Why are we doing this project?

I don’t know who is making these priority calls. They don’t make any sense.

We’re so far removed from the customer, no one notices what we do.

During my review, I was encouraged to innovate more. I don’t know what that means.

Context and the “Walk In the Door” Test:

In workshop settings, I frequently poll participants on what I call, “The Walk In the Door Test.” It goes something like this: “When you walk in the door in the morning, can you connect your priorities to the strategic priorities of your firm (or business unit)?”

I’m never surprised, but always disappointed that only about half of the participants admit they CAN connect their priorities to the important issues of their firm. The rest are honest (and frustrated) enough to admit in public, that they struggle with understanding the context for their work.

A few weeks ago, a corporate trainer indicated to me: “I’m not certain what the managers want their people to get out of the program, but I’m going to train them anyways.” Too bad for the participants.

Beware Context Deficit Disorder:

The employees quoted above, the disconnected and under-informed trainer and my honest survey respondents all share one thing in common…they all suffer from Context Deficit Disorder (CDD).

Too many mediocre managers and lousy leaders send their teams into battle on a daily basis armed with nothing more than a “go get ‘em,” and a metaphorical slap on the back.  There’s no connection between the work and the key objectives of the firm or the pursuit of creating value for customers.

Think of the many mediocre (or worse) customer experiences you encounter in a typical week. There’s the inattentive server, the cashier who never makes eye contact, the grumpy phone support personnel or, my favorite, the guard dog receptionist you came up against at the doctor’s office.  They all lack proper context for their work.  (We’ll leave the doctor who rushes through your examination seemingly on a mission to set a new land-speed record for spending as little time as possible with patients, for another topic on another day!

These individuals lack context for the importance of their work and the impact they have on people who vote with their dollars and feet. I’ll dump the blame squarely on the shoulders of the managers who allow their people to engage with others without providing clarity for their mission and building in accountability for carrying it out in good form.

Forget the Posters and Cheerleading and Instead, Provide Clear Context:

We waste fortunes inside our organizations on misguided programs and oddball incentives, seeking ways to motivate and inspire people to work hard, innovate, create, care and to live up to their potential, when the real solution is literally on the tip of our tongues.

People do their best work when they understand how their work fits into the bigger picture. This is the critical context that fuels revolutions, promotes perseverance and encourages creativity. People working for a cause are exponentially more powerful than people working for a paycheck. Management by paycheck is little more than motivating people at the end of a gun barrel.  Alternatively, management by context creates a sense of purpose that is essential for tapping into people’s extra stores of energy and their best creativity.

Of course, context comes in many sizes and shapes. I don’t necessarily expect the front-line cashier to be familiar with the nuances of the firm’s strategies, however, I do expect this individual to have an absolutely clear understanding of how customers help the business go and grow. Alternatively, the project manager leading a major new development initiative must understand how the project fits into the firm’s future plans to open new markets, capture more customers and beat competitors.

While the level and detail of context may vary by position and mission, it must be present for everyone all of the time.

5 Ideas for Curing Context Deficit Disorder

1. Establish connectivity. Never ask someone to do something with out linking the request to a clear business rationale.

2. Create forums to improve understanding. Provide opportunities for the people doing the work to ask questions about the value of the work.

3. Create forums to improve understanding, part 2. Don’t keep the strategic issues locked in a drawer. Share liberally on the big picture issues in your market and with your customers and involve people in translating high-level goals into meaningful and connected front-line activities.   Help your people improve their “Walk in the Door Test” results!

4. Make metrics meaningful. If you are going to the trouble of developing scorecards and other systems of measurement, make certain you both share and explain the metrics to the people being measured.

5. Provide opportunities for the people doing the work to share ideas for improvement. And then let them implement these ideas.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

This topic reminds me of the old story about the workers moving a pile of rocks.  When asked what he is doing, the first worker indicates, “I’m moving this pile of rocks from here to there.” The second one is asked the same question and responds,  “I’m helping to build a cathedral.” I certainly know which one I want on my team.  Do your employees and team members see the future cathedrals in their work at your organization?