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Take the best workers in any field. What do they do that makes them so successful? They understand what it takes to execute effectively, and then they do it.
When a product is delivered on time, the putt drops in the hole, the system boots up without a hitch, or the curtain drops on a brilliant performance, we marvel at how easy it looks. The reality is that effective execution is anything but easy. Behind the scenes is a means for delivering results that is both dynamic and pragmatic.
The key to profitable performance is largely dependent on the extent to which four business elements are aligned:
An understanding of the interdependencies of these business elements and the ability to adapt quickly and strategically to change are essential for success in the high-performance organization. When these four elements are in sync—when it all looks so easy—the likelihood for outstanding performance is increased.
A hallmark of an organization that aligns well is the ability to adapt and realign when there is a change. For example, a technology introduction could change a business process. A change in the process could change job responsibilities and skill requirements. The leadership must realign the organization not only at a process level but also at job, people and skill levels as well.
Take the economic downturn. Some organizations hunkered down, choosing to cut all nonessential spending as a way to maintain at least their level of profitability. Others have used this time to re-evaluate the way in which they do business to increase their overall efficiencies and improve performance and profitability.
Take, for example, a civil engineering firm tied closely to the home construction business. Rather than slashing their professional staff with the loss of revenue, leadership engaged the workforce in lean initiatives to reduce waste, customer-focused activities to improve the relationships, and business opportunities to increase their visibility. These initiatives have potential impact on top- and bottom-line results. In essence, this organization aligned the four elements to the economic situation.
Many organizations fall victim to alignment-performance pitfalls, particularly in periods of high stress or rapid change. Among them:
Developing the strategy and throwing it over the wall for implementation. Too often there is a tendency to think that once the strategy is developed, the only requirement for implementation is one of communication. Implementation is the real work—the continuous alignment and monitoring of the four key business elements.
Heads-down focus. Performance at an individual level is based on executing a series of critical tasks. However, without the bigger picture—a more strategic perspective—it is difficult, if not impossible, to understand how what you do impacts other elements in the system. A heads-down perspective limits the extent to which an individual will offer to improve a process because there is little appreciation beyond “just doing my job.”
Blaming the hired help. It is easy to blame people for poor execution. After all, they are the ones doing the work. Sometimes there are clear situations in which an individual is not a fit for the job or in which individuals need more training and development to be effective. However, what about situations where you have dedicated, hard-working people working with inefficient, bloated or cumbersome processes? This is a process problem, not a people problem. Or, what is the root cause when three individuals are responsible for the same task or balls are dropped because it is not clear who is responsible for what? This is a job definition issue, not a people issue.
Perpetuating the silo perspective. All too often leadership teams at functional and business levels tend to represent their interests as opposed to those of the larger organization. In high-performance organizations, the role of the leadership team is defined clearly along with clear accountabilities for overall execution and profitability, not just each person’s piece.
Micromanagement. When the spotlight is on improving performance, too many managers move in to tell how. Perhaps these managers’ hearts are in the right place— they want to make sure that things are done correctly—but their tendency is to direct as opposed to engage others. This is a great way to encourage people to withhold effort or take the slightest risk to solve problems or improve performance on their own and to build resentment among the staff, particularly the best and brightest who will flee when they find a better opportunity.
Ill-defined roles, responsibilities. The lack of clearly defined roles and responsibilities is often a major obstacle to profitable performance. This is particularly true when there are major organizational changes. Letting people figure this out for themselves can be counter-productive and is too important to leave to chance.
Want to improve profitable performance? Here are some things to consider:
Communicate and engage. Alignment is the bridge between strategy and execution. Communication is the mechanism by which alignment takes place. Communicate about the strategy. Communicate about changes and their potential impact on the elements of the organization. Engage employees in a discussion of their responsibilities, critical tasks and priorities. When there are changes, engage employees in a dialogue. You cannot over-communicate in these situations.
Sharpen the organization’s capability to listen, observe, learn and act. Seek input and recommendations from everyone in terms of what they see with customers, processes and inefficiencies. Think of this as the equivalent for what professional teams do when watching the films of their last game. They chart a course of action and execute it.
Look up and out as well as down. A strategic perspective is critical to improving performance and impacting profitability. Encourage people to think “how” and “why” as well as “what” when it comes to performance.
By staying away from the pitfalls and focusing on these recommendations, an organization can increase its alignment and, therefore, its performance and profitability.
Dr. Robert P. Hewes and Dr. Alan M. Patterson are with Camden Consulting Group. Hewes is a senior partner with oversight for leadership development and management training. Patterson is an executive coach and consultant with extensive experience in engineering and delivering talent management initiatives in areas like change management, leadership development and executive coaching services to senior executives in a wide range of industries.
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