Timeless Truths: Principles for Organizational Success
You may be rolling your eyes and thinking “not another list” and I don’t blame you. However, what I am offering is different, really.
First, it is important to differentiate between principles and practice. Principles are timeless and universal “truths” independent of context or type of organization (for profit, not for profit, etc.) Practices represent our attempt to apply these principles subjectively in a context-dependent manner. Principles set the stage for practices. Our focus here is on principles.
Second, the principles I propose are interdependent and support/enable each other. Like the ten fingers on your hands, each can provide some value on its own. However, maximum value and function comes from them acting together as a hand, or better yet as a set of hands.
As each principle and its importance are explained below, questions are posed to help you assess how well you and your organization are following this principle in practice. At the end, we will briefly discuss how the principles work together and discuss some steps you can take to help your organization improve its performance.
Know where you are going (Vision) and what you need to do (and how), to get there. The Vision defines your future state in a time-bound, quantifiable and specific manner. Strategy defines where and how you will compete and provides a high-level plan for what you will do, reflecting a set of choices you have made, to guide the organization to its future state. Both are essential to guide and drive the organization to long-term success. Do your leadership team and employees know and share an understanding of your Vision and Strategy and what it means? If not, why?
Play offense. For the last several years, many organizations have focused on defense. However, games are won because of advancing growth and profitability (offense). Defense is meant to protect and defend your position, but it has limited upside. Defense, by its nature, is reactive, largely to external events. Offense is proactive. Offense is about how you increase growth and profitability. The best offense is guided by clear short and long-term goals. For example, in football, the team needs to advance the ball, get 1st downs, be able to score, win the game, get in and win the playoffs, and then win the Super Bowl. Defense is essential, but not sufficient for success. Does your company play too much defense and not enough offense? Why? What impact does this have on the business?
Be able to zoom out / zoom in. As a consultant and organizational leader, I have often heard complaints (and sometimes admissions) about a leader or manager being too “big picture” or too “in the weeds”. The best leaders know how and when to zoom out or in or have colleagues they can rely on to do both. Zooming out gives perspective about the big picture, the broader path(s) to success, and what needs to be done (the big rocks). It focuses on strategy. Zooming in helps determine and detail what specific actions, projects or changes are needed and whether or not they are being done. It focuses on execution. It is not a choice of doing one or the other, success requires both. Are your leaders and managers individually and collectively able to zoom out and zoom in? If not, why? What impact does this have? How can this be improved?
Be adaptive and agile. Change is the norm and market /competitive turbulence is commonplace. It’s very easy to freeze or react (often mindlessly). Being adaptive and agile is what enables companies to not only survive but thrive in our ever-changing, fast-moving environment. Adaptivity is the capability to take into account the current state of the organization, market, and competitive environment and then act intentionally, thoughtfully, and purposefully to make necessary adjustments and course corrections. Agility is the capability to rapidly change or adapt nimbly and quickly to changes, challenges, and opportunities. Both attributes are necessary for sustained success and essential for the foreseeable future. Is your leadership team and organization adaptive and agile? If not, why? What are the impacts of this? What would it take to improve?
Manage and allocate your attention (focus). Your organization’s attention and your attention are both finite and scarce resources. Keeping your Vision, Strategy and key priorities in mind, be disciplined and intentional about how you allocate your attention and guide others to allocate theirs. Recognize your influence is broad and far-reaching. Where you focus your attention is where others will be guided to focus their energy and time. Be wary of getting caught up in distractions. Have you and your organization effectively managed and allocated attention to support your strategy and driving the highest value for your company? If not, why? What gets in the way of doing this?
Align and allocate your resources to support your strategy. While attention and focus are important, it is resources (people and dollars) that enable things to get done and drive results. Like attention, resources are finite and often scarce. Resources should be aligned and allocated to a prioritized portfolio of initiatives and projects to best enable execution of your strategy and support achievement of strategic goals and objectives. Are your resources aligned and allocated appropriately to support your strategy? Do you have a clear process and decision framework to support this? If not, why? How does this impact your results?
Be able to say “No” to and “kill” projects. This is essential for following #5 and #6 above. Executives and key leaders need to have this capability. Leadership agreement, commitment, and discipline are necessary to maintain strategic focus. If this does not or cannot happen, the likely outcome is having too many projects, poorly resourced, running late, and often not aligned to the strategy, hardly the conditions to drive strategic success. Are your executives and key leaders encouraged and able to say “no” to or “kill” projects not adequately aligned with and supportive of your strategy? If not, why? How does this impact your results?
Don’t confuse activity with progress. Activity feels good and makes you look busy. However, activity is no substitute for progress. To be successful, activity needs to be purposeful and directed towards achieving specific objectives and goals in support of the organization’s strategy. This should be coupled with accountability for progress and results. Do your organization and its leaders encourage / reward activity instead of holding people accountable for progress and results? Why? How can a better, more effective balance be achieved?
Don’t just tick the box. While similar to #8, this is about being engaged, doing the right things, and seeing them through to results. Too often, we disengage and just do things so we can check them off our list so we can feel like we accomplished something. We often tend not to see things through, but just hand them off, when we should be sharing accountability for and helping to achieve results. Are we and our organizations engaged, choosing and doing the right things and following them through to results or do we tend to just check off the box? Why? What is the impact of this on our organizations? How can we change this behavioral pattern?
Measure, monitor, and manage what is important, not everything. To tie it all together and close the loop, it is vital to actively measure, monitor and manage our performance. What you measure and monitor should be relevant to what you are trying to achieve (in the short and long-term). Performance reporting and analysis combined with other contextual information should provide information and actionable insights to frame and inform decisions and drive effective actions to improve performance. Does your organization measure the right things? Does it effectively monitor, manage, and act on what is strategically and operationally important? Why or why not? How does this impact the organization?
As you can see, these ten principles are closely linked and interdependent. You can’t just choose one or a few and expect great results. Value and performance breakthroughs come as they are collectively instilled and practiced in the organization.
Numerous questions were asked throughout this article. It’s important to honestly answer them and discuss them with your colleagues. Assess the extent of the gaps that exist, determine which are more important to address first, and develop a roadmap to building a sustainable, high performing organization. The time to act is now. Are you ready to start?