Don’t confuse communicating with generating commitment

Town halls, road shows, all-hands meetings, and webinars are all popular vehicles for spreading the word and gaining buy-in once the strategic plan has been crafted. Most senior executives will tout these communication efforts as a critical step in helping the organization understand what the strategy means, and what role each person plays in bringing it to fruition.

But while these types of events can generate a significant amount of energy and excitement, they also contain pitfalls that can lead to cynicism rather than commitment.

One of these pitfalls is the mistaken belief that staff are empty vessels, just waiting for the word from above about where the company is headed and what they should be doing to help it get there.

Far from being empty, people are already full. Full with frustrations and disappointments about what executives have said they were going to do in the past and what they actually did. Full from promises made and not kept, and full from accepting requests to get involved in a company strategy and then being ignored when times got tough.

Employees who have been around have little time— or tolerance — for fanfare and hype. What employees want to know is that their bosses understand, and are committed to addressing, the challenges they face in putting a strategy in place.

Take three real examples:

  • In one of the organizations I supported, employees complained that a certain supervisor was a tyrant. However, management didn’t listen. Nothing was done and no one held that person accountable for not demonstrating the values that the senior team were promoting.
  • In another organization, employees expressed frustration that the systems that they had to work with were broken and inadequate, but management seem to ignore the impact that this had on the team, and they didn’t manage the situation or make the proper investment to set things right.
  • I have seen many instances in which employees were caught in the crossfire of feuding bosses, and yet the senior leaders of the company left them to their warring factions instead of intervening and letting everyone know that political gamesmanship won’t be tolerated.

Only by listening to what the employees are saying, with both their words and behaviors, will leaders become aware of and able to address the issues that are preventing them from embracing the strategic objectives management is asking them to pursue. When this type of listening happens, and action is taken, commitment to the strategic plan follows suit.

Like strategy – town halls, road shows, all-hands meetings, and webinars will only be as effective as the environment and atmosphere inside of which they are conducted. If senior management has a reputation for being credible, competent, courageous – specifically open to hearing the truth and dealing with the tough things heads-on and caring, people will wholeheartedly get on board. But if not, then no amount of fanfare and hype will suffice.


Are you making a difference in meetings and conversations?

Two of the biggest complaints I often hear in organizations are:

  • “Our meetings are not productive”
  • “We have too many meetings”

The irony is that in many – perhaps in most – cases the biggest complainers are also the ones who are the biggest creators and perpetrators of this problem.

I was facilitating a strategy creation meeting for a global technology company with 30 of the top leaders and managers of a service department that was going through significant change.

People had traveled from all corners of the world to attend this four-day meeting. Needless to say, this was a critical meeting at a critical juncture for the department as they defined their long-term vision and strategy, as well as their short-term priorities and initiatives.

As with most strategy creation sessions, the debate was dynamic and lively. We moved from breakout discussions to collective debates, illustrating ideas and positions on white boards, and overall people felt passionate about the topics.

There were, however, around 5-6 leaders/managers who didn’t engage very much. They sat at their tables, computers open, heads down attending to email. From time-to-time, they lifted their heads to listen to the debate only to return to their busy work soon after.

When asked numerous times to close laptops and put away their mobile phones their response was either denial, stating that they were “fully engaged in the debate” or they would close their screens for a few minutes only to open them and continue their delinquent activities soon after.

I facilitate and attend a lot of meetings and unfortunately, I see this behavior pervasively.

What a waste of time and money! To have traveled all that way and then instead of completely immersing themselves in the conversation, making a difference and collaborating with colleagues to shape the future and destiny of the organization, to spend most of the time doing the same mundane things that they could have stayed home to do. What a rip-off and missed opportunity for them, their teammates and the company!

And, even if you didn’t travel at all; even if you just walked a few paces from another office, it is still unacceptable to sit in such an important meeting, that requires everyone’s undivided attention and not contribute in the way you can.

Let’s be honest – you can’t make a difference if you are not fully engaged in the conversation. Especially in a strategy creation type of a meeting.

So, to all those who claim that they can fully engage in, and contribute to meetings while doing email, or scheduling other parallel calls and meetings and then going in-and-out of the meeting to attend to these, I say

“Stop kidding yourselves!”

It’s not that everyone in the meeting has to talk. In fact, in the meeting described above, like in many meetings, probably 50-60% of the participants actually talked. However, at least 80% of the people were fully present and engaged. They were listening actively and attentively, nodding their heads, raising their hands when we were asking for alignment and moving around the room with the debate, to and from the breakout sessions and whiteboards without missing a beat. It was clear to everyone that their attendance and presence at the meeting, no matter how quiet, was powerful and made a difference.

I am confident that these people will leave the meeting clear about the outcomes and how the team derived them, and fully aligned and on board to own and drive the next steps. I am not so sure about those who were not all there.

The punch line for me is: Multitasking is a myth! If you want your meetings to be productive make sure that everyone (and I mean everyone) in the meeting is off their computers and phones and fully engaged in the conversation the entire time.

And, if you make sure that all your meetings are productive, I promise you that people won’t feel like there are too many meetings. In fact, they will start looking forward to productive meetings that move things forward and make a difference!

Don’t confuse ‘consensus’ with ‘alignment’

In the eyes of many leaders, the ultimate “buy-in” prize for a strategic plan is reaching consensus.

The belief behind this myth is that as long as everyone feels pretty good about the plan, and has no strong objections, that’s about the best that can be hoped for, especially in a large and diverse system.

But the problem with driving toward consensus is that it requires settling for the lowest common denominator everyone can agree with, rather than striving for solutions that challenge current thinking.

In order to tick the box of consensus, leaders don’t need to have the tough conversations. They don’t have to deal with conducting a dialogue that transforms diverse opinions and views into a single genuine committed direction. I have written several times about how agreeing to disagree is unacceptable and a cop out. Well, when the aim is a consensus there is ample tolerance for agreeing to disagree.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said it quite elegantly:

To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead“.

A consensus is way too low of a bar for the fulfillment of any strategic plan that requires substantive organizational commitment and change. It leads to compliance at best.

To generate real commitment, executives need to set the bar at a much higher level; they need to generate Alignment.

‘Alignment’ is very different than ‘Consensus’. To reach alignment leaders actually have to put people’s concerns, doubts, uncertainties, and watercooler conversations on the table so they can be heard and dealt with in the most open, honest, authentic and productive way.

People hold on to their positions and opinions when they don’t trust their teammates to genuinely listen and hear their views and contributions and when they don’t trust that their colleagues will be open to new ideas and directions. When people don’t trust the conversation they tend to be more guarded, defensive and argumentative rather than open and accepting of other’s views. Overall, they tend to listen less and talk more.

But, when the conversation is authentic and open, people are much more inclined to change their minds and trust the collective wisdom of the team. In this conversation, people build on each other rather than combat each other. As a result, the team can reach a much bolder conclusion and decision much faster. This doesn’t only lead to a higher level of clarity of direction, it also takes the team unity and sense of being “in this together” to a higher level.

True alignment is achieved when people leave the strategy discussions fully on board with whatever decision the group has reached, with no “Yes, but,” “Plan B,” no pocket vetoes, and no reservations about fully investing themselves in pursuing the agreed upon direction – as their own.

If you want to drive conversations for alignment, here are a few practical guidelines:

  1. Listen, listen, listen to each other! At all times – one person speaks and everyone else listens.
  2. Always build upon other’s ideas. Don’t tear down other’s ideas. Find the common ground. Use the “Yes, and…” versus “Yes, but…”
  3. Don’t merely highlight or point out the dilemmas. Take a stand. Enroll others and be open to being enrolled by others. Remember, there are no right answers. Leadership is about making choices, taking a stand, enrolling each other and being responsible for these choices and stands.
  4. Make sure first that everyone is aligned on the essence. If that is not the case, continue the dialogue, don’t get stuck on articulation or wording preferences. In these cases trust the collective wisdom.

Like many other powerful conversations, there is an art and science aspects to the alignment conversation.

If you take it on you may encounter messy moments, you may even get lost in the debate and have to find your way back. However, if you have the courage and determination to keep pushing forward, never receding back to familiar, easy and safe grounds, you will be able to generate results and a team spirit that is beyond your wildest expectations.

Try it out…

Stop trying to predict the future!

Every year, executives around the world go through the customary tradition known as ‘strategic planning’. They emerge from days or weeks of meetings with a sacred document that — if adhered to — will increase their sales, make their services shine, engage their staff and secure their future. Well, that’s the story they tell us in business school anyway.

But unfortunately – as Professor Robert Kaplan of the Harvard Business School and his associate, David Norton of the Balanced Scorecard Collaborative tell us – as much as 90 percent of all corporate strategies fall short of their stated objectives.

From my many years of global experience, helping executive teams generate a clear and compelling direction for their organizations, I have observed several key misunderstandings and myths that lead to wishful, wasteful, or less-than-worthwhile strategic planning efforts and outcomes.

One of the biggest myths is that in order to create an effective and relevant strategy you have to be able to accurately predict the future in terms of market, technology and/or consumer trends. Many executives seem to believe this.

But, nothing could be further from the truth. In today’s rapidly changing technological, consumption, and economic environments, no one has a crystal ball, and no one knows what the future will bring.

In the last few years, we have probably seen more examples than ever before of the predictable not materializing, and the unpredictable becoming reality.

In today’s world, it’s often the new, unknown, small players that burst into the market unexpectedly and overnight they dictate new consumption and business trends, and how we live our lives. Take as an example the likes of Uber, Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Paypal and many other ‘use-to-be startups’.

So, any attempts to predict the future could easily be misleading and lead to misjudgment and failure.

Unfortunately, many executives still believe that there is a “right” strategy for their organization and their job is to identify and capture it. They believe that if you get the content of your strategy right, the success of that strategy is a foregone conclusion. They assume that the substance of the strategy must be composed of realistic objectives based on the most accurate and valid data and information. In many organizations, this belief leads to “analysis paralysis”.

Those who try and get the future right typically do so by analyzing the past. They create their strategic plans by looking at their rearview mirror. They determine their future goals by benchmarking and analyzing their own, as well as others’, historical performance and trends. That often leads to merely repeating past cycles and trends.

In addition, what goes unrecognized and unaddressed is that no strategy can ever be right or reasonable enough to account for all the events that might emerge on the road to its fulfillment. Therefore, perfect content, as a path to success, is an illusion and leads to increased investment of resources in the pursuit of the one true strategy that will win the day.

In reality, any strategy is only as good as people’s ownership and commitment to its fulfillment.

Even the most accurate and well-crafted plan will fail if people don’t own it and take accountability for delivering it. Therefore, you are better off having 100% ownership for a strategy that is 80% accurate, then have less than 80% ownership for a strategy that is 100% accurate.

Of course, you need a healthy understanding and respect for past and present trends. I  believe there is plenty of experience, expertise and smarts in most organizations. However, as Alan Kay, ex-Apple Fellow, said,

The only way to predict the future is to create it“.

The most powerful strategies are informed by the past, but influenced and driven by future thinking. This means a team envisions the future, takes a stand, and commits to a direction and destination as a responsible, plausible, and a calculated risk. Then everyone commits to that destination – not because it is perfectly accurate, but because they believe it is the right future to pursue.

The process of creating a powerful and effective strategic plan should not be an accounting and forecasting exercise that is informed by some leadership, but rather the opposite – a leadership exercise that is informed by some accounting and forecasting. It requires not a calculator, but the courage and conviction to inspire everyone to be their best and get on the same page.

As Academy Award-winning director Francis Ford Coppola famously said:

 “The first step in making a great movie is getting everyone involved to be making the same movie.”