Whose agenda is it anyway?
It seems pretty obvious to say that organisations should have a clear agenda – a strong sense of identity and purpose. But how do you decide where you’re trying to go, and who you’re trying to be? Who sets the agenda for your organisation?
You do. As the leaders of your organisations, you are the ones who fix on its purpose. After all, you are the ones held accountable if you don’t achieve it. So why don’t you do it? Why don’t all leaders do it?
You may claim that all manner of people need to join in on setting the agenda. And you’re right. And then again you’re wrong. It’s a matter of degree. No, I’m not copping out, nor arguing on a technicality.
A number of groups have an interest in what you achieve, and their interest should be heard. The identity of these groups will vary depending on the nature of your organization. Your agenda setters might include: people who work for you (employees largely, but who else?); people who do business with you (as customers, suppliers or partners in formal or informal joint ventures); people who fund what you do (financiers, government departments and agencies, shareholders, and so on); people who are affected by what you do (neighbours, employees’ families, the community in which you operate). All of these people have a legitimate point of view about what they want from you.
However things start to go seriously wrong when any one of these groups gets to call the shots. It’s typically the people holding the purse strings who cause the problems. They demand that specific things are accomplished, or your funding will be withdrawn. In some cases, you can be faced with huge arrays of specifics that you have to achieve. Clearly these things are important, even vital, but they aren’t who you are. They don’t define you.
In many organisations, these external targets have been allowed to hold too much sway. The organisation becomes fearful and reactive. When targets change, the organisation struggles to deal with the impact of that change.
Contrast this with an organisation with its own clear sense of identity and purpose. This organisation accommodates external targets by making sense of the relationship between those targets and what the organisation is there to achieve.
So here’s your choice. You could be standing on your own two feet, well balanced and able to repond to whatever comes up. Alternatively you could be standing on stilts which, by the way, someone else is holding, balancing your weight on points over which you have no control, and which at any time might move. Which would you prefer?
Doing what matters
There are three fundamental rules for making stuff work:
In organisations, we are subject to so many influences that it is very easy to become scattered. Business reviews, from formal structured assessments to informal discussions, generate multitudes of ideas. They could be issues in need of investigation, things to change or improve, or brand new thoughts. They all vie for our attention. Once spotted we can become positively fearful of losing sight of any of them. (See the recipe for Managing Ideas Soup.)
If we try to do it all, we will achieve a little, but painfully and slowly. If we focus our attention on the few ideas that really matter, we stand a much greater chance of achieving good outcomes with them. We can then move on to the next things that matter, and the next.
But how do we decide what matters most? The received wisdom would have us look at their impact, and rank them in terms of importance to the business. This may seem like a good idea, but my perception of what is important could be completely different from yours, and we will end up arguing about chalk and cheese.
What does the organisation most need? What are its priorities? They may be some or all of the strategic objectives, perhaps combined with elements of culture change, such as encouraging employee involvement or changing attitudes.
If we articulate the organisation’s priorities, we can assess ideas against these as a common base, and agree which ideas will have the greatest impact on them. What’s more, it becomes easy to explain the rationale for what we are doing, which makes it easier to gain people’s support and engage their energy and enthusiasm in achieving a good outcome.
Customers or vegetables?
This is the subject of one of my rants. My theory is that the very word customers acts as a cloak to hide the true meaning and significance of these people form us. It is a collective generalisation. It conveys absolutely nothing about the people concerned. On the other hand, if we use the real words to describe them specifically, we will find that we already know a great deal about them. We understand fundamentally what they want from us. We may still need to have conversations with them to get at, for example, relative priorities, but this is fine-tuning our service rather than addressing the basics.
Have a look at my Customers or Vegetables rant. How might treating our customers more like vegetables help us to do a better job of delivering good products and services to them?
Bad isn’t the enemy of good. Bland is. Yet it seems as if many businesses actively cultivate mediocrity. They show few signs of, and little ambition for, distinctiveness.
The executive team is (or should be) the model for attitudes and behaviours for the whole business. A strong, effective leadership team acts as a powerful role model for the rest of the organisation. Likewise, a weak leadership team creates its own imitators. The idea of viral leadership is that, if the leadership team is powerful enough, it will have such a beneficial impact on the organisation that little else will need to be done. This alone will create self-propelled change – it will act as a beneficial infection.
There are a number of characteristics that promote powerful teams. These include for example, the ability to relish apparent contradictions, and use them like the poles in a motor to energise the team. Powerful teams develop a high degree of trust within the team. Most importantly, in the words of a friend and colleague of mine, on issues that matter you can’t get a cigarette paper between them.