Embarking on a successful organizational strategy goes beyond what meets the eye.
While strategy, innovation, and change management are vital, they are often overshadowed by more tangible outcomes. To ensure successful strategic outcomes, leaders must dig deep to comprehend the mechanics that drive them. Deborah Roethler, an Innovative Change Manager with experience with companies like Amazon, Caterpillar, the City of Peoria, and more, advocates a fluid approach to strategy, bolstered by open communication, and transparency and rooted in specific company culture.
Expanding the organizational overview to look below the waterline
Think of organizational operation as an iceberg. It is commonly known the majority of an iceberg’s mass lies below the surface of the water, remaining to be seen from above the waterline. The same is true for issues and inefficiencies within an organization — there is more lurking beneath the surface waiting to be addressed.
That said, it is imperative organizational leaders make intentional efforts to dig deeper.
“You think you’re seeing the whole picture, yet there’s so much below the waterline. In fact, 90 percent of it is below the waterline as a rule of thumb,” says Roethler.
The detrimental impact of overlooking hidden organizational dynamics
When organizational leaders are trying to meet goals and understand processes and potential obstacles, they tend to revert back to a detrimental way of thinking about operations and teams in terms of what is above that waterline. They only see the top 10 percent.
This tendency to overlook what is below the surface becomes more common among leaders as they begin to move into senior-level roles where they may start to lack a deeper personal understanding of the functions they oversee due to their expanding responsibilities.
With this approach, leaders are more likely to run into the proverbial iceberg without realizing it.
Roethler says, “As you’re envisioning where you’re going, it’s really important to be aware and intentional about looking below the water.”
Using a people-focused approach to look beneath the surface
Typically, leaders attempt to look below the water line through the lens of facts and data, but facts and data can’t always account for the bottom of the iceberg with hidden elements at play. Sometimes this is simply because the facts and data needed to address a hidden issue just don’t exist.
A limited view of the top of the iceberg can lead to missing significant opportunities for innovation and improvement. So, where should leaders look to catch a glimpse below the waterline if the answer isn’t facts and data?
Leaders should turn to their people. While facts and data are important, people are the driving force. One way to engage teams is through frequent focus group sessions.
Three steps to implement focus group sessions
- Engage the team by asking for feedback: A simple and effective way to begin gathering feedback is to ask an open-ended question like how do you feel when you walk into work and why? Listen and take notes with the intention of understanding. Consider following up with another question, like how do you want to feel when you walk into work?
- Collect responses: Asking only a small portion of the team or going to only top performers for feedback will likely result in misleading information. When dealing with a larger team or department, aim for a variety of outlooks from members across the board.
- Summarize the responses: Look for common pain points or struggles the team is facing. Prioritize them not only by order of importance but also take into consideration actionable steps that can be taken to mitigate, improve, or remove struggles quickly.
Building a foundation of trust between leaders and their teams
By using tools such as focus groups, leaders are able to build trust on the foundation of transparency and vulnerability. Focus groups offer employees a place to connect with their leaders and to identify pain points without complaint. Consequently, informed leaders can then determine what processes to look at for improvement.
When it comes back to strategy, more informed leaders can better characterize it in terms of what everyone wants out of the organization. Credibility and trust are built as leaders begin to take action toward change based on feedback, and the whole organization is better situated toward success as a result.
“If you can’t base your leadership in trust, you’re probably going to have a tough time developing strategies that actually engage the whole team and have them rowing in the same direction,” says Roethler.
The quickest way to build that trust is to open the lines of communication, listen, and then take action.
Engagement of strained teams as an obstacle to fostering change
A common obstacle leaders face when attempting to foster change is employee engagement in making those changes. One quick way to build momentum and gain engagement is to find, recognize, and reward quick wins, especially if the team is already strained.
“Secondly, look at current employee engagement, capability, and skill and be realistic about what’s available to implement. The key then is limiting the number of goals and being aware of how goals are going to affect the team and who on the team is bearing the burden,” says Roethler.
If leaders don’t know who is going to be doing the work, they’re not looking deep enough below the waterline.
Make it a priority to avoid or mend strained teams by ensuring there are no situations where one or two members of the team are the “go-to” person for everything. This can be achieved through consistent open communication.
Ensuring engagement through open communication and fluid strategy
To put it simply, one of the biggest things a leader can do to garner employee engagement is consistent communication. One way to ensure effective communication is for leaders to undergo training on how to have difficult conversations with employees and ask questions in the least inflammatory way.
Asking “How?” and “What?” instead of “Why?” and “Who?” and having the discipline to understand before taking action are great ways to establish open communication and transparency. Giving regular updates as progress is made or addressing why progress is at a standstill will encourage engagement and maintain transparency.
Consistent communication and regular updates also help to establish a sense of fluidity in what could otherwise be a rigid strategic approach, thus allowing for adaptation along the way. An easy way to implement frequent updates is by having weekly or bi-weekly team meetings that address updates and changes and revisit old pain points or identify new ones.
These meetings allow team members to feel ownership of part of the process and enable them to feel that they are part of the solution. When invested in such a way, employees are more likely to engage and work toward innovation and improvement.
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