It was a hot summer day as the senior team and I gathered for another meeting in the strategic planning process. As we walked into the corporate board room, the CEO took me aside and said, “I’d liked to make some opening remarks. You don’t mind do you?”
My response was “No. This is your team and your planning process. Feel free to set the tone for the meeting.”
Once we all were seated, the CEO started the meeting with a passionate call to arms. As he explained, “We are getting sucked into operations, systems and problems at the micro level. We are so focused on fixing everything that we have forgotten the customer. We are not concerned about their service experience as much as we are concerned about our own welfare. We need to stop focusing so much on fixing everything and instead ask ourselves the most important question of all, namely ‘What kind of organization do we want to become in 2-3 years?’ If we do not answer this question, then we will have everything fixed but, alas, have no customers. It is time to stop letting the tactics trump the strategic.”
I smiled as his words came pouring out. I agreed 100% with his analysis. In this organization, operational leadership was trumping strategic leadership. Furthermore, an operational focus at the senior team level was trumping strategic thinking and action by the top people. They were, in essence suffering from strategic blindness.
This has become a common problem in many organizations recently. Complexity is creating strategic blindness, i.e. the leaders within the organization do not see their strategy as a whole organization. They see bits and pieces of the strategy as it relates to them, but they do not comprehend it as whole.
Furthermore, another problem continues to take place. Some leaders think that having a strategy is the same as executing a strategic plan. When people in leadership positions look at the parts and do not see “the whole”, the result is fragmentation and a general disorientation amongst all employees. When leaders think having a strategy is executing a strategy, there is a complete break down within the organization’s ability to synchronize it’s action and deliver a unified course of action.
When I encounter these kinds of problems, I always ask The Core Four Questions, namely “Who will lead?”, “Where is the vision and who has it?”, “What pace do you want to go?”, and “What should not be lost during the journey?”. The answers to these questions will point out whether or not the organization is caught in a pattern of institutional decline as described in Jim Collins’ book, How The Mighty Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In, HarperCollins, 2009. They also will determine the path to recovery.
Once I have explored The Core Four Questions, I often have to instruct or coach those involved to utilize The Core Four Actions. They are as follows:
- What you feed, grows.
- What you envision, guides.
- What you steward, endures.
- What you provide, activates and energizes.
The first of The Core Four Actions is “What you feed, grows.” Based on my early adventures when I first moved to Iowa many decades ago, this phrase is a popular one amongst those I have worked with over the years. The challenge is that many people focus on the word “grow” but do not comprehend the key word “feed”. When we turn to the dictionary for clarity, we learn that the word “feed” is defined by the following definitions: to give food to, to give as food, to furnish something essential to the development, sustenance, maintenance, or operation of, and to become nourished.
When we take these definitions and think of them as leaders, we learn some important information. The first definition states “to give food to.” Here, executives need to build capacity, collaboration and commitment. They can do this by re-recruiting their best people and recruiting new people who are already in alignment with the new strategy and have a track record of implementing successful organizational change.
In a time period where worry abounds, anxiety rises, and instability reigns, people are more divided than united. Employees everywhere are looking for clarity, order and direction. Clear and consistent information about what is happening and where we are going is vital. The key for leaders who are planning for change is to communicate more to their people rather than less.
Second, when we follow the “What you feed, grows” line of action, then we need to give as food things that build awareness and understanding. At this time period, we need to over-communicate a tremendous amount of historical perspective so people understand what is happening now, but also why it is happening. The present is a complete reflection of strategic choices made five to seven years ago. In essence, we are who we are by the choices we make and the path we have chosen to get to those choices.
At the same time, the best leaders understand that exceptional companies do not loose touch with the customer and their shareholders. When we provide constant support and a well defined and executable strategy, we have the potential to shape cultural values and standards, align culture and strategy, and define what is and what is not important within the organization. We also define what needs to be monitored and understood outside the organization. In short, when confronted with complexity, we need to not loose focus on the whole.
This week, sit down by yourself and ask the most important question: “What am I feeding in my organization? Fear or clarity? Focus or control? Second, sit down with your team and help them regain perspective and see the whole picture. Review with them what has happened in the past that has lead you and the organization to this point. Then, help them see how your current strategy is positioning the company for the future. If we seek to overcome strategic blindness, then we must feed strategic clarity. Growth is then the outcome.