and the soggy rubber mats below. After three-and-a-half hours of scrubbing plates and glasses, my hands were sore, my shirt soaked with dishwater, and my hair matted to my forehead. I leaned against the stainless steel table for a minute to catch my breath.

With a bang of the swinging door, Rusty, our cowboy cook, came flying around the corner, a cast iron burner in each hand. “What’s up, boy? I didn’t hear any noise, so I thought you weren’t working. Take these things and degrease ‘em. And lemme give you a word of advice. You wanna take a break, you better bang some pots. You better sound busy. No noise from the dish tank means work ain’t getting done... you got it?”

I had just learned one of my first lessons in business: Look busy. Act busy. Sound busy. And if you’re not accomplishing anything, at least bang some pots.

Flash forward. I’m selling TV ad time in a cubicle at a large firm on mid-Wilshire in Los Angeles. I am one more person in a sea of blue blazers (standard apparel for assistants with aspiration). We knew it was a competition: One of us would be getting the promotion. Which one? The one who paid the dues and looked the part. The one who looked busy.

Of course, this conflicts with the things we’re taught in training programs on time management and productivity, and with the slogans tossed around in the latest books on leadership:

  • “Don’t work hard, work smart!”
  • “Collapse time!”
  • “Achieve balance!”
  • “Focus like a laser on what’s essential!”

All of these ideas sound good... but how do we do it?

How do we “collapse time” when, after answering our last six voicemail messages we find that nine more have piled up in the mailbox? How do we “achieve balance” when our company is behind the eight ball and struggling to launch that quarter-saving new product ahead of schedule? What happens when there’s a changing of the guard? What happens when sales are off? What do those in the executive suite want and expect?

We all know the real answer. They want to see activity. They want production reports, sales reports, and marketing reports. They want to hear phones ringing, keyboards clicking, printers buzzing. They take comfort in knowing we’re doing all we can. They want to hear the sound of banging pots.

The pressure to join the potbangers is intense. It’s one of the big reasons that sensible concepts like job-sharing and telecommuting have taken so long to catch on in most corporations: “I can’t work at home. If the boss doesn’t see me in the office, he’ll think I’m not working.” Being productive is less important than being seen to be productive. But we all know, deep inside, that the noise from our banging is ultimately meaningless. We long to trade the treadmill of endless, ineffectual action for the lasting value of traction.

Traction is when our efforts in the workplace make a genuine, measurable, and lasting difference... when the things we try to do get done and stay done.

Most managers achieve traction, but usually in the form of sporadic breakthroughs that lurch them forward, then leave them to sit, exhausted, until they can build energy, purpose, and focus once again. It’s better than nothing. Our goal is to gain real traction, traction that cuts deeper with every move, which carves a path and carries momentum into the future.

In order to achieve this level of traction, we must create and nurture an environment for ourselves and our team members where traction is second nature. It starts with our bosses, their goals, their needs, and our alignment with them. With alignment attained, we can employ a host of tools to keep us on the path to the traction we desire.

In the pages that follow, you’ll consider the concept of Management Value Added, a powerful tool for setting your course. You’ll explore the difference between traction and slippage, and how to build a portfolio of projects that stick rather than slip. Building upon these concepts, you’ll look at achieving group traction and offer some new ideas for ensuring follow-through.

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