Organizations fall short of achieving their noble ambitions largely due to one primary root cause: the inability to harness the collective energy of the humans that work for them. We specifically use the words ‘humans’ because of the predictable, yet unavoidable, dysfunctions that arise when humans interact (or fail to) as the endeavor to deliver. The irony is that if leaders can account for these and take proactive steps to address them—they will create conditions that not only allow the company to flourish, but ensure people enjoy the journey in the process.
This first installment of the series addresses one very overlooked issue in most companies, one that may be quite surprising: 73.2% of the time, the top team (Big boss and direct reports) lacks the requisite clarity and collective alignment around the what the enterprise is trying to do. That’s right, silo thinking starts at the top.
Most executives we work with don’t believe it, and so we have to prove it to them. We ask top leaders to write down the 3-5 things that will matter most in the next 3-6 months in order for the company to be successful. As you may suspect, there is enough variation for us to be able to claim the statistic above; even if they get it broadly right, when you ask the follow on question ‘what does this team need to do to make these priorities happen’ you get strikingly different answers.
This is actually quite natural, as we all look at the same information through a different lens and of course, we interpret the information differently as well. Further, we are all subject to the everyday realities of running the business including the on-going ‘fires’ that need be extinguished. The challenge is that this leads to a default way of working that depletes time and energy away from the things that really will make a difference for the business. And, this is the beginning of the silo behavior to which we are all too familiar. Worse, only 9% of managers suggest they can rely on colleagues in other functions most of the time.1 I am reminded of most engagement surveys that we see which point to “my team” works great, its “everyone else” that is screwed up.
Now, if the top team doesn’t have it right, you can imagine how fragmented the messaging will be in the chain of communication across the organization. Often, we leave strategic planning sessions to attend individual leader meetings where they aim to communicate the new direction and it already falls short. Consider the example where one client announced that the focus will be on the customer (retailers in this case), when, in reality, the decision was to have the actual consumer be the deciding factor. Getting that wrong is a huge strategic misstep and will lead to all kinds of unproductive work as the message gets passed down through the company.
So, what can we do about it from where we sit in the organization? Start with things YOU can control. The big message for any leader anywhere in the company: YOU WILL OVER ASSUME THE LEVEL OF CLARITY THAT YOU AND YOUR TEAM HAVE ON ANY GIVE PERFORMANCE CHALLENGE/PROJECT/INITIATIVE YOU ARE TACKLING. Recently we asked members of cross-functional enterprise project teams to let us know how many attended the project kick-off meeting. In this particular case, nearly 80% said there was no project kick-off meeting and that they just got placed on it due to their past success in the company. Further, the majority of these folks had a different view as to WHY the project to which they were assigned was important. Reminds me of a Dilbert strip that read “if 90% of all projects fail, why don’t we work on the 10% that succeed.”
Starting with this point—that you will make the mistake of over assuming clarity—you must do something. That ‘something’ takes time which is why so often even our top leaders rush to the conclusion that all are aligned. You must take steps to know clearly what and why the project is so important. Ask others to clarify this and to expand on their answers. Does this support the company’s purpose (why the business exists)? Does it align with one of the strategic pillars or must-win battles (depending upon which phraseology you use)? Does the organization have the capacity and capability to execute against it? What will the unintended consequences of this project’s success be? What will likely cause it to fail (pre-mortem review)?
Now, to tackle the larger issue of a company’s top team not being aligned. The same principle applies to assume they will OVER assume their level of clarity. It is likely the top team did not have the rigorous debate and exploration of diverse points of view required through mutual discourse to surface a common understanding and level of alignment. They too often face an environment that lacks psychological safety to be perfectly candid; further, time pressures to move on inhibit the deeper conversations that must take place. The irony is that most folks will say they don’t have time for that to which we will respond, you can’t afford to NOT take the time. And you will get that time back with better execution against your strategy.
The best teams will take the time to have the right conversations, often steered by an outside professional facilitator who can ask provocative questions and challenge the current thinking. But, all too often, this is not the case. In the meantime, be sure you check for understanding, ask questions, help your leaders connect the dots. This can be done in a way that will NOT put them on the defensive (happy to share those techniques if interested).
Use your company’s purpose, vision, and strategy as anchors. Which leads me to the second installment of this series…coming soon.1Sull, D., Homkes, R. & Sull, C. (2015, March). Why Strategy Execution Unravels—and What to Do About It. Harvard Business Review, HBR re-print.1
1Sull, D., Homkes, R. & Sull, C. (2015, March). Why Strategy Execution Unravels—and What to Do About It. Harvard Business Review, HBR re-print.