It’s clearer at the top (Survey Insights Part 1)

NOTE: This is the first in a series of insight pieces drawn from the Measure of Success Alignment Survey (Summer 2013). We will be sharing others over the coming weeks and months. 

You can envision the metaphor: a mountaintop whose snowy peak juts above the cloud line. From base camp, the summit is shrouded, but we all know it is up there somewhere. The journey to the top will take some skillful navigation through cloud and fog. As you burst through the other side of the clouds en route to the summit, it all becomes crystal clear.

Not surprisingly, our survey revealed that those in executive positions report the highest instance of clarity with respect to the organization’s ultimate direction. Fully 60% selected “it’s tattooed on the inside of my eyelids” to the question “how easily can you relay the spirit of the organization’s stated mission?”

Senior management’s eyelids are unblemished by tattoos, and this group reported lower levels of clarity than middle managers. Two in three of this latter group said they would be “pretty close.”

At the lower levels of the organization, almost 40% of those “well down the org chart” confessed that the overall direction was not at all clear. Across all levels of the organization, comparatively fewer people said they would “have to check,” which could suggest that the spirit of the orientation is seen as more important than the actual wording of the formal policy statements (or tattoos).

Insight #1 Chart 1

A few things jumped out at us after looking at these results:

1 – Why is it clearer at the top?

Picture your boss (or even better, your boss’ boss) coming by and asking if you needed any clarification on organizational direction. The path of least resistance and minimal downside is to answer: “No worries here, Boss. I get it.” The dynamic is often such that suggesting that you are not clear poses risks in two areas: (1) you are seen as simply not “getting it,” and (2) you are forced to overtly challenge longstanding assumptions. For those with even a modicum of political savvy, neither is a smart move.

2 – For overall direction, is “pretty close” close enough?

The overall direction of the organization comes from a collection of efforts rather than from a pithy bumper sticker statement or rigourous “how-to” protocol. Since so few people needed “to check,” the uncertainty for overall priorities appear to stem from conflicting agendas rather than from not being able to recall. The group that we surveyed contained capable and employable people who can fully contribute to an organization’s success. This was not a group of people screaming: “Just tell me what to do!”

3 – Are the trade-offs apparent outside the trenches?

One of the classic trade-offs in servicing clients is: do we give people what they want or what they need? Obviously the salesperson’s role is to bridge those worlds, but what if we can’t do both? If we are in the business of exceeding customers expectations and our customers have unreasonable expectations (or are not willing to pay to have their expectations exceeded) the objective becomes untenable. One may not see this disconnect from the heights of the executive suites.

We isolated some implications from these areas of misalignment (This is the “so what?” part.)

For Collaboration with External Stakeholders:

If the overall aims of the organization are overly fuzzy, so will the means to achieve them. Establishing the connections that drive performance is vital, otherwise in the spirit of reaching a workable solution with an external partner, we risk unknowingly compromising on something that is fundamentally important. Often in such collaborations, something has to give. Let’s make sure it’s not a fundamental attribute of performance.

For Internal Collaboration:

In working across divisions, the nuances of what takes priority can get lost when  “everything is mission critical” and there is no time to think. Subtle differences in focus on what it takes to be successful can cause drag on performance. To a large extent, this drag is avoidable if we can get clear on what really drives the organization’s success.

For Poised-for-Growth Organizations:

New organizations work extremely hard to build the foundation for their success. This is largely through securing investors. Just like a strong foundation helps to support a structure, it is easier to adjust the structure before the building gets to high. Before an organization has a chance to necessarily split the ranks too much (Executive Leadership, Senior Managers, Middle Managers, etc.) there is a unique opportunity to clarify the direction and the spirit of performance. This can be framed as follows: “We all want fantastic business/financial success. What do we think we have to do to achieve that?”

Rather than an eyelid tattoo, we can create a shared focus for the talents and energies of those driving your success.

Click here for more information on this survey and the services we provide.