The truth about budgets, part 3

Over the last two posts, I listed these three truths about budgets:

  1. Budgets aren't real money.
  2. Any discretionary budget you do have should be managed primarily by your team, not by you alone.
  3. No one ever got a promotion or a higher performance evaluation because of their excellence in budget control.

Today, let's look at Truth #3 and the idea of Great Work.

No one ever got a promotion or a higher performance evaluation because of their excellence in budget control.

Budgets have the advantages of being detailed, precise, ubiquitous, and easy to measure.

That does not make them important.

I think so many managers get stuck spending time on budgets because they often don't understand what the real work of their team is about. While they are working on figuring out the team's larger challenges, here comes the budget. Often it comes with a complicated computer application and loads of screens or printouts. It seems like it must be something critical.

It also looks like a lot of money – but in fact, it is just information from a planning process that happens to be denominated in dollars. A budget plus $4 will get you a cup of coffee at the company cafeteria.

What those managers are missing while they get stuck in the minutiae of the accounting system is the work that is most important – what I think of as Great Work.

The Great Work idea comes from Michael Bungay Stanier's book Do More Great Work, in which he credits the idea of Great Work to the all-star designer Milton Glaser. Whatever the source, the idea of Great Work is that it is work that matters, work that is meaningful to you, work that makes a difference.

Great Work does not have any of the surface advantages of budgets. It may be vague and difficult to measure, at least at first. It might have a longer term payout, or unclear or uncertain outcomes.

But Great Work has a huge advantage: It motivates people around a purpose.

I have received more questions about motivation than any other topic in my career. Managers see team members that are disengaged, that just put in their time as required, that don't seem to want to change, and those managers want to know, "How can I motivate people in my team?"

While there are several factors that contribute to motivation, Great Work, or work with a sense of purpose, is clearly one of them.

Leaders understand what a sense of purpose can mean. Leaders know that others will join a team with a sense of purpose. People will volunteer for work that matters, even if they don't get paid.

Many leaders of teams don't even hold formal management positions. Their leadership forms around a purpose that attracts other people to work together – to create political change, to make scientific discoveries, to provide a service for a group of young people, or for many other reasons.

For Truth #3, people don't get promoted for budget excellence, because budget excellence can't really be Great Work¹. (Granted, people in financial domains can get promoted for financial excellence, but as I have noted, budgeting is a different process for a different purpose.)

People do get promoted because they create great teams. They implement new ideas. They invent new processes and new products. They constantly improve the quality of what they deliver. They have high morale and engaged team members.

If you spend all of your time fussing with unimportant budget details, or micromanaging, or telling your teams what to do (which takes time away from them actually doing it), you don't have time left for Great Work.

It is important for you and your team to figure out what your Great Work is. It might be improving the health outcomes of the people in your care at a hospital ward. It might be building an automobile that is more safe and has fewer emissions than before. It could be protecting people during times of catastrophe. It could be all kinds of things, depending on your organization.

And here is one quality of Great Work in organizations that you may not expect: Great Work for teams has to be done together.

It is true that individuals can do Great Work in some cases. Artists are an example: Many artists work primarily on their own in creating their own artwork. Authors usually write books solo.

Even in those situations, artists and authors are always dependent on others for publishing, for gallery showings, for publicity. But their Great Work is primarily done solo; these cases are the exception.

If instead you are a leader, a manager, or an aspiring leader or manager, you are working with others by definition. Leaders get people to work together to do things that they could not do alone. As a leader, you are building a team and designing a great environment in which people will do their work.

If Great Work, then, should be done together, what does that mean for your team?

Here's your challenge: You should set up Great Work to avoid internal competition.

How often do you see sales teams, or services teams, or even managers who are part of a larger management team competing with each other?

There is nothing that destroys the potential for Great Work faster than creating competition within the team. Yet I see this time and time again. For some reason, traditional management dogma says that internal competition is good for team spirit. This is a horrible mistake.

Imagine a professional baseball manager who says to his team: "Our goal is to win the World Series."

Everyone cheers!

Then the manager says, "The top six players on the team will get World Series rings and bonuses."

I am 100% certain there will be no World Series rings to worry about giving out.

Management by competition in organizations can take many forms:

  • Does your team have a scoreboard listing managers from best to worst?
  • Does your team get a prize if they beat another team in a common metric?
  • Does your team "grade on a curve?" Can only a few people be top performers, even if the team itself is outstanding?
  • Does a person on your team win something that everyone else doesn't win? (Remember, if you have an Employee of the Month, then you also have everyone else on your team who is Not Employee of the Month.)

Great leaders don't create situations where their own people compete against each other. Instead of competing, leaders succeed best when they find ways for everyone to optimize their individual contributions together and win as a team.

This is the role that a workplace architect thrives in. How can you best bring the individual skills and capabilities together? What are the goals or standards that we are competing against? What ideas can we share to ensure that everyone is improving?

I'll be looking in more detail at the workplace architect role that leaders play in future posts. It is a high investment, high leverage role for great leaders, and it is often overlooked.

For now, here are a few summary points from the truths about budgets:

  • Paying too much attention to budget details is a waste of time. There are no benefits of any kind from being perfect on budget but failing to do meaningful work.
  • Top leaders get everyone on the team involved with both the administrative details and the Great Work of the team.
  • Internal competition creates a situation where a few people succeed and many become complacent or disengaged.

Thanks as always for reading.

¹ There is a Great Work prize potential for budget excellence, and that will go to the management teams who use a budget process that brings more value than the many person-years of labor cost and lost opportunity that gets consumed by process itself.

Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn is a teacher and student of leadership.
Madison, Wisconsin, USA