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Ron Ashkenas

Ron Ashkenas

Posted: October 27, 2010 10:04 AM

When Is Your Midterm Election?

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Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online

Triggered by the upcoming mid-term elections, President Obama is assessing his change strategy, shuffling his leadership team, and getting ready for the next two years of his administration. If we put aside the political cacophony that accompanies this process, and view it strictly through an organizational lens, it's a constructive set of activities: taking stock of what's working and what's not; reading the pulse of customers (citizens) and partners; resetting priorities; injecting new talent; and re-energizing the organization for the work ahead.

Most companies are not forced by an election to push the reset button every two years -- but imagine if they did. What if all managers had fixed terms and needed to be reappointed based on their performance? Would it lead to more honest feedback from customers and subordinates, and more frequent strategic reviews? Would it make managers more accountable for results and more willing to build strong teams? Or would it encourage managers to play it safe rather than taking risks that might reduce their chances of reappointment?

Although not all managers are elected officials, organizations do have electoral rhythms. There are cycles for financial reporting, planning, and budgeting; as well as specific times for capital investment, information technology, and talent decisions. To some extent these activities function much like elections -- they give us pause and force thoughtful assessment and planning. Unfortunately in many organizations, the rhythms keep shifting: cycles (such as budgeting) get elongated, different reviews are not well integrated, etc. What was intended to be reflective reevaluation becomes constant background noise, and as a result many managers treat these reviews as "exercises" to fulfill corporate requirements.

So how can organizations and individual managers get more payoffs from their assessment rhythms, and accrue the benefits of an election cycle (without the costs of a campaign)? Let me suggest two steps -- one for the executive team and one for every manager.

If you are part of an executive team, take a holistic look at the various review processes that constitute the rhythm of the company. Can they be better integrated? Does the timing need to be changed? Are they really creating the value that is intended? For example, a few years ago, GE's CEO Jeffrey Immelt realized that the company's strategic planning process was becoming redundant with the budgeting process. The two were calling for much the same data, but during different time frames. To prevent unnecessary and repetitive work (which cascades to thousands of people in such a huge company), Immelt reframed the strategic planning process so that it was squarely focused on growth. He renamed it the Growth Playbook and made sure it came with straightforward instructions about what needed to be included (and what did not). The budgeting process then flowed naturally out of the growth plans with far less confusion. At the same time, the message that growth was the primary focus for strategic planning was hammered home.

If you are a manager, take a look at your own personal rhythm. We all start careers, jobs, and assignments at different times -- but if we don't establish personal checkpoints, it's easy to drift. Then one day you wake up and realize that your career is not progressing, or that you haven't accomplished some key personal or professional goals. To avoid that kind of disappointment, set up your own rhythm -- in advance. Pick a date (your work anniversary or birthday, for example) and use it as an opportunity for self-reflection. Do I need to reset priorities? Am I getting the experiences I need? What do I need to do differently to reach my objectives?

Like an electoral cycle, corporate rhythms are important for the organization to periodically and regularly push the reset button; these need to be made as effective and efficient as possible. However the corporate calendar shouldn't determine your own reset timing and agenda. Only you can do that.

 

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