In our work on complex matrix organisations we often hear about the challenge of creating goal clarity. Indeed, it can be challenging when you have multiple bosses and work on multiple teams to reconcile competing goals and prioritize accurately.
However sometimes it’s much easier than this. We ask people in our workshops to name the top priorities of their organisation as a whole, in their function and for their team. Most people struggle to articulate their organisation’s overall goals. It’s a real eye-opener for senior leaders who attend.
London business School has found something similar in this article Two thirds of senior managers can’t name their firms’ top priorities
This is nothing to do with multidimensional complexity, it’s about poor communication. All organizations have some overall goals – they are just not well understood by their people. As their managers are the medium through which these goals are achieved (or not) this seems like a problem that should get senior leaders attention
We observe several challenges in the communication of goals, here are three common ones.
- Goals are not communicated regularly or consistently enough. They may have been contained in that 57-page PowerPoint deck that was sent around at the beginning of the year, but if that is the only communication it won’t stick.
- They are not relevant to the individuals concerned – people pay much more attention to the goals that drive their compensation and daily activity. If they cannot see a link between this and the overall goals, then they will prioritize the stuff that’s immediate and relevant.
- There are too many goals. In a complex organization, the corporate goals then flow into functional goals, business unit goals, regional and country goals before emerging as team and individual goals. People are suffering from initiative overload and it’s hard to know which you should pay attention to. These goals compete for our time and attention and are often not well aligned with goals from other parts of the organisation or with the overall corporate goal.
Without clarity on overall corporate goals it can be hard for individuals in the middle of the organisation to prioritize and to manage trade-offs between other goals in their areas of operation. Without this clarity, what criteria are people using to prioritize?
It’s easy enough to check this yourself, get a group of people together and ask them to write down the top three goals of the organisation individually. Then get them to compare their answers collectively and discuss them. See how close they get to the published (I am assuming you have published them, right?) corporate goals.
There is a difference between communicating goals and internalizing them. If they are simply pushed out in a communication they will join a big pile of information sitting in people’s inboxes. If we really want people to internalize the goals and incorporate them into their own, then this is a conversation not a broadcast. We need to discuss the goals and understand what they mean to us. We need to develop our own goals that have a clear “line of sight” to the corporate goals.
We also need to keep attention on the goals throughout the year. Things change and if we don’t keep our focus there is a tendency to chase after the latest thing.
Many organisations define “big bets” and publicize progress towards them. One of our clients, for whom Christmas is a big season, has a senior manager who asks for certain “Christmas presents” from his team and has a year-end celebration to recognize the completion of these important deliverables.
If you don’t allow people to internalize the corporate goals and communicate them clearly and consistently throughout the year don’t be surprised that two thirds of your leaders don’t know what they are. If two thirds of your leaders don’t know what your corporate goals are, it seems unlikely you’re going to achieve them.