Monday, January 17, 2011

The Little Engine that Could.

On May 5, 2008, I began this blog with an article called "Beginning at the Beginning."  My first post was about strategic planning and the importance of engaging people in the opportunity that it presents. Here is what I wrote: 

Strategic planning is 90% communication and 10% process. When most people are asked to engage in the strategic or business planning process, they will tend to have 2 reactions; they either love it, or they would rather ignore it and just . . . well, execute something.

So here we are now.  3 years later, and I have continued along this journey of engagement. I have been working in strategy and communications for organizations for more than 16 years. I have listened to management teams talk about what drove them crazy about planning and what would make it more engaging for them. 

They said they wanted to be in the room to understand decisions so I created the opportunity, the process and the information to bring people together. Understanding that strategy is key to participating. Implement quarterly review meetings with the upper management, and a quarterly reporting and review process so that everyone would have a chance to see and talk about where the company was going, and how it was doing.

Planning and performance management processes should identify accountability of those accountable, and ask them to come forward with plans. Cascading processes and tools help them become better planners, and help everyone to have the same conversation, no matter what room they were in.  

Through all of this planning and change management, I have come to the closest definition of  what I call "strategy nirvana":

 When communications (the words), business plans (actions), risk management (taking advantage of opportunity and minimizing threats) and corporate social responsibility (values) are one conversation. 

  I am the "Little Engine That Could" - I think I can. I think I can. I think I can. 

As I forge the path ahead of me, managing manager's resistance to change, I am taken aback from time to time at the lack of managerial accountability that I sometimes encounter.   Yes, resistance to change is natural.  But at what point is it just whining, I wonder (never aloud).  While I am trudging my way up the mountain of resistance in my quest to help managers be good planners, and good leaders - when do managers kick in and start pulling their own weight up the mountain?

Back in 2008, I wrote this about strategic planning, and it's true.  

I find that those who love it, love the art of discovering new horizons, and then actually plotting out the actions to achieve the end goal. These are the people who love to engage in discussions about what is going on in the environment for hours, pontificating about the possibilities and coming up with possible solutions. True strategic planning zealots pull out all the tools, from SWOTS to strategy maps, to flip charts and smelly markers. Often times, however, these are the new comers to the management realm, and while their ideas are important and significant at an operational level, they may not have the strategic push to actually create a new future. 

Then there are those who view strategic planning as work. Something you have to do. Something that you get measured on. If this is the only driver, then quite often, very few insights are generated, and very few ideas ever come to the light of day.

Sadly, though, some of the most insightful and greatest business minds fall into the second camp. They do not see the opportunity in engaging in the strategic planning process. So the question is why. Why is it that we have difficulty engaging people in this very important process. I often wonder, how may futures have we missed out on because we do not actively engage in making the possible happen?

I now know an answer to this question.  The answer, quite simply is they are not disengaged in the strategic planning processes. They are in fact disengaged in leadership.

By definition - pick a source - these functions are those of leaders - people who are responsible for setting direction, painting a clear picture for their staff, and making the right decisions to ensure the success of the business. That's the job of the manager and leader. 

It has been my experience over 15 years, that when there is a failure to connect - to engage in these processes, there is a failure to manage. A failure to be accountable.

So if you are on the same track, might I suggest the following strategies to help get that caboose up the hill: 
  1. Clearly understand the lines of accountability and build the process accordingly to what is, not what should be.  You are not responsible for organizational design.  That's the job of the CEO. 
  2. Understand the inherent cultural barriers that exist and facilitate the process so they are discussed. Do not accept responsibility for them. They were there before you came along. 
  3. Not everyone has to be in the room. Only those who have something to add. Be respectful, but be judicious. Have clear outcomes and limited time frames.  Be their facilitator, not their friend. 
  4. Do not accept accountability for the quality of thinking that comes to the table.  Be responsible for giving them an opportunity to be at the table and speak.  Be their facilitator, their instigator, but not their narrator.  
  5. Do not accept responsibility for lacking accountability not within your control. Be responsible for providing a clear and factual report on the outcomes of the thinking and planning process. Professionally highlight concerns that you have respectfully and try to make change from higher ground. 
  6. Last but not least, communicate. Communication is still 90% of the process. That's the hard part. 

I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Rethinking the human experience at work

Culture is a combination of beliefs and actions.  Sometimes we use the word "values", but truth be told, most of us do not know what that means in an organizational context. We have become cynical about values. They tend to be relegated to the back of the annual report and are rarely talked about, and even more rarely challenged.

Culture is a wild card. It can be enabling or disabling with nothing in between.  To further add complexity and potential risk to the scenario is the impact that leadership has on culture. The leadership style, tone and perspective defines culture.

Culture impacts how an organization interacts with its employees, its customers, its suppliers and its community.   "The Portable MBA in Strategy" cites stakeholders as:  shareholders / owners, employees, government, customers, and society.  Relevance is the key to survival in business today.  If employees do not find an employer relevant, they will either not engage, or not work there. If a customer finds the products or services irrelevant, they shop elsewhere. If the shareholder finds the value proposition irrelevant, they put their financial support in another bucket.  It's important to understand the perspective of the various stakeholders if one wants to be relevant to them.

The leader today must balance and manage the culture and the stakeholder environment.  He or she must have a clear view of what each of these "communities" value, and how to manage their expectations. Each of these groups bring their expectations to the table, and judge accordingly.

The culture question comes back to "me", whether I am the owner, employee, government, customer, or community.  The role of leadership and organizational management is therefore increasingly more complex.  The leader must not only ensure the organization is financially strong, and customer relevant, he or she must provide leadership that is inspiring, respectful, and invites people to belong. Only then can an organization be successful.