Tag Archives: Alignment Survey 2013

Purpose revisited: looking at the “why? (Survey Insights Part 5)

Our Summer Survey revealed a potential problem that employees have in finding a sense of purpose in their work. This was spurred by the finding that while leadership feels the work provides opportunities to matter, employees don’t seem to find it.

Our previous post suggested that organizations could take some responsibility to be clearer about how they pursue economic success, including the forgoing of maximized returns in order to pursue something non-economic that matters. As an example of this latter point, consider Unilever CEO Paul Polman’s decision to forgo quarterly reporting claiming it distracted from long-term sustainable business activities. He explains his rationale here.

From an investor perspective, this money-where-your-mouth-is approach appears to be working: after a sudden dip 4 years ago right after the change, the stock price is back to pre-crash levels. So would an organization like this, with this kind of CEO, continue to thrive by attracting and retaining the right employees? The right customers? Time always tells, but right now, no one knows for sure. Perhaps, this consistency and clarity makes it easier for both employees and customers to know what to expect. The onus will be on all other actions and policies to align as much as possible with this obvious focus on sustainability. Maybe compensation incentives will tie to long-term results. In Seymour Schulich’s book Get Smarter, he counsels any organization to pay out bonuses 12 months hence. The message is we want you to stick around.

Simply because we see an organization as a collection of human beings, we will suggest that a good chunk of the “purpose” equation sits with the individual employee. What do you want out of this job? Your life? These are big questions and answers may take a lifetime of thought and reflection. When Simon Sinek roles out the golden circle and says, “Why are you doing what you are doing?” a reasonable response could be, “I am still figuring that out, but in the mean time, my situation is working just fine.”

We invite you to a dialogue on this journey of “figuring it out.”

Here is a recent anecdote to share:

“Since our last conversation, I had been thinking about where things fit in. As I was mulling it over, I had the opportunity to shadow one of the front-line workers in my organization. The organization is government funded and coordinates in-home health care services. The interaction that my colleague led was a wonderfully compassionate negotiation. A health-care professional guided a convalescing woman to determine the care that she needed, while being conscious that too much care was detrimental to recovery and any waste would impact resources available to another client/patient in this or a different community. All of a sudden, it lined up. It made me look and my job and ask, ‘How am I helping this to happen?’ I think that would be a good point of view for everyone in our organization to take.”

Please get in touch through e-mail or through our website with anecdotes that you can share.

Minds and Hearts: A Schulich Connection

This week, we were lucky enough to spend a morning interacting with others in the Schulich community. As alumni and faculty of the Schulich School of Business, it was novel to find ourselves at Sunnybrook Hospital, home of the Schulich Heart Centre.

The discussion that we lead was under the admittedly wide banner of commercializing medical technology. The impetus for these monthly forums is to connect the business school and medical practitioners to enable good ideas to become feasible in a commercial forum. Apparently, Seymour himself had a hand in this collaboration!

Consistent with our survey results from this past summer, we spent some time discussing the importance of “what’s in it for you” (WIIFY is the less celebrated cousin of persuasive communication’s “What is in it for me?/WIIFM”). Our premise for the self-centred look is reasoned: if you are going to put the work into, for example, developing a new medical device, the late night workbench tinkering is only part of the effort. You will need to figure out a model, look at numerous regulations, find funding, protect IP, explore international markets, network, pitch, present, draw up business plans… lather, rinse and repeat.

A little fire in the belly will be required to follow through. Such questions as, “What part of the status quo is intolerable to you?” and “What difference will you make and how will you make it?” can help to stoke those flames.

The other more practical questions we covered were: (1) are you solving a problem that others actually have? and (2) how will you get funding for your business?

Our friends at Maple Leaf Angels will provide clear insights on the latter in an event next month.

All of these questions are worth some thought, which is a good thing because one can only tinker for so long…

Profits and purpose: what really matters? (Survey Insights part 4)

The BBC published an article on Abraham Maslow this week describing the impact of the hierarchy of needs that bears his name. Any social psychology or organizational behaviour course will touch on this in trying to explain the motivators and needs that have people do what they do.

Like many such frameworks, their utility in explaining/predicting the actions of others tends to fall short. It becomes an endless guessing game of rationalizing conscious decisions and analyzing subconscious yearnings. We are going to move the focus to: “me, and what I want” not “them, and what they want.”

In our Summer Survey, we asked:

“If individuals were looking for a sense of purpose from their professional life, to what degree does your organization provide that?”

NOTE: If you don’t subscribe to the “purpose need” theory, you debunk this whole line of thought. People want money; pay them and they work. Pay them more and they work harder. We will address this later.

The results were not unexpected. At the leadership level of the organization, the “purpose need” appears to be fulfilled: one third report that the purpose is “obvious” and more than half say people could find it in different ways.

Further down the organization, the results are opposite. The number of people who report being “here to work” (e.g. absence of purpose beyond Maslovian survival) grows to one-third at the middle-tier level, and to more than half at the lowest levels of the organization.

One explanation for employees not taking the opportunity to be more invested, involved, and engaged with their work is that the organization is not being clear or consistent enough about how their work matters.

For a moment, let’s put the onus on leadership to declare a preference for the kind of success they will pursue. Yes, we want to be profitable, but our self-imposed constraints (e.g. constraints we select not restrictions/rules to which we comply) reveal what matters most and may embody one’s sense of purpose.

So this could give you:

  • a bank that is committed to keeping jobs in the local economy
  • an oil-and-gas company committed to reducing the effects of carbon emissions
  • a fast-food company committed to educating consumers on nutrition

Do any of these “commitments” sound familiar?

The internal audiences will be most attuned to inconsistency because they will see (or suspect) what really drives decisions and what lines a being stretched or crossed. Inconsistency is a breeding ground for cynicism and could be a reason for disengagement such that you report being “here to work.” The rubber hits the road when an organization takes a decision consistent with a “commitment” and appears to forego profit maximization in the short-term.

  • If your organization is poised-to grow, would investors or shareholders support such a commitment?
  • If you are competing for talent, would good employees reward you with loyalty?
  • If you are competing for funding dollars, could this build your credibility with foundations and with public sector funders?

In all cases, there will be some important parties who don’t agree or don’t care.  The better question is “Would you get enough support for you to succeed?” and “What could you do to gain the support of those who need to see results?” Selecting the right measures and delivering results will be fundamental to your success.

Stay tuned for the next post where we shift the focus to the rank-and-file responsibilities.

On the same page, are we? (Survey Insights Part 3)

This article appears in the August 2013 newsletter for the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council (supplychaincanada.org).

You will see in an earlier newsletter article a survey to capture some firsthand insights on how organizations tend to align actions and intent. The three broad areas that we explored were:

  1. To what degree do people in the organization pursue the same objective(s)
  2. To what extent do people share the same measures/metrics to gauge their performance
  3. How does collaboration work in the organization

Below, we share some of the insights and will continue to release findings on this website. Our underlying thinking is that performance-driven collaboration has a great chance of happening naturally when the parties (1) share a view of what they want to achieve and (2) agree upon the indicators of whether or not they are making progress.

It is pretty simple, but as Warren Buffett claims of investing, “it is simple, not easy.” In other news, the recipe for losing weight is simple: consume fewer calories, exercise more, or do both. As many can attest, execution is not easy, and can beg a number of deeper questions:

  1. If I don’t have time to exercise, what do I need to change to free up that time? (Looking at connections in the wider system.)
  2. Am I healthy/happy enough, even though I am a bit over weight? (Questioning weight as the best measure.)
  3. Why do I want to be healthy anyway? (Staring into the abyss of life.)

Note: Our consulting approach can help you navigate Questions 1 and 2. For Question 3, we are happy to hear you out, but soul searching is often an individual endeavour.

Here are some of the highlights of our Summer Alignment Survey:

1 – It’s clearer from the top

We asked people to report the degree to which they thought the overall direction was clear to them and others. The clarity rises as you get further up the org chart.

But, you knew that. It is simple.

The not so easy part is how can you acknowledge some ambiguity in the overall direction, but make it clear enough that people can maintain congruent priorities.

Have a look at two different reasonable explanations here .

2 – Authoritative decision making, without clear criteria, breeds conflict

The survey gathered information on how decision-making fits in with collaboration, and the interplay between the level of engagement with the organization and providing clear direction.

Another simple insight emerged: When the perceived leadership style veered toward the top-down approach, people reported having conflicting inter-departmental priorities and succumbing to pressures to protect information.

Again, the challenge here for leadership is to be able to provide compelling rationale for decisions, even in the face of reasoned disagreement. This necessitates clarity on the kind of performance the organization is pursuing and how that performance is being measured.

3 – Here’s one that pertains specifically to supply chain

We asked a question in regard to the extent to which colleagues were on the same page. One third of respondents were evenly split between “I don’t know” and “priorities conflict.” The uncanny symmetry repeats with the remaining two-thirds equally split between “my immediate team concurs” and “we all concur”.

From anecdotal experience, having conversations about performance always involves revealing the connections that individuals believe are most important in achieving success. These beliefs are as much art as science, such as:

  • We need profitability to drive innovation.
  • A focus on employee safety firms up our value to clients, unions and funders.
  • Efficiency means the right product in the right place at the right time.
  • Close relationships ensure long-term success.
  • Cash flow is king.

What you believe starts the story and sets up whether you are in conflict, in cahoots or out-of-touch with colleagues and collaborators. It can be worthwhile to check in on how aligned personal views are with organizational direction.


  • For the one-third that is sure that everyone is aligned: Good for you!
  • For the one-third that is sure at least their group is aligned: Clarifying the fit with other groups and the wider effort will help align actions and reduce friction.
  • For the one-third that is in conflict or unsure: Confirming the conflict can expose a strategic decision that can shape a shared view of performance.

It is as simple as asking, but it is not easy to get good answers from the inside.

The Leadership Blackbox (Survey Insights Part 2)

There is an understanding that with authority comes the responsibility to make decisions. Personal style, organizational structure and corporate culture can encourage varying degrees of consensus building and collaboration, but the buck always stops somewhere. In our earlier survey we explored the extent to which such collaboration factored into decision making.

Note: For the moment, we will ignore the very real issue of authority figures who simply refuse to make the tough decisions!

A number of respondents felt that, in their organization, those in authority tend to make the decisions where important issues are concerned. This could mean adherence to a traditional top-down structure, but there are different ways to convey a decision from above. A savvy leader can walk into a meeting with their decision already made but create the feeling among others that the experience was very collaborative. A more straightforward leader (or leadership team) may adopt the tell-and-sell approach whereby they demonstrate the rationale that went into picking one side of a trade-off situation.

From our survey results, a “blackbox” may be a more fitting metaphor for some such top-down organizations because priorities tend to conflict and information tends to be closely guarded. Based on our survey, of those who perceived a top-down decision structure, 2 out of 3 believed there were “conflicting priorities” and more than half also indicated that “information protection” was the communication norm.

Insight #2 Chart 2bInsight #2 Chart 1You can see how these connections can emerge: Department A operates under the marching orders that anything goes as long as we achieve Priority A. Department B feels the same way about Priority B. There is no clear guidance for either group (from leadership) about the impact on the overall desired performance. When a stalemate occurs, the boardroom fills up, the doors close and after some time a verdict appears.

From outside the boardroom, this would resemble waiting for an instant replay decision to come down from the booth. That people communicate on a “need to know” basis is understood; it is akin to court proceeding where anything you say could be used against you. This is how the walls of the metaphoric silos emerge and thicken.

As with our earlier piece, we isolated some implications from such a “black box” leadership environment:

For Collaboration with External Stakeholders:

External parties can get roped in to the drama resulting from internal efforts to curry favour with upper management. Suppliers, customers and partners may be sympathetic to the plights of their contact having to work in such a political environment, but revealing this level of in-fighting to an external party rarely paints the organization in a favourable light.

For Internal Collaboration:

Often times the task at hand is difficult enough to begin with, so why burden yourself with the additional strife from the internal squabbling or playing to the judges? “Pitch the idea to authority to gain compliance from others” is not a workable definition of collaboration in environments that need to take performance seriously. Training can make it worse (see below).

For Poised-for-Growth Organizations:

The approach for newer organizations with respect to this particular problem may well be preventative. One of the characteristics of growth is the creation of different “departments” that must operate with a degree of autonomy. There is an opportunity early on to paint the connections within the wider organization so all departments are focussed on the same priorities and silos don’t develop as rigidly.

We have found that requests for training in such areas as “making business cases” and “influencing” stem from an environment where a common understanding has not been allowed to take hold. Building communication skills in warring factions can deteriorate into a cold war of building persuasiveness. There may be an opportunity to build a common understanding by fleshing out the potential links between actions and desired results.

(Note: The semantics of the words “influence” and “persuasion” where explained to me very well by my friend Mark Bowden. Using influence means understanding the logic of the other party and weaving your wants and desires into that logic. Persuasion, on the other hand, is getting a person to trust you to the extent that they are happy to abandon their own logic if you say, “Trust me. It’ll be OK.” We would prefer a focus on the former.)

Insights on our Insights – Part 1

In our first insight piece we explored the finding that those at higher levels of the organization report more clarity with respect to the overall direction of their efforts.

Some of our respondents were generous enough to offer thoughts on how this arose. The responses illustrate how quickly a context can be created to explain a situation.

Storyline 1 – Not clear? Pay attention… or ask!

One response pointed the finger squarely at a persistent performance problem: incompetence. This person suggested that some responsibility be borne by senior leadership to provide clear direction, but the lion’s share of blame for this reported ambiguity should go to middle management who is either incompetent or disengaged.

Storyline 2 – You don’t know what you don’t know.

“The devil is in the details” can sum up this line of thought.  This respondent suggests the reason that senior leadership is clearer comes from being removed from the very real trade-offs. As stakeholder interactions become more complex, often those in the trenches don’t even understand the implications!

We will suggest that both explanations are logical, rational and defensible. More importantly, the belief may set the stage for corrective action: (1) gather the rank-and-file and communicate again (louder if necessary!); or (2) force senior management to realize real implementation challenges of the crafted strategy (and maybe even get them to reverse a decision or two).

Needless to say, both courses require a warning label:  Proceed with Caution. Taking a moment to better understand beliefs can inform what corrective action (if any) will best improve performance.

Thank you again for your participation and we welcome your feedback! Stay tuned for further insight pieces.

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.