In some companies, preparing for strategic planning involves numerous power point presentations to middle management. Recently, I was with one company, sitting in the audience of middle managers in a darkened room, when the VP came up and started to talk about their upcoming strategic planning sessions. When he finished early and there were no questions, I was asked if I had any comments to make. I came to the front of the room and asked the VP to return to the second slide in his power point presentation. It was about creating an improved value proposition for the customer. I turned to the large group of middle managers and asked the question: “What is the difference between a customer and a partner?” The room erupted into a very active strategic level dialogue with great debate about what the words “customer” and “partner” meant. No one agreed and people did not understand the definition of "value proposition" either.
Weeks later, it happened again with a different company. This time a VP gave a power point presentation related to the upcoming roll-out of a new performance management system. Again, they ended early and asked me to comment. Again, I went to the front of the room and asked if we could go back in the slides to the one that talked about cascading goals. Then I turned to the room of managers and asked the question: “What is the difference between a goal and an expectation?” The response was similar and intense dialogue with little agreement followed.
Right now, we are getting so busy as leaders, dealing with details and participating in endless meetings, that we have forgotten to be architects of meaning. An architect of meaning focuses on building clarity about the strategic nexus and focuses on explaining why this work is meaningful. At the same time, the leaders needs to be a translator who focuses on building clarity about context outside of the organization. It is the combination of the two, architect and translator, that sets the stage for employees at all levels of the organization to understand the problems and challenges before the organization, be they operational or strategic.
Along this same line of thinking, we as leaders often forget that understanding a problem can be a complicated process. While the most common cause of failure related to dealing with problems, as noted by Ron Heifetz, Ronald, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky in their book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Harvard Business Press, 2009, is treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems. Furthermore, we as leader often forget that most problems do not come neatly packaged as either “technical” or “adaptive.” Often, for example, adaptive challenges can have significant technical aspects.
This week, remember to be an architect of meaning and a translator for your organization. This will help all involved understand better what are our problems and our challenges.