Think of “strategy” as having a perspective, an agenda if you will, about how things could be better. When I’m helping a manager think about what those things are for a department in a more or less traditional hierarchy, I like to employ a kind of systems map that illuminates different aspects of the work and its environment. Asking about each of these aspects in turn can generate a helpful array of possible changes related to the overall health of the function. Let me show you what I mean.
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Let’s imagine I’m helping you and your department directly. Here are some of the questions I might ask you.
1. I may begin by asking you about the experience you intend for those you serve — clients, customers, patients, patrons, whatever you call these people. Notice that I’m not asking you directly about the service or product you provide, but about the experience that you want people to receive through that service or product. “Good” or “satisfied” is not enough. Not even “delighted.” Those words, these days, are taken for granted. Rather, look for the qualities — for example, “we want purchasers to feel they are wiser, more capable, and more creative for having bought this product” that differentiate that experience from a hundreds or thousands of others. The head of a very successful design-build firm told me he wanted his customers to feel “relieved” to have found his firm. “It should feel like finding not just a new company, but a new and trustworthy friend.” In the competitive construction industry, that could be a significant differentiator.
This drives a lot of other questions, such as how many people, how well trained are in fact needed to deliver this experience? Do you have them, or are they turning over rapidly? Do you pay them what they are worth? Do you treat them in the same way you would like your customers to feel treated — a question about culture? Has the intended customer experience actually ever been articulated? If so, how well is it understood? If not, why not?
2. Assuming the customer has entered your “store” or “process,” the next thing I may ask you about is how the work is done. Are the steps in the work process actually designed to fulfill the intended customer experience? How well are those steps organized? Is there a preferred way the work is to be done? Is is customized to each customer? Do different people have different ways of doing the job, some of which fit the organization better than others? What’s the impact of that? Do these steps meet expected timelines? budgets? To what extent are there errors and delays yet to work out? How is “non-standard” work handled? How are mistakes handled along the way? How stressed are the people carrying out the work? Do they love their jobs? Why or why not? (Another question about culture).
3. What is your department’s point of “hand-off?” Does the customer go on to other parts of the organization for other services? Come back next year for the same service? How does your hand-off point shape the expectations of the customer for what comes next? Do others, such as staff in another department or function (another kind of “customer”), pick up the pieces for what wasn’t completed in your department? Do you make sure the client has everything he/she needs before the hand-off occurs? How are the customer’s questions handled after they “leave the store”?
4. Since supervisors and managers are often those who design and govern the actual system of work, how effective and responsive are they? Are they more than lead employees? Do they have the requisite people skills? Are they capable of organizing work, training staff, coaching them, delegating, empowering, engaging others? Do they love their work? Do they care about people? Do they have personal boundaries? Can they set boundaries for others? What would you say about trust levels in teams?
5. As the ultimate owners of strategy, culture and resources, how are senior leaders of the organization viewed? Do people feel acknowledged, heard and valued by the highest levels of the organization? How would you say the behavior of top leadership influences the culture of your department? How do people feel about that culture? How does it affect what work gets done? How well the work gets done? Does top management offer meaningful support and guidance or divorce itself from the everyday conflicts and challenges faced by the rest of the organization?
6. To what extent is feedback valued and sought after by individuals and teams? What feedback systems are in place for your department? How do you obtain feedback from customers? Is your system equally useful in getting meaningful feedback from people who are satisfied and those who are unsatisfied, especially those who drop out of the service or return the product? To what extent does a real, human dialogue exist with customers? Do they feel welcomed to engage with the organization? How do you go about showing them they have influenced any of the five aspects already mentioned?
7. What, in fact, is the intended culture of your organization — beginning with clarity about mission, vision, and values — and to what extent do people actually listen when contradictions to that intended culture surface? For example, it’s one thing to say “we are an ethical organization,” but what happens when a top leader operates in a potentially unethical way? How good is your organization at owning the need to change and improve overall? To what extent are the leaders leading? To what extent are people real — have they learned to defend and cover up the actual problems that are there, or can they be open, human, and true to their own judgment?
These are just some of the possible questions that come up when working through this systems map. As I mentioned, the effort to work through each of the areas in turn can bring difficult challenges forward. For example, in one organization, it had been apparent for years that more staff training was essential but the organization seemed to be caught in an awful Catch-22: new staff left because they felt incompetent yet believed they couldn’t ask for help to learn the job; experienced staff were reluctant to offer too much help to new people lest it take too much of their own time and prevented them from meeting job standards; and supervisors were so busy filling in for people who were out or had left or for teams that were down in numbers that there was no time to develop the programs needed to fix the problem. Ouch! — and Yikes! (This is, of course, not just a training program problem, but also a staffing problem, and a problem of how supervisors’ jobs had been defined.)
I encourage you to generate your own questions around each of the seven aspects of the systems map.
Once you’ve done an inventory, you can begin to think about the steps needed, the resources, and the priorities essential to improvement. Perhaps you’ll find, like many do, that the intended customer experience is actually still unclear, that the work process is creating unwanted delays and errors, that the hand-off to the customer could be considerably better, that supervisors need real care and support, that connections up the system to top leaders must be opened and attended to, that feedback is required at all levels and that the internal culture of the organization as a whole needs to mirror the intended experience customers are to receive. Identifying these issues honestly and directly — making them “discussable” — may be your most powerful starting point to create a comprehensive strategy for change.
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