Much of our workplace communication is transactional in nature, and lacks connectivity to the bigger picture. It lacks the critical context that our colleagues and team members need to understand how their work connects to the bigger picture of customers, markets and strategies, and this lack of context adversely impacts performance.
Would Your Team Pass the “Walk in the Door” Test on Strategy?
When working with clients, I strive to understand whether employees can connect their goals and priorities to the firm’s goals and strategies. Although my “Walk in the Door” test (a series of short interviews) is qualitative and ad hoc, the results typically show that a minority of a firm’s employees on any given day can reasonably articulate high level strategies or a firm’s goals, and even fewer see how their priorities connect to those goals.
For those firms where managers work to create connectivity between the big picture and individual initiatives or projects (the employees have context for their work when they walk in the door), the observations include better morale, a focus on knocking down barriers that impede progress towards goal achievement and better scorecard performance than other less enlightened firms and teams. Yes, the research is observational and ad hoc, however the pattern is consistent from firm to firm.
When your people have no context for their work, how do you expect them to do their best?
In another example of the power of context, I’ve both participated in and facilitated a fun and highly instructive activity developed by Professor Leigh Thompson at Kellogg, called the C-Suite. The essence of this activity is that a large group of individuals are given a collection of seemingly unrelated data points, with the knowledge that they have to “complete the tasks” in a certain block of time. The facilitator conveniently skips sharing the task description, and when asked, simply smiles or looks away without answering.
The goals are spelled out in the individual clues held by the participants however, it often takes up to a third of the allotted time for the participants to zero in on exactly what they’re supposed to do. Some teams literally fail to organize due to the ambiguity of the situation. Others start working with no direction. Most teams splinter into groups comparing data without a clear understanding of the tasks. The teams who create this critical context faster and then organize to execute have a distinct edge over their flailing counterparts.
While the C-Suite exercise challenges a number of factors, including team development, team leadership, creativity, organization and execution, those topics are useless until clear context for the key tasks emerge.
6 Habits of Effective Leaders When It Comes to Providing Context:
1. Effective Leaders strive to make issues relevant for their teams and team members. They don’t create an “ask” unless they can explain how it fits on the firm’s or team’s road map to success. The challenge to do something new, something different or something better is always backed by a strategic rationale.
2. Telling is important, but the real work of gaining buy-in comes from effective leaders listening and asking and answering questions. Context isn’t created in speeches, it’s created through dialogue.
3. They go to extraordinary measures to attempt to understand a firm’s strategy vectors and they share this information in the context of how the team’s efforts support the achievement of the strategies.
4. Disembodied projects are dead projects. Projects are always connected to a firm’s priorities. If the project can’t be connected..if it is disembodied from the firm’s priorities, it’s time to kill the project. It has no context.
5. Disembodied meetings need not apply. Operational meetings and scorecard reviews are framed and conducted within the context of strategy.
6. The focus on talent development is anchored in where the firm is going. Professional and leadership development and talent recruiting issues are anchored in the context of the capabilities needed for an envisioned future state.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
While the notion of creating common understanding and ensuring that people have context for their work is straightforward, its application is all too elusive in the workplace. As Kotter (John, not the teacher of sitcom fame) offered, “During periods of change, you cannot over communicate.” Welcome to a world where change is constant, yet too often the communication isn’t.
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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.