There's an old story about an airplane pilot who announces to his passengers that he has good news and bad news: the good news is that they are ahead of schedule; the bad news is that he doesn't know where they are heading. Sounds ridiculous for an airline -- but it's common for organizations. All too often people are asked to work extremely hard without fully understanding how their tasks steer their organization in a strategic direction. Often invisible, this pattern is what I call "lack of context," and it's one of the most pernicious causes of unnecessary complexity and frustration in organizations.
Consider the following case: A premier financial services firm that struggled during the economic downturn brought in a new CEO to turn things around. After several months, the CEO had identified a long list of areas that needed attention and had initiated dozens of projects and studies to address them -- layered on top of the existing work of managers and their teams. Although this activity made sense to senior leaders, most others in the firm were confused about how everything fit together, how to prioritize their work, and how to allocate time and resources. As such, without widespread understanding of the strategic context, the turnaround resulted in a series of disconnected tactics that further demoralized the staff and didn't produce the needed results.
The reality is that no executive can ensure that initiatives fit together perfectly at all levels. The only way to truly align things is to make sure that all employees make the connections themselves. This requires, first of all, that everyone has a reasonably shared understanding of the overall strategy; and second, that everyone makes it their business to position their individual decisions around what, how, and when to do things in the context of the overall plan. In other words, it's not enough just to have a strategy. The strategy also needs to be widely shared, understood, and used as a basis for individual and team decisions.
Many managers -- at all levels -- assume that their people understand the firm's overall strategy and how their work contributes to it, especially if high level presentations, town meetings, and videos about the strategy have been disseminated. While these are necessary vehicles for creating context, they are insufficient for really aligning a company's strategy with various goals throughout the organization. In addition, managers at all levels need to periodically bring people together to actively work through the connections. And this needs to be done not just once during the annual planning cycle, but at regular intervals so that new projects, initiatives, and issues are incorporated into the overall strategic fabric.
If you and your team are working hard but aren't sure whether your efforts are directly contributing to your organization's overall goals, here are a couple of steps that you can take:
1.First, confirm that you have a shared understanding of your firm's (or division's) basic strategy. Sketch out a from-to chart that describes the key shifts that need to happen over time, or write out a one-paragraph summary of the strategy. Then, with your boss or senior executive, review your document and determine whether your understanding of the strategy is correct or the strategy has shifted in some important ways.
2.Next, with your team, create a list of your main projects and goals -- and see whether there is a direct sight-line between what you are doing and the confirmed strategy. If you are unsure about the connection, take a hard look at whether this project should be continued, killed, or re-focused. You can engage your boss and others in the dialogue about this as appropriate.
Creating context -- on a regular basis -- is a critical part of every manager's job and could be considered a core competency of leadership. Without it, you might find yourself ahead of schedule, but not sure where you are heading.