The Importance of Aligning Strategic Priorities

Few people would disagree that if you employ people and pay them to do some work in your business, you want that work to be aligned with your desired outcomes. But why is it that some businesses struggle to make those alignments work?

Strategic priorities should be wedded to a business’s aspirations, but often become detached from practicalities. So if we talk about the vision, mission or ambitions of the business, it’s really a dialogue between the people who own the business and the people who run it (and they may be the same people in partnership organisations). Having a conversation amongst the group about the ultimate ambition of the business and what it is trying to achieve is crucial.

The priorities should be falling out of conversations like these. So even as part of your basic business planning, when setting your vision and mission you need to be thinking about strategic goals; how they fit, and how they all hang together.

But defining the vision and mission is not always easy, either – often it ends up being wordy, or uninspiring. Or inspiring, but not very realistic. And when a business goes through the process of trying to anchor its strategic priorities against a weak vision or mission, that compounds the challenge.

For example, if the ultimate ambition is to leave behind a business that’s sustainable enough for someone to inherit, the starting point is to identify what this is going to mean. The incumbent isn’t the same person and doesn’t necessarily have the same skills. It could fail unless it’s been built to the point where it can, in many ways, run itself.

But connecting the ultimate aspiration of what you’re trying to do with your business, with something quite specific, can be hard for people, because they’re typically working ‘in’ rather than ‘on’ their business.

Strategic priorities also change because conditions change, or you realise you’ve started something that isn’t working. So when it comes to aligning organisational effort with those two factors, you’ve either got something that’s hard to define in the first place (and people don’t necessarily take the time to walk that through), or/and something that’s changeable. And many businesses are not in the rhythm of making sure they capture that change and again, wed it to how they organise people.

Do we care too much about feelings?

We’re also quite resistant to changing the way that we organise people, as we can be overly sensitive to the attachment people have to their line manager structure; who they work for, which team they’re in, etc. This is especially true in organisations where identity is derived from the team rather than the organisation as a whole.

When we start to reorganise our strategic priorities, that has an impact on how people show up day to day, because they might now be in a different team and a different structure. Business leaders are sensitive to that, but may be overly sensitive to the cost to the business overall, at the expense of business performance.

We’ve seen that in our client work at Blackmore Four where we’ve redesigned the leadership structure, and, in doing so, have redefined how things are structured throughout the business. Being overly sensitive to how people feel can result in delays in aligning strategic priorities, because too much time is taken to persuade employees of the benefits..

Some people embrace change, but others might say ‘I come to work here because I like my team. I like how I work, I like what I’m doing.’ So how does a business address this?

Businesses tend to prioritise and focus on the smoothness of the change, because people like what they like and what they know. But that isn’t necessarily the building block of achieving what you’ve set out to achieve. If your number one priority in the way you run your business is that you’re not upsetting people, then you have to accept that you will probably achieve that to the detriment of what the business is actually there for.

It might be perceived as hard, or cold, but businesses aren’t created for the sole purpose of staff to have fun. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aiming to create workplaces where people want to work, do well and enjoy themselves in the process. But the starting point can’t be based around a model of everything the businesses does being accepted by the employee group. Essentially, employees come to work to achieve a set of goals prioritised by the people who own the business, not the people who turn up to do their jobs for the business.

But you do need to work on how to create interesting, exciting work for people that delivers value for shareholders. And that’s frequently a missing piece – leaders often don’t pay enough attention to staff being motivated by achievement. If you refer to McClelland’s Human Motivation Theory, many people are motivated by affiliation. Some people are motivated by power, but there’s a big group of us who are primarily motivated by achieving things.

So yes, people are motivated by a sense of belonging and affiliation. But while we might think that changing people’s teams has a dramatic impact on morale, in most cases, that’s actually less frequent or likely than people resigning, because they don’t care as much about the team as we thought they did. Or the line manager changes because someone’s moved on, so people are having to report to someone different anyway.

Rather than focusing on how to make change smoother for people, getting to the outcome we need is partly dependent on being very clear on why we’re setting up in this way, and appealing to people who can understand that and want to contribute. Whilst employees shouldn’t just be seen as replaceable resources, if you lose people who say, ‘That’s not how we’ve always done it. And I don’t really like that idea’, then they’re probably not the people you want to bring on that journey anyway.

Once the business has accepted that changes are necessary, what steps need to be taken next?

1.          Seek consensus

Take the time to be sure there is consistent understanding of priorities across the leadership group – the people who run the business and the people who own it. It’s hard to think of an example where that piece had been nailed down by the client before we started a programme of work with them! We often find that people’s understanding of the priorities are conflicting, or not even that well defined.

2.          Are you measuring the right things?

It’s all too easy to develop a set of set of metrics that assume what’s being measured is directly contributing to the aspiration. Without a consensus about priorities, leaders end up measuring the things they know they can, rather than those that will contribute to the goals.

3.          Analyse the approach

Explore the question, ‘Regardless of how the organisation looks today, what would you imagine the organisation needs to do to achieve its aspirations?’. If your goals centre around client number growth, client satisfaction, or expanding the set of services you can deliver to a client, those are three different things that all sound alike. But actually they each require a different approach because they are three distinctly different priorities which may need different activities and skills sets.

4.          Operational aspects

It’s important to complete an exercise not just around what appear to be the headline priorities, but also considerations around every operational aspect of your business. This can be done relatively quickly, without it being administratively burdensome. But if you don’t paint that picture of what the organisation will look like, then you will always be limited by incrementally moving your organisation from where it is today, to hopefully where it could be something that delivers your aspirations.

5.          The gap analysis

This produces a clearer map of what needs to happen to go from A to B. It defines the areas and opportunities to change, how quickly/easily that can be done, whether there are other dependencies, or can that change be done in isolation? Quick wins can be picked up in this way; it’s no different to any other change methodology in that sense – creating a reason for change, analysing and understanding the change journey, and then figuring out what can you achieve with relatively minimal resistance and good outcomes.

6.          Barriers

You need to look at what comes with barriers of resistance and how to tackle those in detail. You can look at dependencies, and start recognising what looks like a quick win but has a direct connection of dependency on something else, which isn’t really that easy to tackle. Sometimes it’s necessary to get our hands dirty on that issue, before we can tackle the ‘quick win’.

7.          Articulating the change

The up-front analysis is what aids the conversation with people to clearly articulate the reasons why change is needed. The conversation might go, ‘This is why it’s really useful for our business. We think it creates enjoyable, fun work for people but in a way that aligns with our client outcomes. Here’s some detail around things that are going be different. And here’s what we’re doing to ensure we, as individuals and as a group, benefit from that. As of this date, we now want you to do…’. There might be legal ramifications and a need to go through consultation. But there is a tendency to err on the side of trying to avoid that conversation, rather than actually just using it as a process.

8.          So who is doing it?

You need to make sure you’ve got the right people for the right roles, but you can’t do that unless you’re clear on which roles are on the hook for which priority. You need to decide which role you look to, to ensure that goal gets achieved, and who is the right person, with what skillset, attributes and personality, to make sure that happens. So, to recap, we would always start with the design of outcomes, look at how the organisation is structured, and then put the right people in the right role.

Should insights be sourced from beyond the leadership?

Companies that source wide opinions from employee groups often do it in the wrong way. A client we worked with was inclined to ask a lot of people for their opinions. The managing director said (quite rightly, in our view), ‘We’re not running a democracy. We’re not asking people to vote on the right way forward. Why do we think our employees know what the answer should be? We’ve not hired them to understand how to run the business, we’ve hired them to do business.

But it’s a careful balance. More leaders should be comfortable with and respectful of the fact that people in the business do know something about how it could operate more effectively. In that ‘what can we do differently to achieve our strategic priorities’ analysis, it’s important to have a representative voice. However, we need to select that voice in a very deliberate and intentional way – asking someone because they have expertise in a particular area, rather than surveying all employees.

What we typically find is that either companies don’t involve their staff members at all because they think they won’t know the answers, or they do an excess and run multiple focus groups and surveys.

Selecting the metrics to gauge progress

Metrics are part of the story, and some businesses want to make sure that any element of their business can be measured numerically through hard facts and data. But the reality is that some aspects do need to be measured by what you see and feel. If you’re working in the leadership team, a check and balance needs to be made to ensure what is felt and seen is articulated consistently, with genuine objectivity.

But how do you measure whether you’re making the right progress? The only reason you would look at reorganising your team, your employees, is if you think that their effort is not sufficiently aligned with what you‘re trying to achieve, and this is usually flagged up because you’re not achieving key objectives.

This is the point to start defining the things you want, then determining how you are going to see them. Some of it you can see through client satisfaction, where you would hope that both organisationally and procedurally, you’re putting in place things that help tell you whether your clients are satisfied or not. There are lots of different ways of doing that, but that’s got to be core to how you organise yourself.  And organising yourself is another point to make. That doesn’t just mean how the organisation structure is set up, but also procedurally, behaviourally, how do we organise ourselves in doing the work we have to do?

For example, if client satisfaction is a key part of what the business wants to become best known for, you have to weave that thread through everything you do. And then the measurement question is answered at the outset. You just have to make sure you follow up on it – that is something we sometimes assume too much that people do. But if you start a journey, saying ‘This is what we’re trying to achieve’, and then either change the way you work or structure your teams—resourcing differently for those outcomes—you have to have something in parallel that tells you whether those outcomes are being met or not. Otherwise, you’ve made the changes on good faith and optimism and then in 5 years’ time, you may or may not know whether you’ve made progress.

There needs to be some kind of reference, but not everything has to be a data point. If we take client satisfaction, for instance, you can conduct a survey. You can employ client listening, which is more interactive, or use somebody independent to ask questions around what clients are buying and what value they’re getting.

You could also perform that internally—if it’s done in a way that can be relatively standardised across the business—with a client relationship lead just having a conversation about the services they’re getting and how satisfied they are. It doesn’t have to be mechanical – it could be conversational; it could verbal and feedback-based. Another measure is to ask: of the clients that were with us 3 years ago, how many of them are still with us now? That’s always a good sign of satisfaction.

You don’t necessarily need to build a machine around gathering more data. You can just think about the vehicle you already have but make sure you’re paying attention to it.

The critical thing every leadership team should do

You have to look at every item on your list of strategic priorities and be able to say, ‘Who is accountable for making sure we achieve that?’. There has to be lead accountability. So if your priority is to increase client satisfaction, who personally has the ultimate responsibility for that? You have to be organised clearly enough to know that somebody, somewhere is going to really make that happen.

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Blackmore Four are an independent consulting company, offering specialist advice, leadership insight and tailored solutions to businesses looking to improve business performance. Our approach is based on a deep understanding of human behaviour at work and an ability to identify and address the specific leadership and organisational development needs of your business.

If you would like to talk to us about the ways that we can support you in assessing and developing the leadership capabilities in your business, contact us here or call 07734 920 222