I just finished reading survey responses about strategic priorities from a senior management team. The lack of consistency in their responses reminded of an experience I had on the island of Kerkennah off the coast of Tunisia.
Kerkennah is a flat sandy island in shallow Mediterranean waters. The natives don’t really believe in roads and so sandy tracks wander hither and yon. We left one of those tracks to venture out across a salt flat. When we sunk into loose sand, men appeared from nowhere and began pushing us out. From both ends of the bus. Three or four guys pushed forward from the back while another group pushed backwards from the front. I kid you not!
While pushing against each other may sound completely ridiculous, it did happen. And when you think about it, why is it any more ridiculous than a senior team that collectively identifies a dozen or more “strategic priorities” with minimal overlap across the team? Every organization has finite resources. If your senior team is pursuing numerous “priorities,” aren’t you essentially pushing the bus from both ends?
Your organization’s strategic priorities need to be few. Otherwise they aren’t priorities. And they need to be focused. Without focus, you will spread your resources too thin to accomplish anything of consequence.
Now I understand that strategic priorities must be broken down into supporting priorities so that individuals know where to focus their energies. And you could argue that this team simply reported those lower level initiatives. You might be right. However, when asked about the organization’s strategic priorities, everyone, especially the senior team, ought to be completely clear and consistent. Nor should it be difficult for someone like me to detect the real focus from a list of supporting priorities.
This organization is far from unique. When I started my business a dozen years ago, I began by focusing on execution – helping organizations achieve their goals and increase their efficiency. It didn’t take me long to realize that you can’t help people improve if they don’t know what they are trying to achieve. That’s why I got into strategic work. Organization after organization, I found employees running in too many directions. Just like this particular company.
The good news, though, is that this company now has a clear focus. It is compelling, easy to understand, easy to explain, and it comes with clear agreement on what they will stop doing!
How focused is your organization? If you asked your employees about strategic priorities, how many answers would you get? Is everyone aligned behind one or two clear objectives? Or are you essentially pushing from both ends of the bus?
This article first appeared on Forbes, May 27th, 2017.