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Controlling the maelstrom

Too many organisational development initiatives blow out before they’ve had a chance to impact on anything. Ray McGrath, Execution Practice Leader at FranklinCovey (UK and Ireland), explains how to apply some key principles to start your next programme and keep it on track.

If you picked a handful of employees and asked them about the last important organisational development initiative in their company, chances are they’d be hard pressed to recall it. 

This is because organisational development programmes tend to launch well and then die, quietly over time, suffocated by the day-to-day activities that organisations get caught up in – what we refer to as the ‘whirlwind’. Controlling the whirlwind lies at the heart of successful organisational development and this article, with particular focus on the role of HR directors at the outset, will outline how this can be achieved. Let’s start with an essential strategic principle – that of focus. Unfortunately, we’ve found senior leaders’ inability to focus remains a problem of epidemic proportions and a key reason why organisation development programmes fail. It’s not that leaders don’t recognise focus, or the lack of it, as being an issue – they are simply hardwired to do more rather than less, particularly at times like now, when they can see an opportunity to capitalise on an upturn in the economy.

However, when it comes to organisational development, there’s no doubt that less is more. If an organisation focuses on two or even three goals beyond the day-to-day demands of the whirlwind, there’s a good chance it will be able to accomplish them. Conversely, an organisation that sets four to ten goals is unlikely to achieve more than one or two. To optimise their chances of success, organisations should aim to concentrate on one or two distinct goals. We highlight their prominence by referring to them as Wildly Important Goals (WIGs). As a result, the first key challenge for an HR director is curbing the natural instincts of their boardroom colleagues and emphasising the importance of focusing on only one or two WIGs. If they fail to achieve this, then their organisational development programme could well be doomed from day one.
Having convinced the leadership team that a sharper focus is required, hopefully the type of organisational development and its accompanying goals will be startlingly obvious. However, sometimes the choice can prove difficult and it’s in these cases that the HR director can use his or her neutral, organisation-wide perspective to aid the decision-making. What is noteworthy is that almost every organisational development programme originates from one of three areas, and an initial outline of these to the leadership team can help to narrow the options: Financial – surprisingly, fewer than a third of organisations choose a financial WIG as their first priority, even though financial results are almost always among the desired outcomes. Operational – most leadership teams focus here initially with their goals often relating to key operational measures such as production, quality improvements, increased market share or expansion into new areas. Customer satisfaction – unlike financial and operational WIGs, these measures depend on the perception of the customer or service user. They focus on closing the gap between the current level of performance and the level that represents excellence.

While still linked to one of these three areas, a WIG can also originate from within the whirlwind or from outside it. If it’s coming from within, it could either be something so badly broken that it has to be fixed or a key element of your value proposition that isn’t being delivered. Alternatively, it could be an area which is already performing well and where leveraging this strength could have a significant impact. Outside the whirlwind, the choices tend to be about re-positioning the organisation strategically, for example launching a new product or service to counter a competitive threat or seize an opportunity. Put simply, a WIG has to be a goal that will make the biggest difference so, when you are trying to identify them, the best question to ask is; “if every other area of our operation remained at its current level of performance, what is the one area where change would have the greatest impact?” When presented in those terms, it makes it much easier to cut through the confusion and choose the right WIG.

Having said that, selecting a high-level organisational development goal can be like buying a pair of shoes. You have to walk around in them for a while before deciding if they feel right. So, HR directors shouldn’t force the leadership team to decide too quickly – they are facing a very serious commitment. Instead, allow them to select the WIG that seems right and let them walk around in it as they develop supporting goals to ensure its achievement. If it doesn’t feel right, they need to select an alternative. Once defined by the senior leaders, the best way to roll out the organisation development programme is to allow leaders at every level to define supporting WIGs (battles that will win the war) specifically for their teams. As well as leveraging the knowledge of the individual leaders, this approach creates greater engagement. Away from the boardroom, HR will also have its own supporting WIGs which may relate to the provision of training, recruiting fresh talent or reinforcing values and it is vital these don’t get forgotten. Senior leaders should never dictate these lower level WIGs but they should retain the right to veto them if they feel the battles chosen are not going to win the war. They should also ensure that every WIG contains a clearly measurable result, as well as a date by which that result must be achieved. After all, if a goal is wildly important a team should be able to tell if it has achieved it or not.

In terms of balancing time, at least 80 percent of an organisation’s time and energy should continue to be spent sustaining or incrementally improving the whirlwind, but the closer this figure gets to 100 percent, the greater the risk of the organisational development programme failing through a lack of focus. While focusing on the wildly important is the number one discipline when it comes to executing an organisational development programme, there are three other principles that have been found to be critical. The second relates to effective use of measures and the introduction of a set of lead measures that predict progress towards achieving the goal – a lag measure – and enable the organisation or a team to adapt its tactics, thus providing essential leverage to give it the best chance of attaining its desired outcome. For example, when applying this to the concept of losing weight, the lag measure may be pounds lost but the lead measures may be daily calorie intake or the number of hours of exercise per week.

The third discipline of execution is to keep a compelling scoreboard that teams can relate to as they strive to achieve their lower-ranking WIGs. Teams play differently when they are keeping score and the kind of scorecard that will drive the highest levels of engagement will be one that is designed solely for (and often by) the players. This scoreboard matters because if it isn’t clear, there’s a risk that the game you want people to play will be abandoned in the whirlwind of other activities. Additionally, if a team doesn’t know whether or not it is winning the game, it is probably on its way to losing. Last, but by no means least, is the discipline of accountability and the understanding that unless people hold each other accountable, the goal naturally disintegrates in the whirlwind.

What we call the ‘cadence of accountability’ is a rhythm of regular and frequent meetings of all teams involved in the organisational development programme. These meetings need to happen at least weekly and ideally last no more than 30 minutes. In that time, team members hold each other accountable for producing results and agree on-going actions that will have the greatest impact. Without this rhythmic accountability, commitment will break down and momentum is soon lost. Once this happens, it’s an uphill struggle to get things back on track.

While every organisation is different, the relevance of the principle-based disciplines outlined above remains constant and they’ve enabled thousands of organisations to develop successfully. As with organisational values, principles are closely linked to HR and should prove a powerful force for learning and motivation as they are applied by leaders and teams at all levels. HR directors and managers need to keep an eagle eye on proceedings to ensure leaders, particularly those at the very top, exhibit role model behaviour and don’t lose their new-found, laser-like focus. When you consider the pitfalls associated with an organisational development programme and the threats posed by the never-ceasing whirlwind, it’s no wonder so many fail. But I hope this article has shown how, with focus and discipline, an organisation can control the maelstrom and achieve success. Ironically, once the organisational goal has been achieved it should be allowed to be drawn into the whirlwind and become part of the day-to-day operations, leaving the organisation free to set and pursue its next Wildly Important Goals.

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