My consistent experience as a leader and consultant is that what I don’t see is what is killing me. If I can’t or won’t see it, I can’t confront and solve it. It continues to bedevil me.
I first came upon this when trying out an organizational diagnostic tool I was considering using with clients. What I learned from input from all staff is that our number one problem was the penchant for my partner and I to continuously change (we called it “improve”) things. In disbelief, I pushed back on the data. “Do you mean to say that we should not be constantly seeking improvement”. The reply was “do you have any idea the ripple and crippling effects of those ‘little improvements’ have upon all the systems and people here?” Obviously, I didn’t and probably never would have had I not tried out this tool.
So, I began using organizational diagnostic tools with clients and encouraged them to increase the percentage of staff they sought feedback from. Over the years and through more than 200 diagnoses, some truths have emerged that should be shared.
- When a robust, effective internal assessment is included in strategic planning, internal improvement projects often take priority over strategic (e.g. growth) initiatives as the impact of internal weaknesses become known. This is particularly true for organizations undertaking an effective internal assessment for the first time. Over time, as internal barriers to execution are eliminated, a return to growth focus occurs.
- Rarely is the true condition of the organization fully known by the CEO or executive team. Rather, it takes input from lower levels to reveal the true condition.
- Following on the heels of #2, leadership effectiveness suffers from lack of truthful feedback. Fear or insufficient trust is often the hurdle here.
- Even with good data on problems, leadership frequently dismisses the data as being the opinion of the “disgruntled”. It takes strong leadership to honestly evaluate data for its truth and impact upon the performance.
- Almost always, the CEO sees a mirror image of what all staff see. That is, one sees the earth as flat and the other round. The data is that stark and troubling.
- Organizations that fail to understand, face and solve internal issues, are held back and struggle mightily with execution of strategy. Research has shown that a well-executed inferior strategy will outperform a superior strategy poorly executed.
I realize I have painted a rather bleak picture. However, time and time again I have seen that a leadership team which continues to turn a blind eye to internal issues and instead emphasizes only growth strategies stunts the organization’s growth or kills it altogether. Based on the findings here are some recommendations:
- Find a sound tool and invest whatever is needed to understand your true condition and to identify leverage points for improved performance
- Use an outside facilitator for discussion of the data. I know that sounds self-serving, but unless you have a high level of trust and humility within your executive team, it will be hard to get to and confront the truth, even if it is in the data.
- Those evaluating and prioritizing the assessment data need to pledge and be held to checking their egos at the door. Data analysis can’t be focused on “who did or didn’t do what”, it needs to be about how to solve the problems that are revealed.
- Include all relevant viewpoints in capturing data on internal issues. You may not need all employees, but you do need all vantage points. For example, those closest to the customer know the customer best and the impact of the organization’s processes, policies and customer service.
- Employ multi-level teams for defining and executing solutions to problems that involve multiple levels.
- Finally, don’t try to focus on all the issues and solve all the problems at once. Include in your process of identifying of issues, a method to prioritize them. By pulling out the critical few and working to solve them, you will notice a ripple effect that lessens the impact and severity of many other issues that were lower in priority.
If leaders had to face the truth of their organizations on a daily basis, they would be overwhelmed to the point of inaction. There is simply too much to face up to, and it is discouraging. As a coping mechanism to maintain positivity and sanity, leaders turn a blind eye and keep going.
That is all the more reason to accurately diagnosis the vital few causal factors impeding performance and put together projects targeted to eliminate them. You needn’t turn a blind eye when you have sound data, good tools and a strong team designing the solutions needed to overcome your barriers to performance.
For more on this topic, read “Changing Organizational Conditions and Your Strategic Plan“.