Thursday, February 19, 2009

In our practice, it is common that an organization at some point embarks on the visioning journey. Depending upon the company and its history, this journey can take a variety of paths. But in almost all cases, it involves the creation of one or more artifacts: Mission, vision, principles, values, strategy, and the like.

The world has learned several important points about these efforts:
  • It is not about documents, but about the thinking. In particular, the need for pervasive strategic thinking. These documents are of course necessary. It is simply that the artifacts themselves are not the goal, or where the true value lies.
  • All these artifacts should collectively tell essentially the same story, just from a different perspective and with a different focus. They must all reinforce the same central themes and describe the same entity. Otherwise, what gets communicated is confusion and irrelevance, regardless of the actual content. In general, the fewer artifacts the better. The simpler the message the better. The more focused the better.
  • The essential value and power of all these artifacts lies in the degree to which the leadership actually lives and breathes these principles and continually reinforces their essential ideas through frequent and direct interaction with all constituencies—customers, employees, partners, and shareholders. These interactions represent opportunities for the leadership to highlight practical examples where these ideas have worked or where gaps are found. It is through this pervasive personal dialogue (not a speech, or presentation), and only this—the documents (or, posters, web pages, etc.) themselves will always be weak vessels—can the essence of the ideas come alive and mean anything. Consequently, in addition to the creation of any new visioning documents, the organization must include how it should be communicated and used as a tool for increasing dialogue and actively and continually promoting its key messages.
  • Finally, when the leadership thinks about this type of new vision or strategy effort, they need to answer a few questions: What is our goal? Why are we changing what we have now? What exactly does success look like? How will we know whether the new "vision" made any difference?
We use the phrase that "everyone has a piece of the truth".

If the goal is simply a new document (or, paragraph) that does a better job of describing who the organization is now and why they exist and then gets published somewhere, then it is a fairly straightforward PR or marketing piece. In other words, the skills needed are good writing skills to achieve this document re-write goal.

But, if the goal is change, then that needs to start with some alignment on what is not working now, as well as what the future-state should look like. This requires intensive, inclusive (and safe) dialogue among all constituencies, where the leadership can see who they are (their "truth") through their constituents' varied lenses.

For this goal, the writing is the easy part.


Thursday, April 06, 2006

Several things have become clearer over the years.

One is that the CIO role is not a technology job, it is a business value job. In this way, of course, it is really no different than any other executive leadership position. This requires the manager to both manage the performance of their vertical unit---their operational area, whether it is an SBU or a functional department like IT---while at the same time operate horizontally across the enterprise to optimize the company's total performance and thus maximize the aggregate value of the business. (The exact vertical-horizontal mix depends on the particular role and current operational challenges.)

Another is that organizations are the way they are because of their leaders. In other words, culture is not some magic all-pervasive "ether" that mysteriously infuses the workforce. Culture is simply the collection of habits, customs, stories, assumptions, and aspirations that the leadership has promoted, supported, and sustained. It is the way it is precisely because that is what leadership wants and expects, whether consciously or not. For example, ineffective leaders are often totally unaware of the effect they have on their colleagues, and are amazed to learn that what they think is positive behavior actually is viewed negatively.

Accordingly, high performance organizations are, in fact, high performance precisely because they have high performance leadership. In other words, you get what you are. Companies perform at a high level only because (and until) the leadership performs at a high level.

As a result, high performance is not about advanced technologies, or best practices, or the latest sound-bites.

It is about leadership.

This is because if the process infrastructure, governance practices, and process maturity are not up-to-snuff, then they will fix it. They will solve those problems in an optimal manner precisely because they are high performance individuals themselves. That's what they do. That's who they are.

A corollary to this second point is that high performance leaders tend to share several important characteristics. Characteristics that can help locate this talent in your company. The most central of these characteristics is the preeminence of values over behavior. That is, their leadership approach fixates on a few fundamental principles---sometimes articulated, sometimes implied---that define a collection of preferences for what is important, for what the organization stands for (and against). This is in opposition to the much more prevalent approach that is behavior based, that is, focusing on control, micro-management, and on altering the way people actually do their work, changing their methods, practices, tools, etc.---with the idea that this will make them better.

The problem with the behavior based approach is that it forces a set of "solutions" that presuppose a shared understanding of the "problem". And if the populace does not share that same sense of the problem, and they often don't, then, to them, the prescribed "solution" is not really an answer for them. In fact, it is a burden, another unwanted administrative intrusion into their world.

On the other hand, people with a sense of shared values will naturally seek out the tools and methods that are consistent with their common value system.

A second characteristic of high performance leaders is their emphasis on learning. This comes from their insatiable curiosity about how things work and don't work, why things are the way they are. This tends to also include a strong desire for challenging long-held assumptions and for fact-based decision making. This characteristic also shows up in their desire for a collaborative workforce---an environment where ideas matter more than rank or title, and where everyone has a piece of the truth.

Thirdly, these individuals have a very tight, almost laser-like, focus on customers and how best to deliver value to them, whether these are the external enterprise customers or the many internal customers. This customer centric bias informs much of their thinking about priorities, and in particular sharpens the dialogue about what really adds value, since in this world the customer defines value, quality, and completeness, not the supplier. This external focus has a remarkably refreshing, simplifying, and cleansing effect on the entire organization.

Another characteristic that appears common is their sense of personal accountability, both for themselves and for their workers. This idea that we must absolutely honor all commitments becomes a reverence for doing exactly what we say we are going to do, without excuses, without surprises, starting with top management. This is a very powerful and compelling example for the whole organization. Further, these leaders provide safety and support for the workers so that everyone can constructively hold each other accountable for the decisions they make, including (and especially) top management. This characteristic also tends to promote an environment of ownership where responsibility (and authority) is delegated to the lowest level practical, and closest to the customer. This ownership generates strong feelings of personal responsibility for performance, continuous improvement, and getting better every day. A pride in workmanship naturally emerges.

Finally, high performance leaders, create sustainable high performance organizations because when they think about solutions they first think about strategy. They have a need to understand exactly where the company is going and what success will look like when they get there. This vision of a future state, while largely conceptual, is a powerful communication and motivation tool. Once the vision comes into focus, they turn their attention to the business and technology architecture that serves as the framework for realizing that strategy. This framework is a picture of a possible implementation of the strategy. Further, the architecture provides the organization with a blueprint for success. It shows how all the business pieces fit together and how they interact. In other words, this architecture defines the future business model that will deliver on the chosen strategy. But, even more, it becomes a road map for defining and prioritizing investment and actions. As such it serves as the overall strategic plan for the enterprise since the journey to the desired future state involves incrementally adding or replacing each architectural element with its improved solution. In this way, solutions are never simply tactical, short term disconnected fragments, but are integrated components of a unified whole that are always aligned with the business as they simultaneously advance the company, step by step, towards its goals.


Monday, April 03, 2006

What do we do now? What are the next steps? ….

We see it all the time in our jobs and professions. This insatiable need to take action. This desire for "progress". We seem to be forever in various stages of defining action plans, setting targets, organizing teams---all focused on "making something happen"?

And, of course, they do create action. Things will "happen". After all, the very nature of these efforts is activity, putting things in motion.

But, are they the right things? And, even if they may be, are they sustainable? In other words, will what we are doing lead to sustainably improved business performance?

Unfortunately, history has not been kind. These efforts often lead nowhere, or if they do create positive results, they are frequently illusory and unsustainable. Interestingly, the problem typically lies not with the work itself. Most organizations can do a credible job of carrying out action plans if properly nourished (capital, talent) and motivated (leadership). The issue isn't necessarily one of management, or the inability to do the work.

Rather, more often than not, the organization is simply working on the wrong things, in the wrong order. They are doing a good job, even an excellent job at times, of simply delivering the wrong solutions faster.

What is needed is to make sure, as leaders, that the enterprise is focusing its limited talent and capital on the right topics. So, when they do their good job of execution, it results in impacts that really matter to the performance of the company.

This relentless focus on the right topics defines the crucial gap between mediocre organizations and high performance organizations.

And, it all starts with the right questions.

We believe that nothing influences high performance and sustainable success more than making sure that the leadership of the enterprise remains focused on the right questions. The answers to these questions---the solutions---will at times be tricky, but more often than not, if you make sure you are answering the right questions, then it is much more likely that the results you get, even if suboptimal, will have a far greater impact on success than an excellent execution towards the wrong goals.

Consequently, a key issue for an organization is to ensure that the leadership is mercilessly focusing on the right questions. And, we mean focus with laser-like intensity. This means two things: There should only be a handful of questions (a small number concentrates the mind and the organization) and, these questions need to be continually reviewed to ensure they remain the most relevant issues for where the organization is at that moment.

Because alignment of the leadership is central for sustainable success, these questions must necessarily arise within this group. Moreover, the most compelling questions for the leadership team tend to be a variant of "who, exactly, are we?". The questions below can be a useful starting point for getting to this answer:

  • How do we add the most value? What is our most compelling value proposition?
  • What customer segments have the greatest need?
  • What is our future business model? How do we serve those needs?
  • What business and technology capabilities best deliver that model?
  • How are those capabilities best provisioned?
  • What does success look like, exactly?
  • What is the case for change: Why do we need to do anything materially different than we do now?
  • How have we agreed to hold each other accountable for the decisions we have made?
  • What are the highest return, lowest risk actions for addressing these questions?

In many companies, unfortunately, it still remains difficult to explore these very existential issues. They are often viewed as too soft a topic, or as not being relevant, or actionable, but in our view an organization that has a deep connection to its roots, to its sense of who it is, and how it chooses to deliver value to its customers is an enterprise that knows where it is heading. This is an organization that has the confidence to make the tough choices about where and how to compete, and to do it in ways that preserve its integrity and authenticity. And, an organization that acts authentically, is naturally sustainable.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Organizational transformations are among the most difficult undertakings that leaders face. Whether the organization is a nation or a department, history is replete with false starts, ugly outcomes, unintended consequences, and abandoned efforts.

There are, of course, many reasons why these efforts are so intractable. Probably the most striking is that they are not "projects" in the traditional sense. They resemble more an organic adaptation. That is, less an activity that can be centrally planned, prioritized, scheduled, and controlled, and more like an activity in which one carefully observes various stimulus-response behaviors in order to better grasp the underlying, often hidden, survival mechanism that ultimately drives the decisions that the organism makes to persist and succeed in its chosen competitive landscape, and then to apply this knowledge to influence the organism to evolve in the desired way.

Moreover, just focusing on changing behaviors is doomed if those behavior changes are at odds with this underlying survival mechanism. As we have seen all too often, the organism may appear to comply for some period of time---constrained as is often the case by focused, determined external forces and coercion (i.e., management), or sometimes inadvertently compliant through its own internal lapses which periodically distract every organism. But, soon, through attrition and the daily grinding away at these artificial fetters by the organism's unrelenting survival mechanism, it breaks free. Further, the organism's own survival reflexes react in unpredictable ways to these crude assaults resulting in the expensive, time-consuming, and ultimately unsatisfactory outcomes of these behavior-based transformations that we now come to expect.

A more successful perspective lies in recognizing that these transformations are an act of war.

A war, not of territory, or of behaviors, but a war of values.

In other words, organizational transformations (regardless of how they may be spun) essentially seek to replace the current set of values with a different set of values. Since the values of an organization essentially define its foundational principles---mission, purpose, and meaning---transformations, if they are to succeed, must necessarily attack this survival mechanism directly by focusing explicitly on the underlying values that shape its actions.

It should be pointed out that the issues at stake are typically not as clear cut as simply replacing one set of values with another completely new set. What is often found is that the desired set of values are not really new, but can be found among the ideas that the current organization deems important, it is rather more a question of priority, emphasis, and interpretation. Regardless, the fight is over whose values and interpretations will prevail as the governing principles for the organization.

This declaration of war concept is vital because it unambiguously communicates to the organization the existential import of the undertaking. If an organization fools itself into thinking that all that is needed is a bit of behavior modification, then disaster lies this way. Expectations, risk-reward assessments, investment decisions, priorities, are all quite different depending upon which path you choose.

Consequently it is vital to clearly characterize transformations as significant "bet the organization" or "burning platform" style decisions.

Behaviors are the only reliable windows into values---what you stand for is most clearly revealed by the decisions you make and the actions you take. Accordingly, an organization that can quickly read the signs in its behavior, identify the misalignment in values driving that behavior, and then respond with leadership actions focused on restoring the proper values are on the path towards long-term, sustainable success. On the other hand, simply treating the behavior itself as the problem and merely correcting the behavior without addressing the underlying value system is a recipe for disaster and low morale.