I was coaching the marketing department of a global technology company in coming up with its strategic plan. They had identified their key strategic areas and were working on articulating the outcomes they wanted to achieve in each area. However, in several of the areas, instead of coming up with clear end results, they identified activities.
For example, instead of promising to grow the number of customers and potential customers who are signed up, and actively contributing to their user-group community to a specific number, they promised to increase the number of events in which they promoted the community. Instead of promising to increase the number of high-end industry events they are invited to speak at to a specific number, they promised to increase the number of training classes they would offer to train people to speak. And, instead of promising to be recognized by the key relevant CEOs as one of the top thought-leaders in their field, they promised to drive a vast list of PR and social media activities including the number of followers on Twitter and LinkedIn, the number of press and analyst briefings and more.
Whilst all these activities are important as part of the means to get to their desired end, they are just that – the means, not the end itself.
This mindset and approach of focusing on the activities that would achieve the results, rather than on the results themselves is very common in organizations. The explanation I often get to this is something to the effect of “We can’t control the results. We can only control our activities…”
The problem with the activity-based approach is that it creates a lot of busyness, but after a while, people tend to lose track of what all the busyness is for in the first place. In fact, after a while, people can’t tell the difference between activities and results.
In addition, the focus on the means (activities) versus the end (results) hinders the ability of the team to assess the effectiveness of the activities and if they are in fact achieving the results, and make any necessary changes. Most organizations are good at adding activities, but they are not good at stopping them.
Lastly, the activity-based approach undermines the team’s culture of accountability. Real accountability is always for clear results. It promotes a mindset of overcoming any obstacles. The activity-based approach tolerates and nurtures a culture of circumstance limitations, self-protection and excuses.
At first, I thought that the activities-based approach is more common when outlining a strategy for more subjective business areas like “brand awareness”, “team culture” and “customer satisfaction”. However, my experience has shown me that it is often the same when dealing with the most objective areas such as: “revenues”, “profitability” and “market share”.
In the world of strategy, there seem to be two schools of thought:
“Promise your desired results and then put the activities in place to fulfill them.”
“Promise the activities that you assume and hope will fulfill your desired results.”
Unfortunately, the second approach seems to be much more prevalent, most of the time in most organizations.
Why is this the case?
My favorite explanation is: It is much easier and safer to promise activities than results. Less risk and responsibility. Less need to challenge the status quo, think outside the box and come up with new ways to do things. And, you are off the hook for the most important piece – the actual outcome!
Another popular excuse that people give for focusing on activities and not results is: “You can’t measure areas such as “brand recognition”, “team culture” and “customer satisfaction”.
But, that is not true! You can measure anything that is important for you. You just need to understand that there are no right or wrong, perfect, and/or factual measures. When it comes to measures you need to choose something that is meaningful to you and then take ownership of it.
In my work with organizations, especially when creating bold future-based strategies teams often create new metrics for new areas they want to take on. It is actually quite refreshing to think differently about new areas, rather than trying to force old metrics on them.
To conclude, in today’s world where opportunities are abundant, resources are scarce, competition is fierce and everyone is looking for ways to scale and do more with less, you can’t afford to waste time and cycles on activities that may or may not deliver the results you want.
Your job as a leader is not to track and report on activities. It is to cause results.
So, if you are not going to promise to cause specific results, don’t promise anything at all!