An Unremitting Devotion to Strategy

“I know the price of success: dedication, hard work, and unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen.” Frank Lloyd Wright

Every year, I have a plan.  At the beginning of every year, I realize I’ve gained between 5-7 pounds from my November and December feasting.  January and February are almost always diet months for me.  Then comes March and April when I realize I’m painfully out of shape for riding my bike.  I ride about 150 miles each weekend, so March and April are just about trying to stay on my bike for as long as possible.  Just as I’m able to increase my miles for the summer riding, I realize that everyone I ride with is about 2 months ahead of me, and they are all riding quite a bit faster.  May and june are about power for me as I just struggle to keep up.  If I’m lucky I finally hit my stride in August and have a couple decent months before I start eating again and the whole cycle repeats.  The point is, that there’s a process, and if I follow the process I know that I’ll get to my goal in August, no matter how derelict I was at over the Winter.

In my line of work, I help a lot of organizations figure out what they should be thinking about strategically, and putting together plans to get there.  All too often, consultants are overly willing to tell their clients that the plan will need to be revisited every year as the business context and the budgets change.  As I think about this, I’m not sure this is totally true.  Our 3 or 5 year roadmaps are always connected to higher level corporate strategies.  If the imperative is to ensure we have talent processes to backfill all of our succession plans, that’s pretty specific.  No amount of increases to health insurance premiums should offset our timing to get that done.  If our attrition rates are terrible and we can track them back to employee engagement, then the roadmap for solutioning that should not be redirected when the bottom drops out of the economy and retention increases due to a crappy job market.  Strategic outcomes are strategic outcomes and I’m not sure why we think it’s ok for a tactical or environmental condition impacts the “choice” who and when we pursue correcting these business elements.

When I go see my clients, 100% of the time I ask for a copy of this year’s strategic plan.  100% of the time, I’m presented with a document that has a plan with the current year on it. 80% of the time, the elements of that strategy are fundamentally different from last year’s.  The problem with strategy is that we are relenting in our devotion.  The tools and tactics that we use to get to our goals each year can change, but the fact that those long term objectives actually seem to be shifting is extremely problematic.  I’ve been back to see companies I saw 3 years ago with a plan to put in succession systems that don’t have them yet.  Wait, that was the strategic imperative 3 years ago to develop and grow senior bench strength and its’ still not done?

Here are a couple comments:

  • Tie it all together:  We in HR do a decent job tying the annual corporate strategic plan to our HR plans.  We should actually do this in conjunction with tying our strategic plan with the prior year’s as well.  If there is a fundamental shift, we should be able to articulate why that happened.
  • Maintain the roadmap:  If we revisit the strategic roadmap and something big falls off, did it just become less important? or did something get in the way that is blocking us.  Maybe we are not supposed to be eliminating things off the roadmap, but eliminating the blockers instead.
  • Align the leaders:  OK – I get that sometimes you have an new CHRO and they have different ideas.  The corporate world is no longer about leaders being dictators.  They have an equal responsibility to express why they are making huge shifts in the roadmap, and why one program is going to be valued more highly than the current – and they are responsible for articulating why that is going to serve the business strategy better than what we already came up with.

A plan is a plan, and things do get in the way.  I know I’ll be generally fit by August, and I’ll suck before that.  But when we have a plan that will foundationally improve our ability to advance the business and we can’t get there due to changes in direction (which will also get changed in a couple years and never get done themselves), we have got to realize we’re a bit messed up.  I love the Lloyd Wright quote.  Based on my experience with 80+ percent of organizations I see, some unremitting devotion is in order.

Thinking Like A Leader

On my recent Taiwan trip with my family, one of my uncles tagged along for much of the tour.  I really like this uncle as he is often quite interesting to talk to, and is an extremely smart guy.  He’s been retired for a while from his last job as the COE of a major electronics manufacturer, and now sits on the boards of several companies.  To say he’s smart is a but lame actually.  Chances are that the touchscreen you use on your phone or tablet were created by him – literally he is the patent holder.  So as usual when I see him, I’d try to engage him in any number of conversations from Taiwanese politics, the economy, history, the future of personal devices, etc.  Ultimately it occurred to me that these conversations seemed to be extremely short lived.  The extension of the conversations were quite long however, but always seemed to end up being about LCD touch panel displays.  At some point, I finally realized that it was all he either wanted to talk about, or could talk about.

Imagine this: you ask me a question about benefit plan strategy, and all I can talk about is benefit enrollment technology. (I do have my CEBS by the way, even though I never talk benefits).  Or if what you really want to know is best practices around transforming HR business partners into internal management consultants and I give you the pitch about how manager self service will free up time for you to work on that project.  It’s all good and sort of related, but really it’s not.  The problem is larger than random bloggers who have a one track mind though.  It’s not even a problem with HR technologists who do tend to be a bit “focused.”

I’ve spent years doing strategy projects from comp, HRIT, and service delivery organizations and they pretty much all have one guiding principle in common: the need to bring better value to the business.  We’re excellent at thinking about it, but we’re not so good at implementing it.  When we go to the business leaders we’ve promised ourselves to serve and communicate with better, inevitably, we fall back to the same conversations, “Here’s how we are restructuring HR to provide better service to you, our customer.”  It’s as if we think they care about our Talent Management project, or that we will be implementing new job codes.  These are just headache projects to them that mean more work they will need to bear in the short term.  At the end of the day, we’re trying to have the right conversations, but we’re are approaching them in the wrong way.  The end result is we just talk about the stuff we know, instead of the stuff they care about.

Here are some tips:

  • Approach every leader conversation not as an update, but as a change management conversation.  If you do this, you are less likely to talk about the details and dynamics of the project, and much more likely to talk about why the project is important for the business and how the decisions you will be making right now will positively impact the leader.  You’ll also be better positioned to ask the leader to make decisions if they understand the context of how it fits into her business.
  • Bring your guiding principles and strategy documents to every meeting.  Unless you meet with the leader every week, it won’t get redundant to spend 3 minutes at the start of each meeting revalidating the strategy and guiding principles.  It might be the best time you spend, drilling your leader with your core outcomes.  Without it, you risk a disconnect at the end of the project.  With it, you have a leader who will actively sponsor you if she continues to stay on board, and you’ll know this if you stay in front of it.
  • End every meeting by making your leader agree that they get it and you are on track.  If they don’t get it or think you are off track, make them verbalize this and why they think so.  Most leaders who verbally tell you good news consistently and repeatedly either believe it to be true, or will convince themselves out of sheer repetition over time. (that’s not cynical, it’s psychology)
  • Leave the project plan in at your desk.  Leaders only care about budget and timeframes if you’re totally off track and there is business impact.  Otherwise, just bring up the decisions that will be made in the context of pros and cons.

It’s totally human nature to talk about what we know best, and that is what we do every day.  But we risk sounding like a broken record that nobody was interested in in the first place.  What business leaders want to hear about is not our stuff in HR, it’s their stuff.  So long as we can figure out how to talk about their stuff, we’ll be in good shape.  I’m not so sure most of us are in good shape right now.

How To Give All The Wrong Answers

As per my last post,at the end of 2012, I was doing a family vacation in Taiwan.  Being with family for 2 weeks is quite an expose into mannerisms that each of us have.  I was particularly intrigued by my brother’s questioning of my mother.  My brother would constantly ask my mother things like “why are we going to [city_name]?” instead of “what are we planning to do when we get there?” and “how much time will I need to prepare the kids to sit in the car?”  Luckily, we had my mother there fueling the ridiculous line of questioning.  90% of the time, her answers had nothing to do with the questions he was asking.

  • “Why are we going to [city_name]?” “Oh, let me tell you, when I was growing up, I used to play with my cousins there.”
  • “Mom, why are we going to [city_name]?” “Oh, did you see that beautiful view over there?”
  • “Mom, can you please just tell me why were are going to [city_name]?” “Don’t worry, you will love it.  It’s beautiful there.”

There are two items I’d like to diagnose.  First, are we actually listening to the question?  Second, did we understand the question?

The first is fascinating to me because I’m not sure we actually are listening.  Many of our reporting organizations are pure intake, create, output engines.  We grab the data that is asked for, create the report and send it out hoping we got it right.  Basically, we are spec takers.  Second question follows right after the first.  Much of the time, we don’t know why report requesters want the data at all.  We could be asking ourselves why they want to know, and if the data we are providing helps them solve a problem.  If we are really cool, we could be asking if they are even trying to solve the right problem or not.

Here are a few questions you should explore when data requests come your way:

  • How are you going to use the data?
  • What is the core problem you are trying to solve for?
  • Are there other data elements or analysis that we have that can help further?
  • Are there other correlated problems that we should try to answer at the same time?

For all intents and purposes, this post is the exact corollary of the prior on how to ask the right questions.  The problem with being a non-strategic reporting organization is that if the wrong questions get asked, the output is doomed to be the wrong information as well.  But even works, sometimes the wrong question gets asked and we still give the requestor the wrong data back.  All this does is create turn – another report request, or bad data going to managers (who in turn trust HR a little less the next time around).

In the case of my brother, he asked the wrong question in the first place.  It would have been much more advantageous had he explained why it was important for him to prepare the children for the outing, have the right clothes, have enough food along, and maybe get them extra sleep.  I’ll never know if my mother would have given him the right information in return, “yes it usually rains on that side of the island, it’s 40 minutes away, and we will be in a friend’s house so they can’t get too wild.”  But the crafting if the right answer is a tight collaboration of both sides creating understanding of what the objectives are.

 

How To Ask All The Wrong Questions

At the end of 2012, I was doing a family vacation in Taiwan.  When I say family vacation, I mean not just my wife and me, but my brother’s family along with my parents, visiting all of the senior members of the family (an important thing in Asian cultures).  There is an incredible exposure of habits and an interesting (but sometimes undesirable) analysis of where my brother and I got those habits from.  I was particularly intrigued by my brother’s questioning of my mother.  Let’s just say that getting 2 grown sons, their spouses, and our parents together creates a certain amount of strife.

Let’s also just say that my brothers’ hauling around of two young children may have added to the stress – he really needed to understand the daily schedules and what was going to happen when.  Back to the questions: my brother would constantly ask my mother things like “why are we going to [city_name]?” instead of “what are we planning to do when we get there?” and “how much time will I need to prepare the kids to sit in the car?”  (more on my mom’s response in the next post)

The problem in the questions was not the question itself, but in the thought process.  All too often, we ask questions about what we think we are supposed to know.  We want to know about turnover, headcount, spending per employee.  This is information that is useful, but does not actually inform us about what our next actions are.  Being “strategic” to me means that we have a plan, and we are actively managing our programs towards that plan.  If we’re using data that just skims the surface of information, we have no ability to adjust direction and keep going in the right direction.

I’ve often heard storied about HR executives who go into the CEO office for a meeting to present data, and all they get are questions back that cannot be answered.  Some HR teams go into those meetings with huge binders (sometimes binders that I’ve sent with them), and those teams come out still not having answered the questions.  The problem is not with the data.  The problem is that the team has not figured out what the actionable metric is, and what the possible actions are.  No CEO cares about the data – they want action that ties back to what the strategic objective is.  In other words, why do they care?

Here are a couple things you can do to craft better questions:

  • Always think about the root of the question:  HR tends to analyze at the surface more than some other functions.  We have finance doing complex correlations and marketing doing audience analysis.  We’re reporting headcount and turnover to executives.  What kind of crap is that?
  • Be a child:  Ask why/what/how up to 3 times.  Why 1: “Why are we going to [city_name]?”  Why 2: “Why do I want to know what we are going to do there?” What 3: “What do the kids need to be prepared with?”
  • Take action:  If you ask a question that can be answered in such a way that you can’t take action, you asked the wrong question.
  • Create an intake form that customers can request through: make sure you ask the right questions here to ensure they think through the process and understand what they need.

Many of the organizations I consult with have some pretty robust analytics organizations.  When I dig under the covers, they are reacting to create ad hoc reports for managers and HR business partners.  Once a quarter they scramble to create a CEO report card to depict the state of HR programs.  This state is sad to me.  We should be doing deeper analysis and diagnosis on a daily basis.  If we asked the HRBP’s what/why that wanted data for, we’d probably find there is a huge amour of quality analysis being performed in silos that could be leveraged organizationally.