End Manager and Worker Misalignment

May 21, 2016

Between my own consulting and online teaching of MBA students all over the world, I have been fortunate to study the cultures of literally thousands of organizations: large and small, profit and not for profit, government, and NGOs.

Once I get past the window dressing of how these organizations wish to appear to the outside world, I find some hurtful things that are common. One of the most frequent problems is a kind of “we versus they” thinking between the management levels and the workers. This article examines why this symptom is so common and suggests eight ways to mitigate the problem.

The fundamental cause of what I call the “two sides mentality” is a lack of true alignment. Most organizations have invested big bucks into developing a “strategy,” which includes things like Values, Vision, Mission, Purpose, Key Result Areas, Tactics, and Measures. These essential elements are usually developed by small teams of managers who cloister themselves away in a hotel or something for a few days to bang out the strategy.

Then, as the ink is drying on the pages, the discussion turns to how this brilliant plan is going to be communicated to the mass of workers in order to get “buy in” from the people “in the trenches.” Eventually there is a “roll out” of the information which inevitably is communicated BY the managers TO the workers. Notice the hackneyed expressions I used above are the actual words that are used, even today in the real world – amazing! If you listen, you will hear them.

The presentation is given to half-asleep people who are sitting in neat rows trying not to yawn. The data dump is followed by a few polite questions, and then everybody files out of the conference room and goes to lunch. The managers meet in their own dining space and congratulate themselves on clarifying the strategy and getting buy-in from the workers.

In reality, what happened is that the managers illustrated, once again, that they are clueless about how the culture is created by their actions, not their words. Their attempt to get everybody “on the same page” only served to drive the wedge between the management team and the people doing the work deeper. How is it possible for managers to miss the reality that they are doing the same thing hoping for a different result?

The fact that some organizations actually do achieve true alignment of purpose throughout the organization (my personal estimate is less than 20% do) gives me hope that not only is it possible, but with excellent leadership it is easier and faster than the conventional route. Organizations that achieve true alignment always blow away groups that have fractured perspectives.

In their book “Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations,” Bob and Gregg Vanourek have a whole chapter on alignment. It is an excellent model. One key point they make is that the elements of the strategy need to be developed collaboratively. Great leaders know that for people to truly embrace a concept, they must put their fingerprints on it while it is being developed. The authors write about how the alignment is a kind of cascade rather than a lay on. The principles and information are generated organically and developed carefully by the whole team over time.

The collaborative process allows all people in the organization to feel true ownership of the plan, which becomes the foundation for alignment. It is alignment that erases the feeling of one side versus the other, because we all understand what we are trying to do and are pulling in the same direction. So how can leaders create this kind of culture? Here are eight ideas that can help any organization reduce the “we versus they” thinking and thereby obtain the full energy that is latent in the entire team.

1. Leaders need to listen more

In the urgency to survive and the reality of a flat world, it is a real challenge to make the effort and take the time to engage people at all levels about the future direction. Of primary importance, it is necessary to agree upon a set of values that the entire team not only adopts but pledges 100% to live by, even when it is difficult. It is not enough to simply state the values. For true alignment, all of the values must be demonstrated by all people all the time.

Clarifying a compelling vision of the future is equally vital. If every person in the organization feels that he or she is going to be much better off once the vision is achieved, you have a powerful force multiplier for alignment.

2. Involve everyone in identifying the direction

As ideas are put forth, look for common themes and keep working the information into a model where each person feels ownership. Once people realize they are actually part of the generation process, they will be much more inclined to embrace the final product. When one part of the strategy seems impossible, don’t discard it. Rather, examine the blockage and get creative with a way to accomplish it anyway in an ethical, values-based way.

3. Don’t say things you cannot do

So often I see a values plaque in the lobby of a company indicating “People are our most important asset,” only to find the managers in the back conference room trying to figure out details of the impending downsizing. Once a stated value reveals managerial hypocrisy, it does more harm than good to put it on the plaque. It fosters a “They say it, but they don’t mean it” mentality that enables “us versus them” and works against the alignment.

4. Don’t “Roll Out” the “Program”

I have found that having a big roll out program is often the kiss of death. Employees smell a lay-on coming a mile away, and they will go to the meeting with earplugs firmly inserted. A roll out meeting may allow managers to check the box called “communicate” but it does little to build alignment. Instead of the big fanfare, share the information at small family groups with good opportunity for dialog, and indicate this was derived by all of us. Stress that the information on the strategy is how we intend to conduct ourselves from now on. Repeat that information at every possible point and illustrate it when decisions are based on it. For example, a manager might say, “We have recommended this vendor as the supplier for our parts because their demonstrated integrity matches our own value of integrity.”

5. Be willing to admit mistakes

In changing a culture, there will be small, or sometimes big, mistakes made along the way. The world is a messy place, and it is impossible to reach perfection. But, as Vince Lombardi once said, “If we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” When managers are willing to admit they made a mistake along the way, it demonstrates to people they are sincere about the culture change. Also when managers admit their vulnerability and do not punish people for pointing out apparent inconsistencies, it builds higher trust because it reduces fear in the workplace. Lower fear means less opportunity for “we versus they” thinking.

6. Build and value trust

Trust becomes the glue that holds the whole organization together in good times and in difficult times. The culture of any organization is a reflection of the behaviors of the senior leaders more than any other single factor. If the culture is split so the workers do not trust management, then every initiative, strategy, and outcome will be compromised. Leaders need to understand and step up to this incredible challenge. True alignment requires the attention and effort of everyone on the team, but the leaders set the tone and model the way.

7. Don’t get derailed by short term thinking

The daily and monthly pressures of any business will test the resolve of the team. In his program “Life is a Journey,” Brian Tracy points out that “obstacles are not put there to obstruct but to instruct.” The whole team needs to learn from the challenges and focus on the long term vision to navigate the speed bumps with grace. The very reason for having a strategy in the first place is to focus energy on the big picture when the vicissitudes of the real world try to blow us off course.

8. Celebrate the small wins as well as the big ones

The atmosphere can be moved from surviving an oppressive string of burdensome crosses to bear to one of hitting the tops of the waves as we water ski to victory. The trick is to recognize and appreciate all of the good things that are going on. Teach people that the reinforcement should come from all levels, not just the managers. Once the workers start practicing reinforcement of others, magic things begin to happen.

There are numerous other ideas and helpful tips that can add to the success of the team. The main point of this article is that it is possible to create real alignment where everyone in the organization is truly excited about what is being accomplished, and that culture eliminates the “we versus they” mentality between workers and managers. I wish more organizations could experience the fantastic boost to performance and the true joy of working in such an environment. It all rests on the quality of leaders to create that kind of culture.

Bob Whipple is CEO of Leadergrow, Inc. an organization dedicated to growing leaders. He can be reached at bwhipple@leadergrow.com 585-392-7763. Website http://www.leadergrow.com BLOG http://www.thetrustambassador.com He is author of the following books: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind, and Trust in Transition: Navigating Organizational Change.


Categories of Trust

June 20, 2015

gears and teamworkI have always thought of trust as a single concept: I either trust you or I do not trust you at any time.

It seemed simple enough, but after studying the phenomenon for over 20 years, I have come to realize there are many different flavors of trust with other people that we experience all the time. Trust is a set of interlocking concepts that form a pattern for each person we know.

Here are a few examples:

Reliance:  I might trust you because I know you have my back and will do what is in my best interest.

Consistency: I might trust you because you are consistent and always do what you say.

Common Values: I might trust you because we share common values.

Safety:  I might trust you because I know I can tell you what I really think without feeling punished in some way.

So I now envision trust as it relates to others as a complex set of concepts about my relationships with them. I now think of it as a mosaic or pattern rather than a singular lens.

That pattern changes based on the transactions between myself and other people. The types of trust are ever evolving and either gaining or losing strength.

Picture the concept of trust as being like a kaleidoscope with an infinite number of complex designs that change as you move through time. The glass pieces that make up the design are a fixed number, but the mirrors in the kaleidoscope, just like the different categories of trust, make new patterns as you experience changes in your relations with others.

Exercise for you: Today, as you interface with people, try to visualize the different patterns of trust you have with them. Notice how the pattern shifts as the day progresses and transactions occur.

Witness the beauty and variety of trust in your relationships. Each transaction has the potential to increase or reduce the trust based on your perception of what is going on.

Understanding that trust is a complex set of interrelated concepts will allow you to experience the richness of your relationships with others. It may become confusing or frustrating at times, but that is the reality of life.

As you see the wonderful patterns of trust unfold in front of your eyes, you will begin to experience the beauty of life and relationships at a higher level.

The preceding was derived from an episode in “Building Trust,” a 30 part video series by Bob Whipple “The Trust Ambassador.” To view three short (3 minutes each) examples at no cost go to www.avanoo.com/first3/517

 


Write Them Down

May 16, 2015

Writing businessmanAs I visit companies of all types and sizes, I am intrigued with the number of organizations that have not committed their strategy into written form. I ask if they have values, and often they start talking about honesty, integrity, customer focus, or employee satisfaction. I get some vague statements about ethics thrown in for good measure.

Then I ask where the values are written. Sometimes the leader can pull a dusty old paper out of a drawer where the items vaguely resemble what I was just told.

More often I am told the values are posted in the conference room and the break room. I go and look, and there is indeed a slightly-torn or smudged paper on the bulletin board.

If I ask the employees about them, they tell me “Oh yes, we have the values posted, but “they” do not follow them.” If the values are posted but not followed, they do more harm than good, because they serve as a reminder of the hypocrisy.

There are several organizations where the words are in the minds of the executives but not even written on paper, let alone implanted in the hearts of the employees where they can do some good.

The three simple rules with values are 1) write them down, 2) talk about them every possible chance, and 3) follow them. If you are missing any of these three steps, then you are forfeiting most of the power of having values in the first place.

The exact same discussion applies to the vision of an organization. If the vision is not committed to writing and included in discussions with employees, it loses its power to direct the daily activities of the population to move toward the future with confidence.

These two things are most important to write down, but I believe the entire strategy should be committed to written form. That would include the following things at a minimum: vision, mission, values, behaviors, strategies, tactics, and measures.

Many organizations make a production out of generating the strategy that the resulting tome is way too heavy for the employees to lift, let alone read and understand.

I usually reduce the entire strategic framework to a single sheet of paper. On the front side we have the vision, mission, values and behaviors.

On the reverse side there is neat array of the top 4-6 strategies (too many strategies defeats the purpose of focusing effort) along with a few major tactics for each strategy and precisely what measure we intend to use to track our progress for each tactic. I like to laminate the document as a way to indicate legitimacy.

Usually the entire process of developing the single sheet framework takes from 8-16 hours of interface time with a management team. That is enough time to engage everyone in the process and far less that the burdensome six to 18 month process that creates open hatred for the process among the staff.

If you drive an efficient and high energy process to create the strategy for your organization and commit the resulting framework to paper then you have a much higher chance of being a successful organization.


Always Go Back to Your Foundation

May 3, 2014

FoundationMost of us have values that we try to live by. We acquired our values very early in life, often before we can remember.

Usually values are passed on by parents, but there are other sources such as the church, school, or a close relative. Values usually remain with us throughout our lives, changing very little, if at all. Our experiences in life will color how we view the values, but they normally do not change.

In 2010, I heard an inspirational speech by the great Wintley Phipps. If you don’t recognize the name, you would recognize his golden baritone voice singing religious songs like “Amazing Grace.” Wintley gave the keynote address at the National Speakers Association Convention in Orlando Florida.

The title of his speech was “The HPLP Gene.” The whole hour was devoted to convincing us that we each have a Gene called “Helping People Live their Potential.”

He recounted numerous stories from his life where his “heroes” taught him great lessons and how those things became his foundation as he caught the HPLP Gene.

If you are interested in listening to this excellent speech, it is available for free on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8bW5s2-nZ8

His main point is that those people who pay it forward are living the life that God intended for us, and that behavior will provide us huge rewards in life. Even if nobody remembers us, “History will record that there lived a man, there lived a woman who had the Gene: The Helping People Live Their Potential Gene.”

One vivid story I recall was about a skyscraper in New York City. At one point the building developed a serious crack on the 42nd floor. They called for the Structural Engineer to come in and figure out what was causing this problem before serious damage was done.

When the building owner came in and went to the 42nd floor, he could not find the engineer. They told the owner, “Oh no – he is not here; he is down in the 6th basement.”

When the owner got to the 6th basement, he asked the engineer what he was doing down there because the problem was on the 42nd floor. The engineer told him, “The crack may be on the 42nd floor, but your problem is down here in the 6th basement.”

Apparently, one of the guards for the building wanted to build a garage but did not have the money for materials. So, every day before going home, he would go down to the 6th basement and chisel a brick out of the foundation to take home in his bag. After he had done this for several years, a crack appeared on the 42nd floor.

Wintley told the audience that when things are not working right in our lives, we should not be looking for the cause on the 42nd floor. “Go back to your foundation! Go back to the HPLP Gene and make sure you are helping people live their potential.”

Whether individuals or organizations, we need to heed the advice of Wintley Phipps. When things seem wrong in our lives, we need to go back to our foundation, back to our values, and make sure we are living up to the lessons we learned early in life.

Personally, I think the world would be a much better place if every individual actually wrote out his or her values and every organization did the same thing. Much more powerful than writing them, however, is to be absolutely fanatical about living those values every single day.


Excellence in Succession

February 22, 2014

Rubber Duck LineSuccession planning ought to be a natural progression of training and grooming for the next generation of leaders in an organization. Often the process is flawed either out of neglect, or missteps.

This article outlines some of the issues with succession planning for key leadership positions and offers some ideas to make the process more robust.

The need for good succession planning increases at the higher levels in any organization. Individual contributors do need training before assuming a new job, but they can be replaced rather easily.

With higher level managers, the skills are more critical and selection as well as preparation is much more demanding.

Top leaders should be well groomed on all the policies and nuances of running the organization before taking over.

There should be a specific succession planning process for all key jobs in any organization, which includes who is ready to step in immediately and who is being groomed for future roles.

The obvious reason is that we never know when someone is going to leave for one reason or another. The transition may take place over a period of years or abruptly in a few hours depending on circumstances.

I remember one extremely short transition where my organization was doubled in size. The previous manager and I had only a few minutes for him to cross train me, and then he was gone.

He showed me where the personnel files were kept, wished me luck, gave me the keys to the office, and left. One thing I appreciated was the ability to start fresh without being colored by his paradigms and biases, and yet there were a lot of gaps in my knowledge of the operation.

I did survive the transition, but it would have been easier if there had been more time to understand his job.

The activities of succession planning are much broader than most people realize. They encompass everything from general cross training for bench strength to identifying high potential people for future roles, to mentoring, and even job rotation.

In fact, if you think about it, at the higher levels of leadership, the majority of daily activities could be slotted in some part of the succession process.

Good succession planning takes a lot of time and energy. It is something that should be going on at a conscious level nearly every day, yet it is often a hidden process that the rank and file do not understand.

They only see the result. When Jack leaves, Ann is discovered to be fully capable of replacing him. The process sometimes takes on a highly political feel, since only certain people are involved in many of the discussions.

This lack of full information can cause people to become anxious because they do not know what is going to happen. The best approach is to be as transparent as possible.

It is too bad that succession planning takes a back burner in some organizations. This is true for several reasons:

• Most leaders are overburdened and have little time to think about long term development. This is a huge mistake. Leaders must make the time.

• There is a fear of setting up an implied competition and tension between contenders.

• People may interpret succession discussions as meaning the incumbent is trying to leave early. This incorrect signal could imply a lack of commitment.

• External replacement versus internal can be demoralizing for understudies.

• Succession is a highly emotional topic. People get nervous because the change involves their job and future.

William Rothwell of Penn State University is one of the recognized experts in Succession Planning. He suggested there are at least 10 key steps that need to be included in any succession planning process: (Rothwell, W.J. 2001, Effective Succession Planning 2nd edition. New York: AMACOM.)

1. Clarify expectations for Succession.
2. Establish competency models.
3. Conduct individual assessments.
4. Create performance management system.
5. Assess individual potential.
6. Create development process.
7. Institute Individual development plans.
8. Establish a talent inventory.
9. Establish accountability for making the system work.
10. Evaluate the results.

Rothwell also shared a list of 6 of the biggest mistakes in succession planning:

1. Assuming success at one level will guarantee success at a higher level
2. Assuming bosses are the best judge of who should be promoted
3. Assuming that promotions are entitlements
4. Trying to do too much too fast
5. Giving no thought to what to call it
6. Assuming that everyone wants a promotion

The best approach is to have a formal succession process for all professional jobs in an organization and let people know what it is.

It should be part of the routine work on a daily basis instead of something managers think about only when someone is getting ready to retire or gives the customary two-week notice.

I believe succession is a fundamental leadership process, because the highest calling for any leader is to grow the next generation of leaders.


Do Leaders Motivate or Demotivate?

December 28, 2013

Business problemsI have written about the connection between leadership and motivation in the past, but I have not coupled that with the connection between leadership and demotivation.

By the way, just because my spell checker keeps underlining the word “demotivate” does not mean it’s an illegal word. It is not in many dictionaries, like Websters, but it does exist in some of them, like The Cambridge Dictionary.

There is even an organization ( Despair Inc. ) that sells demotivating posters and other strange products. I love their motto, “Motivational products don’t work, but our demotivational products don’t work even better.”

There is also a fun website completely devoted to demotivation.

In this article, I reveal some truths and myths about how leaders motivate and demotivate.

My thesis on motivation is that leaders really cannot motivate individuals. When leaders use the word “motivate” as a verb, as in “We need to motivate the team,” it is incorrect usage.

What leaders do is create the culture in which people react with high motivation. A prime example is when leaders create an inspiring vision, shared values, and an environment of high trust, where people feel valued.

Motivation comes from within an individual, and a person working in a culture of trust is more likely to feel motivated.

Once motivation is generated within someone, that person owns it. The sad truth is that the precious commodity can be snatched away from that individual as quickly as a seagull can snatch a discarded scrap of bread at a beach picnic.

I believe that leaders can easily eliminate the motivation within a person. Many leaders are masters at it, demonstrating their skill numerous times a day.

Taking away the motivation of an individual is easier than doing the Chicken Dance.

Here is my top 10 list of things that leaders do to demotivate people at work. See if you agree, and let me know if you have pet peeves of your own to add to the list.

1. Trivialize what an individual is doing or make fun of the employee

2. Claim credit for the good work of an employee

3. Give an assignment, then micromanage the employee

4. Ignore the employee when he or she does some spectacular work

5. Punish the employee who brings up a concern

6. Play favorites or appoint a relative to a position of power over others

7. Insult the employee by drawing attention to what he or she cannot do

8. Engage in sexual or other forms of harassment with the employee

9. Set impossible goals and berate the employees for missing them

10. Demand honesty from the employees but demonstrate low integrity him or herself

In reality, there are thousands of ways a leader or manager can demotivate an individual who has already been inspired to become motivated.

Elite leaders realize that the way to encourage top performance is to set up conditions such that individuals motivate themselves, and then stand out of the way and let them turn the motivation into positive action for the organization.

My advice for leaders is to create enduring trust, which is the environment for high motivation, and then when motivation occurs, don’t kill it.


It’s Faux Trust

September 28, 2013

?????????????????I get a lot of gift catalogs and always chuckle when they advertise the “faux plants.” Why they do not call them “fake plants” is pretty obvious. Nobody would want to buy something fake, so they give the items a fancy name as if that is really going to fool anyone. They keep doing it, so the method must be working for them.

I work in the arena of trust, and I think the notion of “faux trust” is one worth exploring. Stephen M.R. Covey dealt with the topic of faux trust behaviors very well in his first book, The Speed of Trust. Stephen identified 13 key trust behaviors and then identified the opposite behavior and also what he called the “counterfeit” behavior: one that looks real but is not genuine. Here is the list from Stephen’s book.

Trust Behavior –  Opposite –  Counterfeit

1. Talk straight –  Lie or deceive –  Withholding information
2. Demonstrate respect –  Not respect –  Faking respect
3. Create transparency –  Cover up –  Hidden agendas
4. Right wrongs –  Justify wrongs –  Covering up or hiding
5. Show loyalty –  Take credit yourself – Being two-faced
6. Deliver results –  Perform poorly –  Doing busywork
7. Get better –  Deteriorate –  Eternal student
8. Confront reality –  Ignore reality –  Evade reality
9. Clarify expectations –  Leave undefined –  Guessing
10. Practice accountability –  Not taking responsibility –  Blaming others
11. Listen first –  Speak first –  False listening
12. Keep commitments –  Violate promises –  Overpromising
13. Extend trust –  Withhold trust –  Extend false trust

In this article, I will pick up where Stephen’s list leaves off. I want to explore the issue of false trust and see what it looks like. If you look at a faux potted plant very closely, you can determine that it is plastic rather than real leaves and stems. Often the one thing that gives away the ruse is that the “Faux plant” is too perfect. Real plants have some imperfections or dead parts that show up under close examination. So it is with faux trust; the appearance is too perfect for the real world, and that becomes one of the telltale ways we can identify the fake. Let’s look at 10 examples:

1. The issue of risk. Real trust involves a willingness to take some calculated risks. Actually, that is one of the ways trust is defined. If I really do trust a person, then I do not need to see whether he is sneaking behind my back. When Ronald Reagan uttered the words “Trust but verify,” he was revealing a kind of faux trust toward the Russians. It sounded too perfect, and it was.

2. The issue of safety. True trust means the absence of fear. If I trust my boss not to clobber me when I have a contrarian opinion, that means I believe he will not find some way to get back at me. Too often leaders indicate that it is safe to challenge the boss, but end up punishing people when they do it. People quickly learn the plea for openness is really a smoke screen, and they clam up.

3. The issue of hypocrisy. Real trust means the leader always does what he says he will do. It is easy to spot the faux variety of trust when the boss rationalizes why he is bending the rules in his favor. It is always possible to explain away the situation, but the damage done to trust will remain like the smell of a skunk long after the animal has left the area.

4. The issue of favorites. Trust is built on a sense of fairness where people recognize why things are being done a certain way. Ironically, it does not rely on treating everyone the same way. In fact, the late John Wooden, former basketball coach for UCLA, made a remarkable statement about favorites. He said, “The surest way for a coach to play favorites is to treat every player the same way.” That sounds like doubletalk until you realize that each player has unique needs, so treating each player the same as every other one will inevitably advantage one player over another.

5. The issue of the Golden Rule. Faux trust relies on treating people the way you would like to be treated. Some people like to use the “Platinum Rule,” which states “treat other people the way they would like to be treated,” but that one does not work either. The true trust relies on treating every individual the right way, not always how you or they would like to be treated.

6. The issue of accountability. Faux trust means holding people accountable when they do something wrong. True trust means giving feedback when an employee does something right as well as when she does something wrong.

7. The issue of sustainability. Faux trust means giving lip service to the environment and doing so to be politically correct. Genuine trust means always displaying a deep respect for the implications of one’s actions on the planet and acting that way always.

8. The issue of values. True trust means actually living the values each day and explaining to people why certain actions are consistent with those values. Faux trust means there is a set of values on the wall, but we really do not act consistent with them in some cases.

9. The issue of care. Faux trust means leaders talk a good game about really caring for employees, but tolerate huge multiples of more than 500 times between their salary and those of the workers. Real trust means not giving lip service to the issue of caring for others.

10. The issue of admitting mistakes. Faux trust means finding ways to hide the mistakes, pretend they did not happen, blame them on circumstances or other people, and find ways to understate their significance. True trust behavior readily admits mistakes because the leader recognizes that to admit a mistake makes her more human and therefore nearly always increases respect and trust.

I could go on with dozens of additional examples of faux trust versus the real thing. People in any workforce pick up on any inconsistency on the part of leaders. Their eyes are well trained to spot the plastic trust. Once they see the shrub as a fake plant, then from that point on, they will see the decoration for what it is. True, they do not need to water and tend the plant and it will always look reasonable, just as people in a low trust organization will dutifully comply with whatever rules the boss mandates.

The true test of leadership is to have the courage and strength to deliver genuine trust in every case. Let the competition deal with the faux variety of trust.


7 Tips for Better Strategies

July 6, 2013

marketing strategyIn my leadership development work, I am often called upon to help organizations with their strategic plans. The process is well known, and numerous facilitators are qualified to help organizations work through the process. This article outlines some of the mistakes I see organizations make and shares a typical “Strategic Framework” that I find very useful.

The typical mistake made by well-intended managers is to overdo the strategic process until it becomes an albatross rather than a means to focus effort. Here are seven signs that a strategic process is too complex.

1. Too many strategies

The idea of a strategic plan is to focus effort on the vital few tasks and put less emphasis on the trivial many. If the end product of a strategic plan is 23 different strategic thrusts, it is way too complex to be useful, even for a large organization. I urge teams to try to identify three to five strategic thrusts at any given time. The idea of having a “handful” of strategies is appealing because the total effort does not look or sound overwhelming. Sometimes groups will have six strategies, but more than that is going to get some pushback from me.

2. Too many meetings

A typical mistake is to set up sub teams and have a series of standing meetings to deliberate on the elements of the strategy. This process sounds logical, but it easily becomes a huge activity trap. I witnessed a college set up numerous strategy teams. They slaved in long meetings for over 18 months. When the strategy tome was issued, it resembled the IRS Tax code. There were so many details and overdone objectives that the entire effort basically sank under its own weight. When I work with groups, I try to get the entire strategy completed in one or two sessions (usually several hours each) and the documentation fits on the front and back side of a single sheet of paper. The trick to getting the most accomplished in the least amount of time is preparation. For example, I have the group vote offline ahead of time on candidate values from a list of about 50 possible ones. There is always the ability to go back and redo the strategy at a later date if things need to be added. The mistake many groups make is trying to get the thing perfect at the outset.

It has been said that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Be careful to not make the strategic process into a series of social events or public debates. The job of creating a strategy can be streamlined without sacrificing buy in. One way to check if you are overdoing the number of meetings is to watch people’s eyes when you announce a strategic planning activity. If their eyes roll back, that is a good indication you are making the process too complex.

3. Wordsmithing

For some inexplicable reason, people see a compelling need to have the wording of things like mission statements be perfect and embraced fully by everyone. I think mutual buy in is laudable, but if you drag out the discussion of every word of every sentence until all parties are thrilled, the ship will sail without you. I have witnessed long passionate arguments by managers about whether to use “and” or “and/or” in a mission statement. Once the thing was finally cast in concrete, there was so much acrimony that the parties simply put the product away and forgot about the whole exercise.

Use the Pareto Principle when working on the wording. If we can agree on 80% of the concept, then we can have someone generate a straw man document offline and not tie up the entire group.

4. Confusing Tactics with Strategies

For every key strategy, there will be some tactics that allow achievement of the objective. Strategies are broad areas of focused effort that help an organization move toward its vision. Tactics are operational activities that collectively allow the strategy to be achieved. Strategies are the “what,” and Tactics are the “how.” Often groups put the “things to do” as the strategies rather than call them tactics. A trained facilitator knows how to avoid this pitfall.

5. Not including Team Behaviors

Many facilitators leave out this critical step. Teams need to have a set of expectations for the behaviors of team members. Reason: without specific expectations it is difficult to hold each other accountable for accomplishing the tasks. Strategies become a wish list of good intentions rather than high energy areas where we are truly going for the gold.

6. Inappropriate Measures

For every strategy there needs to be at least one measure, preferably more than one. There are two common problems with measures: 1) they can be activity traps where getting the data is way too burdensome, and 2) If set up incorrectly, measures can drive the wrong behaviors. Make sure the measures you establish are encouraging people to do things that truly do lead to fulfillment of the strategy.
For example, one group had a strategy to increase revenue. The measure they selected was number of sales calls. The sales force was only too happy to increase the number of sales calls in order to earn more bonus money; unfortunately, the added activity meant they were less effective at closing sales, so total revenue actually went down. The measure looked good, but the goal was not realized.

7. Failure to communicate the strategy

It is a crime that many groups pour energy into creating a nice strategic plan that then sits in the desks of the managers for years and is not operational in the everyday world of work. The documentation of a strategy is pointless unless it becomes active in the hearts and minds of every single person in the organization.
Leaders need to continually discuss the strategic elements and explain to people why their actions are consistent with the plan. For example, a leader might say, “We are putting on a third shift next month because our vision for growth cannot be achieved without a fully loaded factory, which is the number one strategy in our plan.”

I have developed a simple format for a strategic plan that works for most groups. It is appropriate for profit or non-profit organizations of all sizes. The document can be constructed in a day or two with the right preparation effort, and it really helps focus the activities of a group after the strategy is completed. I usually show the elements as two sides of a single sheet of paper, and I laminate it like a large card so it can be passed around without getting mangled. I personally prefer the single sheet of paper over the posters in the conference room. I believe it has more power.

Click this link to view the two-page Generic Strategy Document.

There are many different formats for strategic plans; the one above is my favorite because it conveys a lot of information in a small footprint. Whatever format you select, make sure it is user friendly to the people who need to internalize the strategy. The most important objective for strategic work is to focus energy, so avoid the mega process that seems to go on forever, and make your plans crisp and beneficial.


Making Values Have More Value

May 25, 2013

square dealA vital function of leadership is to instill a coherent set of values in the organization. Notice I did not say the function is to “articulate” good values. Too many leaders believe the job is done when there is a set of values hanging on the wall. Unfortunately, that attitude does more harm than good because any hypocrisy in living the values ends up undermining the whole concept.

Leaders need to exemplify the values and talk about them at every opportunity for them to become firmly planted into the hearts of the organization’s people. Here are some tips that can make your values shine and create a foundational bedrock for the work of your business.

Create the values together

Values do not come from one person. They are aggregated into being through a process of creation and selection. There are literally thousands of values one could choose. Words like integrity, loyalty, respect, trust, and flexibility are frequent choices. Less often used, but equally effective are words like honor, dependability, family, innovation, and transparency. It is important for people in the organization to participate in the crafting of a master brainstorm list and the voting on how to winnow the list to a vital few.

Don’t have too many values

To be most helpful, values must reside in the hearts of the population and be simple enough to remember. It is a mistake to have a dozen or more values for an organization. Few people will be able to remember the entire set. I recommend five values, or six at the most. These will form the core of why we do what we do. Then it is a simple matter of doing a pareto vote to cull out the less important candidates from the longer list.

Talk about the values

Make sure everyone knows the values by communicating them at every possible opportunity. Say things like, “We have decided to admit our mistake because one of our core values is transparency.” As people hear a value reinforced every time it is modeled by leaders in the organization, it becomes stronger and more useful to the business.

Reinforce people who point out inconsistencies

If an action or decision does not appear to be consistent with a stated value, it is important to encourage and reinforce employees who point out the apparent contradiction. If employees are stifled or punished when they voice concern over a possible lapse, then they will clam up, and the values will quickly lose their potency for the organization. If people are rewarded for bringing up concerns, then the values will spring to life and remain vibrant.

Allow infrequent changes

Values form a bedrock for the actions of a community. It is important that these statements of intent have stability, and yet it is a mistake to be totally rigid. If an additional value to the current list would help clarify some common activities, feel free to add a new value with great ceremony. Beyond some number, it is wise to retire a less relevant value when adding a new one. This can be tricky because no value is totally useless. If you retire a value, make sure to state it is still important, just less frequently called upon in the current environment.

Reinforce actions consistent with the values

The easiest way to perpetuate actions consistent with the values is to reinforce people when the follow them. A simple thank you is not sufficient reinforcement here. The conversation should sound more like this, “That was a great point Martha. When you recognized Ed for not backing down in the face of pressure from the angry employee, you demonstrated consistency, which is one of our key values.”

The magic in having values is teaching all people to model them every day, but that is only half of the job. You must make the connection between actions and values highly visible at every opportunity to ensure the values drive the right behaviors far into the future.


Strategic Jargon

February 16, 2013

dentistDoes your strategic plan clarify or complicate? When organizations do a strategic plan, a bunch of specific words are used to describe the various pieces, but you would be surprised how those words are often used incorrectly. Many people hate to work on strategy because it is either eternal or terrifying, like going to the dentist. This problem fascinates me, because I do a lot of strategic work with corporations, not-for-profit groups, and educational institutions. I also teach strategic thinking at two universities. One cure for confusing strategic plans is to use the jargon correctly.

For example, it is common to have the mission and vision statements mixed. I have written about that problem and given some typical examples in another article entitled “Mission and Vision Essentials.” Another common sticking point is getting the strategy separated from the tactics. Strategy is the overarching way you are going to move from the current situation to the vision, and tactics are the detailed actions you will take to accomplish the strategy.

Most facilitators have an order they prefer when helping groups with strategy. I believe it is not essential to have a rigid pattern, but I generally prefer to start out with the values. Reason: Values are a kind of foundation upon which the other elements rest. To me, putting values late in the process feels like digging the foundation after the house is already constructed.

A key element in most strategic work is a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. This work is the basis for determining an intelligent strategy. It consists of two views of the organization. In the first view, we look through a “microscope” at the internal strengths and weaknesses of the current organization. The second view is looking through a “telescope” at the environment around the organization to determine the opportunities and threats.

The SWOT analysis can be a time consuming and very boring process. It does not need to be. Facilitators can move through this exercise by breaking up a large group into four subgroups for the exercise. The use of creative techniques, like giving a prize for the most novel idea, can keep the atmosphere light. Of course, like in any brainstorm activity, it is essential to have a “safe” environment where the ideas are just captured, but not critiqued during the session.

One technique that I like to use is a “two wave” approach to the ideas. Let’s suppose we just completed a 10 minute discussion of the “Opportunities” part of SWOT. I then will say something like this, “That is a really great list of opportunities. We could stop here, but I want to challenge the group.

Most of these ideas came quickly and were from the top of your minds. I am sure there are additional creative and dynamite ideas still lurking in the corners of your brains. Let’s take another 10 minutes and see if we can double the number of opportunities on our list.” That process brings out some highly creative ideas, because all the obvious ones have already been mentioned.

I do not use this technique for all sections of the SWOT, as that would get old. It works best for the opportunities section.

After doing a SWOT, it is possible to identify the overarching strategy and tactics. A mistake made by most organizations is to have too many strategic thrusts in the analysis. The reason for a strategic plan is to focus effort on the vital few activities. If you have 32 high priority strategies, you will have trouble making much progress. I encourage groups to narrow the analysis down to three strategies: perhaps four.

One additional activity that is extremely important, but often left out by groups, is to document the behaviors we expect of team members. Without specific behaviors stated in advance, it is difficult to hold people accountable for doing them.

I use a story to illustrate what the jargon on a strategic plan means. Sometimes this helps groups focus on the work and not get muddled up in the terminology. Here is a typical story I use for that.

I liken the strategic process to taking a trip. I want to go from New York City to Toronto. My mission is to have a safe and enjoyable trip. I am considerate and make sure people on the other end are aware of my plans (values). Reaching Toronto is my vision; I can see the skyline in my mind.
I now look at my resources: my late model car is a strength; the fact that the tires are almost bald is a weakness. I see on the map there are some excellent highways (opportunities) but also there is some potential bad weather on the way (threats). I need to select the route and timing wisely.

I decide which day to leave and the route to take (my strategy). The plan is to stay in Toronto three nights, because I have two days worth of business to conduct. My goal is to drive there in 10 hours. I know it is not possible to get there in 9 hours, and I am willing to accept up to 12 hours if there is construction or other delays. There are contingency plans associated with potential problems.

Then I figure out what things to pack, decide what time to leave, and buy two new tires (tactics). I monitor my progress and determine my gas mileage along the way (measures). For example, I know it is necessary to reach Buffalo by 1 pm to make my timing goal. I drive within the speed limit, am courteous to other drivers, and I stop frequently enough to not get over tired (behaviors). I have a very good chance of having a good trip, which was my original mission.

Now if I can only get those SOBs in Toronto to sign my contract, I will be fine. Hold on a minute; maybe that is worth some planning as well. Maybe my vision in the first place should have been more about a signed contract than about seeing the Toronto Skyline. For that, I need to make sure my strategy achieves the true purpose for the trip, and make sure all parts of the plan align with that objective. In this case, I would have been wise to state the vision was to get a signed contract, and the trip to Toronto was one of the strategies. Now my strategic plan would stand a better chance of getting me what I really need.

The process of creating a strategic plan is fairly straightforward, yet many groups get tripped up with all these strange words, and come up with a plan that looks good on paper but does not work well in the real world. That is a colossal waste of time. Make sure you have someone who knows what he or she is doing lead the activities when creating your strategic plan.