We don't often think about it, but life is based on natural, recurring rhythms: Days, years and even our own lives have predictable cycles that allow us to navigate through time. Our morning activities differ from our evening ones; we plan vacations around the seasons; and we focus our energy according to the stages of our careers. Without these cadences the music of life would be chaotic, and it would be hard to build a common social experience with other people.
The turning of the calendar year is a reminder that organizations also need rhythm. Some of it derives naturally from the sun and the moon, financial reporting requirements, and the social fabric of society. But leaders need to provide the rest of the music to give investors, employees, and customers a sense of consistency. From my experience, there are at least three types of cadence that leaders need to create:
Planning and Budgeting: First, leaders need to make sure that an effective planning and budgeting cycle is in place at an organization level. This is the cadence that forces people to set strategies and goals and translate them into plans. Gauging the right timing for this cycle and how much detail it requires is almost always a challenge, and many companies stumble trying to get it right (or perfect). For example, one large healthcare company recently discovered that they could take five months of "churn" out of their planning by simply starting it later in the year.
Reporting and Pivoting: People at all levels value rhythms for assessing progress and making improvements to achieve their goals. But this rhythm often breaks down due to lack of discipline, transparency, or the avoidance of tough discussions when things go off track. In fact, a common reason that companies struggle with execution is that the "reporting and pivoting" cadence includes too much improvisation, which means that problems are addressed too late or not at all.
Human Resource Staffing and Development: At an organization-wide level, this means identifying needed skills and resources, closing gaps between current and future needs, moving people to appropriate roles, and rewarding or recognizing people for success. Within each work unit, this rhythm also includes periodic recalibration of unit structures, disciplined performance feedback, mentoring, coaching, and training. Again, while many organizations have yearly cycles for these activities, they are too-often viewed as one-time reporting exercises rather than part of an ongoing rhythm. And at the unit level, most managers do not create a predictable mini-rhythm for these activities, but instead squeeze them into the calendar as ad hoc tasks when a problem arises.
Establishing the right rhythm for each of these streams is an important but extremely difficult part of the leadership job. Not only does each stream need to be done well, but the combination needs to form a symphony. This way, progress reviews and talent development mesh with planning cycles, both at a macro-level and within each work group. Otherwise managers feel constantly pulled from one set of rhythms to another, without an ability to connect the dots.
It's easy to wait for senior leaders to assemble these rhythms -- but managers at every level also need to work at harmonization. One way to do so, particularly in January, is to create a "master calendar" for your team and yourself. Mark (or estimate) all of the key dates and requirements that are part of the corporate process. Then put in the recurring notes that you require for your own rhythm: one-on-ones with direct reports, skip-level meetings, project reviews, mentoring sessions, team off sites, etc. Once you begin to see how it all fits together, you can make adjustments, do forward planning, and alert your people far in advance about what is coming down the pike.
Every organization has a certain kind of music; making it harmonious is at least partly up to you.
What are your ideas about harmonizing the rhythms of your organization?
Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online.