Direction Trumps Strategy

Think about how navigating in your car has changed. It used to be that you bought a map (which was never up to date), and then you used it to plot your course to your destination. You never knew if you would hit a detour, accident, or traffic jam.

Today, you get a map from the Internet that’s updated on a regular basis. Many of us have global positioning systems (GPS) where you not only have up to date directions, a voice activated system telling you where and when to turn, but you also get up to the minute traffic updates.

But what about work? Since 2003, what I am seeing from numerous within-company studies and an ongoing, large scale research project of over 6,000 business leaders is that similar such improvements in direction has not benefited today’s organization. In fact, while driving your car has gotten better, figuring out what to do on Monday morning has become exponentially more difficult.

This is one area where technology, in most cases, has made things worse rather than better.

As organizations all speed up, become more global, face a more complex and mobile workforce, and as work just keeps on stacking up, strategy (where many executives spend much of their energy today) may be becoming less important than direction.

Strategy is long term. It sounds good. Vision and mission are attractive, too. However, strategy and vision do not help the masses of employees who show up for work and say, “I don’t know what to do today.” The lack of “knowing” is not due to some new loss of intellect or less work. It’s the opposite; the problem is a consequence of multi-tasking, constant inflow of information, new projects, changing priorities, etc., etc.

Exhibit No.1

Since 1996, I have been collecting data from employees in organizations doing short Pulse Dialogues (my word for surveys) as frequently as weekly. Although most of the firms I work with do not use weekly Pulse Dialogues, they do collect data bi-weekly, monthly, or quarterly. I do this to measure the drivers of firm and individual performance. What I’ve found is that employee energy at work was one of the most predictive metrics of performance.

However, I quickly learned that energy fluctuates frequently. I also found that variance (standard deviation) in energy predicted turnover, customer service, sales, quality, 360° ratings of performance, and more.

The data I’ve collected since 2003 continue to tell a story about direction, and leaders say they are suffering, as well. They know the company’s strategy—in many cases, they created it. These leaders, however, are showing up at work with the same dilemma no updated roadmap. They don’t know how to get where the strategy tells them to go and, even worse, they lack direction for getting through the day.

The result is burnout, family problems, depression, stress, and lack of productivity. Leaders are reporting energy levels that are lower than rates where they say they are most productive. They too need a map.

To help reverse this trend, I’ve come up with the following four tips to help you begin the process of turning strategy into direction:

Tip #1: Now is the Time for Management

We all read about the “frozen middle” and the problem organizations are having in motivating middle-managers. Should anyone be surprised? These middle-managers are all working managers today. They know that direction is a problem, but they have no time or data to help alleviate the issue. Managers need to be managers again.

Not only should managers stage a stunning comeback, but managers need their own direction. Leaders need to be responsible for manager direction. Revisiting direction on a regular basis at the top will result in tremendous learning and perhaps changes in strategy or realignment between strategy and actions.