planning process

All In or Playing Along?

May 3rd, 2011  | 

Published in Leadership, Strategic Planning

A troubling game is starting to play out in the workplace.

The game is being played for high stakes among bosses and their direct reports at all levels of organizations.

Chief executives are playing it with their boards and partners. Senior executives on the leadership team are playing the game with their CEO. And staff members are playing it with their supervisors.

Call the game “Misalignment.”

Alignment is one of the most significant outcomes any organization should expect at the conclusion of a strategic planning session. Alignment is achieved following two days of intensive work and spirited discussions about the organization’s current situation, its vision, its planning process to realize that vision, and the implications of meeting (or failing to meet) agreed-upon objectives.

Alignment does not mean absence of conflict. Just the opposite. Authentic alignment is achieved only when conflict is encouraged, options for resolving the conflict are weighed, and a solution is reached that all leaders support.

Conflict resolution occurs only when trust exists among all leaders.

Planning Equals Change
I advise leaders to delay holding a planning session until they and their organization are ready to embrace change.

That’s because planning equals change.

In the plan that’s developed, each leader commits to change by doing more of the things that result in success.

The planning process also should be expected to identify people, processes and programs that no longer serve the enterprise or that are inefficient. By talking openly about these issues, solutions can be agreed upon to minimize or eliminate them. In all cases, change occurs.

Change is uncomfortable for most of us.

The planning process tackles change head-on and exposes difficult issues that must be addressed if the company expects to improve its financial and operational performance. Leaders in these sessions talk openly – hesitantly at first, more confidently as the two-day session continues – about fixing problems, replicating successes and carving up sacred cows.

At the conclusion of these difficult conversations, alignment is achieved because leaders are convinced of the merits of the plan they’ve developed. Moreover, each leader is prepared to hold his or her colleagues accountable for implementing the plan, and, likewise, is prepared to be held accountable by his or her colleagues.

Just as players of Texas Hold ‘em respond to a great poker hand by betting all their chips – they’re “all in” – so, too, do the leaders on a winning team respond to a solid plan with their full commitment.

Trouble Brewing
Occasionally, a planning session exposes philosophical differences on the leadership team.

Such differences include lack of alignment on:
➢ Company direction
➢ Financial objectives
➢ Talent development
➢ Growth strategies
➢ Accountability (or the lack of it)

Differences may show up in a dozen other ways.

When differences are not resolved, any person who disagrees with the situation – whether it’s philosophical, financial, strategic, cultural or whatever – is out of alignment with the top decision-maker’s view of the situation.

In a good economy with plenty of good jobs available, a worker – whether it’s a top exec or a member of the rank-and-file – would simply say, “I don’t agree with the decisions that have been made and I’ve found another company that suits me better. I’m outta here!”

When people leave because they no longer agree with where things are going or how things are done, their departure should be viewed as a happy event for all.

Trouble occurs when disillusioned workers don’t leave.

The people don’t agree with the situation, but they’re playing along as if they do.

In a market that’s showing signs of an uptick and related job movement, my sense is that many organizations are headed for trouble.

People that have playing along – perhaps doing what needs to be done, but doing it in a half-hearted manner while biding their time for new opportunities to develop – are preparing to make their move.

Let me emphasize that no one wants a disgruntled person on their team. People that are unhappy should go.

The alarm I’m raising warns that – absent meaningful conversations with team members – leaders may be caught off guard by certain departures.

Hold conversations to learn if gaps in alignment are occurring. My experience is that gaps occur for these primary reasons:

  1. People don’t know. When talented people who performed well in good times stop performing, it may mean they don’t have the skills or knowledge to get the job done. If it’s a skill issue, training and mentoring could help. There are times, of course, when an enterprise outgrows a person. When that happens, the under-performer needs to be re-assigned or moved out. Another facet of the “don’t know” phenomenon is lack of clarity. One example is the leader that says, “We will invest for long-term growth” then takes the team to task when profitability suffers. People on the team are confused. Which is it? they wonder. Investment? Or profits? Lack of clarity handcuffs teams.
  2. People don’t care. Lacking clarity, alignment suffers. Objectives are not clear. Conflicting direction is given. Double standards emerge. Dysfunction reigns. With no ability to change the game and no place to go, workers settle in to ride out the storm, giving lip service and half-hearted efforts to their tasks. They’ve stopped caring.
  3. People are scared. Failure to confront a difficult issue can be caused by fear. Some people fear the embarrassment of speaking up about an issue, believing they’re alone in their thinking. There’s also fear of reprisals. Speaking up may not be what the boss wants to hear. I’ve worked with leaders who genuinely believe they’re open to criticism yet respond defensively – or worse – when their thinking is questioned. Running an organization using fear as a tool can drive results on a short-term basis, but fear is not a sustainable motivator.

As a leader, you make (or help make) the rules of the game.

Call the hand of any worker that you sense is simply playing along.

Actions speak louder than words, so look for behavior that demonstrates everyone – starting with yourself – is betting all their chips on the hand your organization is playing.

About the Author: Greg Bustin advises leaders of some of the world’s most admired companies, and he’s dedicated a career to working with CEOs and the leadership teams of hundreds of companies in a range of industries. He’s facilitated more than 200 strategic planning sessions, and he’s delivered more than 500 keynotes and workshops on five continents. His fifth leadership book—How Leaders Decide: A Timeless Guide to Making Tough Choices—examines 52 of history’s greatest triumphs and tragedies and debuted in April as the #1 new historical reference book on Amazon.

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