Every business has a plan, a concept of how “we can best use our skills and resources to make a profit while continuing to ensure our survival.” Some of these plans are well articulated and honored by those in leadership positions. Others are simply words on a page, perfunctorily done and quickly abandoned when unexpected events create enough stress. In many small businesses, the plan is intuitive and not well articulated. The thoroughness and quality of the plans seem to be as diverse as the businesses themselves.
An issue that’s more commonly shared is that most of the people comprising the company don’t know what the plan is let alone understand their roles in effectively working it. Certainly they don’t understand it in a focused, dedicated fashion day-to-day. As a result, peoples’ behavior is more often guided by personal preferences for how they do their work. As most people see it, it’s their work, not the work of the organization. If anything, they use personal goals or functional imperatives as their reference points. While this brings some order to their efforts, it is seldom optimal in regard to the requirements of any overarching plan.
Many companies post their vision statements prominently and expect employees to know them, but without a shared knowledge as to, “how we have to behave in order to realize the vision.” Many companies widely broadcast their mission statements to workers and customers alike. Yet much less attention is paid to just how we have to work in an organized, coordinated fashion to accomplish that mission. It’s supposed to be intuitively obvious, I suppose. It isn’t. People’s comfort zones, their personal definitions of success, and their attitudes and morale more often determine how they work on a day-to-day basis.
Older workers have their routines. Younger workers often lack the experience or a business perspective to give them insight. New hires often bring old habits developed in a previous work culture. When all is said and done, the absence of a shared, well understood plan reduces real productivity and leads to sub-optimization of a company’s performance. The solution is to not only build a plan but to disseminate it, discuss it for shared understanding, and then to manage individual performance against the plan.
Disseminating the plan:
How many people in the company know the plan and the reasoning behind it? How many people have read and understood the annual report? How about the 10K? How many people have felt free enough to talk to the company’s leaders about the plan and their role in it? The typical answer is very few.
No planning session is complete without a clear system to disseminate the plan’s perspective to the entire work force. The truth is not all managers are equal when it comes to explaining the plan and its ramifications to their staffs. Once again, who can do this well and who is likely to do it poorly, is generally known by the leader and probably across the leadership team as well. Yet, the issue is seldom addressed directly. People may be told to do it, but those who do it poorly are seldom coached and less often held accountable for their performance in this area. When they are neither held accountable nor coached to improve, the messages are clear. “This isn’t really important.” “Going through the motions is okay.” “All this needs is a little lip service.” All of these messages are subversive to the efforts of the business to reach its goals. When people don’t know how to do something, or know how to do it well, we can’t expect magical insights or stunning conversions. Lectures or attending programs don’t build the necessary skills. So, even if it is an inconvenience, for the company to be at its best, people need to be helped and then held accountable for acquiring the requisite skills to lead others in executing the plan.
Discussing the plan for shared understanding:
More often than not, there isn’t even a deeply shared understanding of the implications of the business plan among the top managers of the company. Many, if asked, would argue the point. But there is a difference between being able to repeat a general outline and a deep understanding of how priorities will be set, of how to resolve conflicting functional agendas, or how to shape a common path forward between and among the subordinates working under their direction. At the end of planning sessions members of the leadership team are eager to return to their tactical responsibilities. A burdensome number of e-mails and phone messages have usually accumulated while they were off planning. Questions have remained unanswered and directions and decisions are hanging in abeyance. It would seem apparent that the work of the planning session is not complete until the working implications of the plan are understood among the team and decisions are made as to how to reconcile conflicts across the organization. But it isn’t. Too often, people can anticipate problems but simply breathe a sigh of relief if it looks as if it is someone else’s problem. This is because for many, planning is a discreet event, to be finished and checked off of the “to do” list, rather than to be an active blueprint for reaching common goals. Usually, it is the leader who owns the plan and the rest of the people grab their parts with the erroneous expectation that if everyone does their individual part, they’ll succeed as a whole.
The plan should include a delineation of unresolved operational issues and potential conflicts. Problem solving teams should be assigned to generate solutions to those issues that are basic to the intent of the plan. This can only happen if planning is seen as a year-around process, with people preparing to discuss the plan before sitting down to do it, to resolve realistic discrepancies between how we do work now and how we’ve planned for it to be different, and then watch the plan unfold and work to make considered adjustments as it goes. This attention to how we are working the plan will ensure greater collaboration between the people responsible for the business at a strategic level and those working to execute the plan on a tactical level. In complex organizations this requires that rigorous standards are set and enforced for doing preliminary research, holding courageous yet constructive discussions, and careful and thorough follow through as the year passes. In less complex organizations, the owner or “boss” needs to clearly discuss with people what roles they are to play in the plan and the criteria for solving cross-functional conflicts.
Once a thorough understanding is shared across the leadership team, they should be measured against the plan’s success. The plan is the way to attain the organization’s goals. While the plan needs to remain a living, evolving document as conditions change, there should always be a clear statement of “what goals we are trying to reach by working our plan.” There are always measurables. Each manager can be held accountable for how his or her area of responsibility performs in relation to the plan over time. Were problems identified and raised with the team? Were areas of conflict addressed and resolved? Did managers cooperate across boundaries to ensure the success of the enterprise as a whole? When performance is measured against the plan and the planning process as a whole, the organization is most likely to benefit from a shared understanding across the leadership team.
Once your plan is out there, don’t just tolerate questions, encourage them. If you’ve made it safe to talk truth to power in your organization, ask people what’s wrong with the plan. Ask what it will take to make it work most effectively. Do your workers see any unwanted implications stemming from the plan you’ve lain out? Employees at all levels will have questions, but the people on the line often have a different perspective than those on the leadership team. Every question creates an opportunity to address the issues that create and sustain inefficiencies. Prepare your management team to gather those questions and report them back. Otherwise, you are wasting valuable intelligence that can be the difference between good returns and mediocre ones.
If it isn’t terribly safe to point out that the emperor has no clothes in your company, and you’ll know it instinctively if you’re honest with yourself, seek indirect feedback. Institute a suggestion box and use it. If you have an internal company blog use it to start conversations about the most important issues. Solicit comments on the bulletin board. Use whatever methods that already work in your company, but do something deliberate. Show employees that you value their insights. Not every comment will be a winner, and early on honest feedback may be slow in coming. But, you’ll never get it if you don’t seek it out.
Managing individual performance against the plan:
Even when the management team is on the same page, the majority of line workers are not. They still don’t have a big picture perspective against which they can focus their activities. Workers’ performances are often measured against a list of idealized virtues or traits. In good companies their performance is most typically referenced to functional goals. Yet, almost every day the management team has opportunities for teachable moments with their staffs to better ensure their individual alignments with the business plan. For people to make wise decisions and good choices, they must understand the business context within which to make those choices and decisions. If a change in style or function is desired it is insufficient for the manager to simply tell people what to do. Conversations will be required to get people to understand the why behind good performance. People need to understand how their daily performance is related to the success of the plan.
Consider the staff meeting where the time is filled with individual reports as to the issues they’re facing. While this is necessary, it is insufficient. These meetings provide the opportunities for the staff to ask questions, clarify ambiguous priorities, and better evaluate their efforts both collectively and individually against the plan. If the meeting’s leader truly understands the business plan, he or she is in a better position to coach or mentor workers’ performance. Each person’s individual definition of success needs to be in line with what the company needs. They need to be helped to understand that with every transaction they have the power to improve or diminish the value of the company’s brand. Then they need to understand exactly what that means to them on a behavioral level. If, in the staff meeting, a leader sees some people struggling to grasp what needs to be done, or that they lack the know how to do it well, there is an opportunity for follow up coaching. They are building performance management and the essence of performance evaluation into the routine operation of the employee’s work. This is essential to a tightly run, disciplined company.
All businesses have a plan for being successful. However, most can improve the way they prepare to work the plan to best effect. The solution is to not only build a plan but to disseminate it, discuss it for shared understanding, and then to manage individual performance against the plan. Deliberately tending to these issues gives real meaning to your performance management processes while going a long way to ensuring the success of your plan.
© 2009 – 2015, Daniel D. Elash, PhD. All rights reserved.