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Volume 9 | Issue 4

Putting it in context

A message from CDC Integrated Services, LLC

Strategy Before, Not After

On television and in popular print, you often hear the protagonist (the main character) state dramatically that “the plan will last only until the first shot is fired.” This metaphor is prevalent in businesses large and small.

However, there is fierce debate about how effective business plans are in the small business world. There are legitimate pros and cons to the argument about business plans among many small business owners.

However, I believe it doesn’t matter if the business is large or small. I stand in the camp that says “plans matter,” especially if they accurately capture the leader’s vision of what they want to accomplish and the values they want to incorporate into the business. 

Regardless of what popular literature suggests, for a leader to be successful, a plan is indispensable. Ideas are elusive and not fully internalized until the owner/leader writes them down, and a leader’s team cannot successfully carry out the leader’s vision until they can hold the written plan in their hands.

We are at the time of the year when companies and organizations finalize their plans and strategies for the coming year. It does not matter if it’s a large company or a small one-person business. It is a necessary step to future success.

How does planning start? We all hold the seed of a complex plan each day. Some of us use lists, noting the essential things we need to do today. Others use lists for multiple days, and many more use hand-held “planners” in paper form or electronic devices.

In this planner, we order our tasks, prioritize them, and track them to completion. In the true sense of the word, everyone is a planner. However, most are unaware that we are also strategic thinkers; some of us objectively know this, and others engage in strategic thinking through subjective processes.

Decades ago, companies and organizations of many types recognized that planning and developing strategies for executing plans are critical to their success. Over these decades, organizations have looked at various methodologies to improve their planning and strategy processes.

The key to any plan’s success is staying the course and not allowing distractions to take the focus away from executing the plan consistently over time. Of course, this is easy to say but hard to do. We all encounter demands on our time from unexpected issues and dealing with new problems often distracts us from focusing on the strategic objectives. 

How we deal with these distractions is a critical leadership competence. In modern organizations, the role of a leader is demanding in its scope, and the foundation of this role is the leader’s vision. 

Working the plan has an entirely different look and feel at a leadership level. Below the leader, at the division or department level, employees only see individual pieces of 

the puzzle. And sometimes, they see how their part fits with other elements. However, the leader and the leadership team members see the whole of the plan. And because he knows the complete plan, they must have the ability to adapt as circumstances demand. 

Most of us have participated in the planning process, and many of us had, and perhaps still have, significant roles in an organization’s planning process.

Before the economic collapse brought on by the pandemic, most companies and organizations approached their planning process in very traditional ways. Even as leaders and managers urged their subordinates to “think outside the box” and look for new ways of achieving better outcomes, they worked their plans using tools and techniques most familiar to them. Yet, many of these planning processes had blind spots that remained hidden year after year.

We are almost three years beyond the crisis point in the pandemic, and many companies re-wrote the above-described process to accommodate the new realities in the workplace. But – blind spots still exist.

The title of this letter is Strategy Before, Not After. Typically, at the end of the fourth quarter, and before we put the plan for the next year to bed, so to speak, we look at what did not go well. Then, we develop a strategy or a set of processes to create better outcomes for the following year based on what we learned.

What is the methodology/tool most used to graphically display the plan? One example is The Critical Path Method (CPM) schedule, which shows everything prioritized by importance and where it fits in the overall scheme. In engineering and technology companies, where failure can lead to significant loss of life and severe environmental damage, their schedules make room for a deep dive into the human factors that create risk. Their processes capture as many risk mitigation activities as possible by mapping every critical step that might lead to an error/mistake.

What people don’t capture in the schedule is a strategy to prevent errors in miscommunication and the loss of productivity from unresolved interpersonal conflict. Data examined in 2017 and further reinforced in 2018 concluded that companies across the country incur nearly $370 billion in lost productivity yearly.

Moreover, Korn-Ferry reports, “a new survey says that unproductive meetings and communication errors could collectively drain more than $100 million a year from a single big organization”. Extrapolate that across hundreds of companies, and the financial loss from wasted time and communication errors easily exceeds a trillion dollars. 

These negative behaviors significantly impact any schedule, and few company planning processes recognize these human factor issues that affect performance and productivity.

What, then, is the answer? In thinking about an answer, I will remind my readers that since the pandemic disruptions to the American economy, voluntary resignations have begun mass migrations among workers from old jobs to new jobs – some full-time and some part-time. Estimates of those who changed jobs range from 22 million to more than 38 million, perhaps even higher.

New jobs mean new work environments and new work cultures that employees struggle to understand. So what is the answer to achieving better outcomes in interpersonal relationships at work and avoiding the damaging costs of miscommunication and the negative impacts on a critical schedule?

How does one look at a schedule and identify better ways to minimize negative impacts from errors, miscommunication, and lack of engagement? Two ways come to mind that can reduce effects on plans with critical time issues. 

Leaders need to recognize that humans are social and do their best work as a group. Before the pandemic, companies large and small had developed and were developing strategies to allow employees to work from home on a part-time basis. Some non-mission-critical employees were encouraged to work from home with visits to the office on a part-time basis.

With everyone initially working from home, and millions of employees changing jobs, many employees no longer feel they are part of a team, and disengagement is again becoming a real issue. However, the dissatisfaction of employees is different than in previous decades.

Leaders need to bring employees back into the office to build back the sense of teamwork and allow key team members to brainstorm. Being in a team environment again will help diminish employee miscommunication that otherwise would create misunderstandings and potentially impact the schedule. 

For example, one can look at which departments have the most critical interactions and are short-staffed. Recognizing this and developing strategies to mitigate these resource limitations is essential in preventing the finger-pointing that plagues many schedule-related issues.

The second suggestion targets the simple truth that many employees don’t know each other in this new environment. Of course, many have met each other briefly during their short office visits or via Zoom or other video platforms. But these do not provide the necessary social interactions to create engagement or a commitment to a company mission or culture.  

Moreover, the forced dispersion of employees, especially new employees, denies them the ability to own the outcome of their efforts and denies them the sense of being part of a more significant team effort. They feel isolated from the ability to celebrate the small wins and the large ones as part of a group dynamic.

Workplace conflicts did not disappear when workers started working from home. Instead, they come from a set of friction points that have both new and old characteristics. And my company stands ready to have conversations about resolving these work-related conflicts.

Food for Thought: “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.”   (Dale Carnegie)

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