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Are you balancing the long term and short term?

Most teams and companies do a poor job balancing the short term and long term focus. I see this without exception in most sectors and regions.

People say all the right things about how important it is to focus on the long term. They say things like: “Markets are changing,” “Customers are asking to consume new things in new ways,” “Technologies have advanced and it requires us to advance too,” and “We need to incubate new ideas and the next generation’s products and services.”

They even say things like: “We need to invest in order to make money and grow,” “We need to be prepared to sacrifice some of our short-term in order to gain the benefits of the long-term,” and the ultimate:  “Our future success depends on it.”

However, in reality, they manage things in a very short-term perspective, focus, thinking, and mindset. Furthermore, they judge and rate the health and success of their business based on short-term performance, events, and results and they react to circumstances based on short-term successes or failures.

Leaders and managers often tell me things like: “We say we should be willing to sacrifice our short-term for our long-term, but instead we keep sacrificing our long-term for our short-term.”

For example, if they had a bad month in terms of performance, they stop longer-term initiatives or put them on alert or hold, and they hesitate to invest in and green-light new initiatives. If they had a good month, they tend to let things continue.

The whole point of having a vision and strategy is to provide teams with a framework and context for thinking about the longer-term future of their business. A good strategy for the future should make people comfortable about setting priorities, as well as making choices, decisions, and tradeoffs in the short-term.

An effective strategy also provides teams and leaders with the courage and confidence to invest in a desirable future that they have outlined and articulated in advance, even when, perhaps especially when they have some turbulence and inconsistencies in their short-term performance.

However, it seems that even teams and companies who have a sound strategy have a tough time trusting it, relying on it, and using it to empower themselves to better juggle their long-term and short-term initiatives.

How is your team doing in this regard?

Do you have the conditions to take your team to the next level?

When an organization or team wants to generate a bolder and more compelling future and strategy, and rapidly and powerfully take its game to the next level it has to address two dimensions: the “content” associated with the future or strategy, and the “context” associated with the future or strategy.

The content means making sure that there is a clear, precise, robust and well-structured game plan, which for most teams is in the form of a strategy or set of objectives. The leaders must ensure that everyone on the team understands the strategy in the same way.

In so many organizations and teams this seemingly simple step is not achieved in a powerful and effective way. Typically the strategy is too high level, vague or conceptual, and different team members have different ideas, interpretations, agendas and priorities about the direction, methodology and destination.

I started working with a new division of well known successful global telecommunication organization. As part of learning about this division I set up interviews with all the senior executives and a hand full of managers that report to them. One of my interview questions was “Do you have a clear vision and strategy that everyone understands, is aligned with, owns and works passionately together toward?

Most people answered “No!” And, many added with frustration or discouragement “It’s really hard to get alignment. We sit in meetings discussing our strategy about specific initiatives. We leave the meeting thinking we have agreement and then everyone goes off to their area and does what they want anyway.”

Some leaders said “Yes!” but when I asked them to elaborate on the vision or strategy, their description was either extremely watered down and high-level or there were significant discrepancies between people’s descriptions on key areas.

I see this dynamic in many successful teams and organizations.

The context means making sure there is a team dynamic – some refer to it as: culture, environment or mindset – in which everyone can truly be open, honest, authentic and courageous, and an environment in which people genuinely feel “in this together”, even if they don’t all report to the same boss, which is the case in any matrix management environment; an environment in which everyone is excited about the game and feels genuine ownership commitment and accountability toward the bigger success.

In most teams, including the most successful ones, most people feel the exact opposite way. They describe the dynamic of team communication as more cautious, calculated, politically correct and held back. Even those who feel that the team can discuss everything in an open and honest manner often add the caveat “discussions are not effective and they frequently don’t lead to concrete decisions that everyone fully own and is aligned behind.” Or “when we do make decisions we don’t track them and follow through.” These symptoms are always lagging indicators of lack of authentic ownership in the first place.

Addressing the content alone will at best produce a dynamic of unenthusiastic compliance. But often it produces frustrations, fear and resignation. This will be insufficient for achieving a new, more powerful game.

I see so many managers who ignore or are blind to the importance of building a strong context in their team. They manage their teams in a command-control style believing that if they oversee all the details rigorously they’ll eliminate the likelihood of shortfalls and ensure all the key milestones are met. This behavior comes from a paradigm of “I don’t trust my people to own the game and do whatever is needed to ensure success” And, these managers are right! Their behavior is self-fulfilling. It causes people to operate in a mode of fear, resentment and compliance. People do the minimum to get the job done but they don’t apply half their passion, commitment or resourcefulness to the game.

Attending to the context alone will also not sustain because un-channeled enthusiasm will not be productive over time. When people will realize that progress and results are not being achieved they’ll quickly become discouraged and cynical.

I worked with a general manager who was a great guy. He had great character, empathy and integrity. When he stood in front of the troops he always motivated everyone. In short, everyone loved him. But, he wasn’t able to translate his vision into action and results. So, he started to lose his credibility. After a while, people started to roll their eyes when he spoke and it wasn’t long before he was let go.

So, if you want to elevate your team to the next level you have to address both the “content” and “context” aspects associated with the new future direction or strategy you want to bring about.

Who is creating and owning your strategy?

Much of management literature on leadership gives executives wrong ideas about how to generate alignment and ownership in their teams. When the leader believes his role is to be lead visionary at the company, he can take that to its logical excess: feeling responsible for coming up with all the key details of the strategy. But that often means the leader will exclude others from shaping the strategy without even noticing it. That will discourage people from embracing the strategy and produce mere compliance.

Leaders often believe that too many participants in the strategy planning process will prolong the process and dilute the clarity, validity, and relevance of the work product. Therefore, they put the creation of the strategy in the hands of a trusted few (often the strategy group or a selected group of confidants), and share the final product with those charged with execution once it is complete or nears completion.

The CEO of one of the firms we worked with, for example, believed the optimal size group should be the heads of his five business lines, and that the heads of the support functions should be excluded. His firm belief was that the HR, IT, Finance and Legal department managers would have little to offer in the strategy conversation, and in fact would impede progress. Over time, however, he became frustrated that these managers were executing the strategy too slowly.

This CEO’s attitude is quite common. Executives who think that way fail to realize the downside of keeping strategy development an exclusive process. The faster the CEO’s chosen leaders generate the content of the strategy, the slower they will generate genuine ownership and accountability within the company’s managers and employees for its fulfillment. In addition, I have seen many times leaders who are excluded from the strategy creation process feeling disrespected, and as a result finding it hard to support their colleagues’ decisions. Even if they don’t express these sentiments they view the strategy as not “their’s.”

Furthermore, a tightly controlled strategy process discounts the experience and expertise these senior professionals could offer to ensure the content of the strategy passes the litmus tests of validity and relevance across the broadest possible spectrum of constituents.

The CEO mentioned above added the heads of the support functions to his strategy-development team after realizing that they could make significant contributions. That sent a message to the organization that people were important and that the strategy development process was becoming more inclusive.

Excluding a number of senior executives from strategy development also undermines the ability of the leadership team as a whole to operate as a cohesive team with a shared purpose. When rallying the troops senior leaders may say the politically-correct things, however people will see through their lack of sincerity and courage. As a result managers and employees will hold back their commitment and play the risk-averse game. In turn, that will slow down the pace of strategy adoption and execution.

When consultants are brought in to create or direct the content of the strategy, no matter how sound they may make it, the probability that people will relate to the strategy as “theirs” and not “ours” is even higher. In fact, I have seen many instances in which, months or even years into the execution of a strategy, it is still referred to as the “X Consulting Firm’s” strategy. We’re not advocating the exclusion of consultants if they are needed. But giving consultants the exclusive task of creating the content will make it difficult for others (be more specific that “others”)  to own it and commit to it.

Any strategy is only as strong as people’s relationship with it. I have seen small leadership teams that created ineffective strategies that people didn’t rally behind and large leadership teams that created powerful strategies that everyone rallied around with passion. The difference was not the number of people participating in the process. It was having the right people around the table who know how to have a robust conversation that resulted in 100% alignment and ownership across the board.

In one of my future blogs I will elaborate more on how to conduct a powerful strategic planning conversation that achieves 100% clarity, alignment and ownership, no matter how many people participate in the discussion.

Stay Tuned…