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Clear Focus — The First of Four Keys to Superior Company Performance

by Bill Dann

This article is the second in a series of five. It addresses the first of the four keys to superior company performance: Clear focus. The other key factors, which I will write about in three subsequent issues, are:

Clear Focus

By clear focus, I’m talking about the explicit vision you must have of your company after your goals have been achieved. It includes:

  • Defined priorities
  • Defined strategies
  • Detailed action plans
  • Clear measures of success
  • Management actions that are consistent with all the above

Without all of these elements, you might have a “plan,” but it won’t be understood, and it’s unlikely the plan will succeed.

Clarity: It starts with management

The essential role of leadership during change is defining the gap between the current condition and the target condition.

To fulfill this role well, management has to make perfectly clear and compelling — to everyone involved — what the new priorities are, and why the changes are necessary.

Lack of clarity is the culprit more than 50 percent of the time

In the internal assessments that we at Professional Growth Systems routinely make as part of our overall strategic planning process, lack of clear direction is one of the top three issues more than 50 percent of the time. This is true even when a strategic plan is in place.

Why is that?

Among the reasons:

  • The plan is not communicated internally.
  • There are too many priorities, which means it’s difficult or impossible to focus on any one of them, or to establish a clear sense of their importance.
  • The reasons for the changes are not clear, or they’re not supported by fact.
  • Accountability is uncertain. It has not been made clear who is to do what, to make the plan succeed. (A common comment: “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do.”)
  • A timeline for completing tasks hasn’t been established, or it hasn’t been adequately communicated.
  • Leadership actions (or words) seem to be inconsistent with the plan. Priorities appear to shift, often because the leaders, in reacting to day-to-day problems, send the message that the strategic goals are no longer as important as they once were.

Imagine a game with no rules

Let’s say you take a job, and you’re told that this job consists of playing a game. But, you’re not told what game it is. You’re not told what rules apply, what plays the coach wants you to run, nor what constitutes a win.

One person might decide to play the game of soccer, which permits no contact. Another might decide to play football, where the amount and ferocity of contact is a large measure of success.

What do you have? Chaos.

Clarity makes execution possible

In his book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge says that the focus of competition in business is no longer on resources and innovation (because resources are increasingly available to everyone, and expiring patents no longer protect innovation as they once did). The focus of competition nowadays is on execution. Senge asserts that competition in the modern era is defined by organizations whose workers learn and respond, very quickly, to new situations. And, he says, this agility is made possible when everyone in the system is acutely focused on the same vision of the future. In other words, everybody’s clear on where they’re going. Or, to use another sports analogy: Everyone’s running the same plays.

Achieving clarity: How you help employees help you

Leading employees through the process of attaining new goals and achieving greater performance is a four-part challenge. You must:

  • Make them aware of the new goals (the changes).
  • Help them understand why the changes are important.
  • Get them to agree with, and espouse, the new goals.
  • “Check in” with them often. Be sure they’re still with you.

Creating the plan can be hard. Maintaining consistency can be harder.

Formulating a plan that has clear priorities, compelling reasons for each facet, and clear accountability, can be challenging.

What’s likely to be more difficult is maintaining the consistency in leadership actions that lead to success. This can be a tricky and slippery slope. But the leadership has to maintain this consistency.

For example, if the public message is “Employees are number one,” leaders would be inconsistent if they gave themselves big bonuses while they laid off a lot of people.

Consistency means that the reality in the workplace is compatible with professed priorities, and that the measure of performance and incentives for workers are also consistent with those priorities.

If you are contemplating a strategic change

If you’re thinking about a change in strategy, or if you’re already in the process, these are vitally important things to do:

  1. Determine exactly where you are in the process.
  2. Determine what actions the leadership has to take to reach the next step.
  3. Do not assume that any step is totally stable, or “done.” Employees often slip back into a mode of questioning the wisdom of a change, especially if leadership actions appear to be inconsistent.
  4. Constantly “check in” with employees to test the stability of each step, and to be sure that the actions intended to reach the next step are, indeed, working.

Don’t miss next month’s issue of GrowthLines! In the next issue: Accountability, the second of the four keys to superior company performance.