Does your organization have too many lists? I’ll bet that you’ve got lists of strategies, list of accountabilities, lists of values, competencies, priorities, goals. Yikes, with that many lists, it’s a lot to ask for employees to even remember what’s on the list, let alone to use them to guide their days. That’s what got me thinking about the importance of connecting the dots for people—tying lists together so it feels like following a single interconnected story rather than like cramming for an exam with a pile of cue cards. So today, I’m offering up a way to connect the dots.
(Note: my previous post, which delved into how to write lists that are cohesive, coherent, clear, and compelling, will be a useful reference.)
The Most Important Dots
Let’s start by talking about the most important messages that you need to communicate to the people in your organization. Here are the biggies:
Purpose: What problems is your organization solving? Why do you exist? Why not just sell off the assets, pack up, and go home? A compelling answer to this question is the origin point for motivation. Your purpose doesn’t need to be sexy, it just needs to be real. A good purpose sets the direction for your company. It sets the north star everyone should be walking toward.
Goals: What are we trying to achieve? How will we know we’re being successful? Goals tell people how far you need to get in the direction you’re headed. The right goals set the pace and define how quickly everyone should be moving.
Strategy: What are the optimal approaches we can take that will help us achieve our goals? What will give us a competitive advantage over others trying to do the same thing? An effective strategy defines which path is smoothest and straightest (and which would lead you into a dark cave or over a cliff).
Unique Value: What is the most important work I can be doing? What should I be paying attention to? In The Good Fight, I spend a lot of time talking about the unique value each role is supposed to bring to an organization. Unique value consists of two ideas: first, based on your level in the organization, what’s the highest and best use of your time; and second, based on your function, what’s the unique perspective you’re obliged to hold in tension with other functions. Unique value defines the role each person must play to get the expedition to the goal.
Values: What behavior is expected of people? What is laudable and what is reprehensible? A good set of values is more than just a plaque on the wall, it’s a deeply held set of beliefs and an inalienable code that sets the standards for what is and isn’t acceptable. Values set the tone.
As you read that list, did you realize that one or more of these pieces is missing in your organization? If so, you’re probably struggling to get the results you’re looking for. Take the time to go back and answer each of these questions in a way that will resonate with every employee. If you’re not in charge, ask these questions of those who are.
Connecting the Dots
There are infinite ways to string these different lists together into a story that makes sense to people. I’ve used one already by choosing a quest metaphor to explain the different components of the organizational map. (I just did it again by referring to it as a map—look at me go!)
For many organizations, particularly those with a noble purpose, the quest metaphor is a good one. It’s also very conducive to visuals, which can help strengthen your communication. So yes, you can connect the dots by articulating the direction (purpose), pace (goals), path (strategy), roles (unique value), and tone (values) of your quest.
If swashbuckling knights aren’t your thing, you can stick to a more pragmatic model and use the tried and true question framework. Here’s how I like to categorize the core components into answers to the big questions:
Each person, when starting a piece of work, should understand why they’re doing it. Furthermore, they should have enough information to understand why they maybe shouldn’t do it. It’s your purpose and your strategy that answer, “why?”
For example, our company is called 3COze Inc. The name represents our purpose, which is to “change the way people communicate, connect, and contribute, so they can achieve amazing things together.” (see the three co’s in there?!?) So, when a company calls us asking us to coach individuals on their performance, the answer is an easy, “no thank you.” Our purpose is all about collaboration. That work would violate our “why.”
Similarly, your strategy answers many why questions. One of 3COze’s strategies is to help more people without hiring more people—so we need to scale the non-consulting part of our business. If a company calls us asking us to develop an e-learning course on collaboration, even if it’s not profitable and would take lots of work, it fits our why—because we need to move toward more digital offerings.
Encourage your team to think about the why whenever they start to do a task. Does this work have a why? Can I link my effort directly back to something that matters in the organization? Will this activity help us make progress or am I just getting busy for the sake of being busy?
Even if a piece of work has a strong why, it could be the wrong what. By that, I mean that there are people who should be doing that work and those who shouldn’t. That’s where the unique value comes in. Each person should be able to assess a piece of work and ask whether it’s the right level of work and if so, what unique lens they should bring to the task.
If we return to the 3COze example of developing an e-learning program, there is work that it makes sense for me to do (work to which I can bring unique value) and other work that makes no sense for me. I need to envision what kinds of collaboration topics are amenable to e-learning and to distill them into the most important insights. I don’t need to research all the e-learning vendors out there. An intern could do that.
The other half of unique value is to understand what tension I’m supposed to put on the work. In our tiny team, I’m all about what works in the real world and how to make messages digestible for our busy clients. I over-index on practical and punchy. Craig’s the one who ensures that our advice is tied to current research. I know that when I latch on to a catchy new tag line, he’ll pull me back if I’m misrepresenting the evidence. Having the confidence that Craig will add his unique value emboldens me to be pithy.
Everyone in your organization can have the same why, but each person should have a different what. Help each individual define their most important what’s so they know how to spend their time wisely.
Your values should help everyone in your organization answer the question of how they should get work done.
We haven’t had a conversation about our organizational values at 3COze, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have them. We certainly value pragmatism (which is not a given when you’re a couple of PhD nerds). Valuing pragmatism means that each time I write a post and get to theoretical, I push myself to go from “what” and “so what,” to “now what?” It also means that we don’t expect perfection from our clients. We empathize when the harsh realities of modern business derail leaders and we strive to build processes that are resilient to their actual environment rather than a hypothetical perfect environment.
It’s important to help your team understand how you expect them to get things done. It’s especially important to help them wrestle with situations where the values conflict with one another or where the values conflict with the goals. (I often see organizations that value collaboration having to struggle with how much collaboration is necessary given the aggressive timelines inherent in the goals.)
There are so many messages floating around in your organization that it’s hard for your team to know what to pay attention to. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that goals are more important than strategy or that strategy trumps values. That’s what we get for not connecting the dots.
Purpose, strategy, goals, unique value, and values aren’t disparate lists to be recited at town halls and laminated for display in cubicles company wide. They are answers to the most important questions that should guide how people spend their time all day, every day. You decide whether you draw them together into a quest or frame them simply as the answers to why, what, and how. Regardless of how you choose to do it, I urge you to connect the dots for people.