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The importance of understanding the why

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When asked about strategy and high performance, I always reference Nasa, JFK and the janitor. 

You’ve heard the story surely? President Kennedy was visiting Nasa headquarters for the first time, in 1961. While touring the facility, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at Nasa – his response “I’m helping put a man on the moon!” The janitor got it: he understood the vision, and his part in it, and he had purpose.  

Business owners regularly ask me how they can get the best out of their teams: how they can keep their staff motivated; how they increase productivity and profit; how they can engage their people with their overall plan. 

When I ask them how they share their vision and strategy with their teams, often the response is pretty short.  

We don’t.  

Ahh, is typically my first response.   

Let’s look at another example, one closer to home.  Team New Zealand, referred every decision they made back to one question: “does it make the boat go faster.” Everything the team did every single day, was anchored (excuse the pun) around that question – that vision, that strategy.  

“Will it make the boat go faster?”

So why are we not sharing our strategies and goals with our team – generally with the same group of people we expect to carry out the work to achieve our goals?  

Business leaders tell me: “Well it’s complicated, it’s commercially sensitive, they don’t need to know the numbers, it’s all in my head, we have financial KPIs, that’s all they need surely” and the list goes on.  

The other question is, what’s the downside of not sharing the big picture?  

Lack of engagement, disinterest, high turnover, lack of commitment and loyalty, mistakes and errors and the list goes on.

In my simple mind, sharing strategy and vision doesn’t have to be overly complicated or time consuming. But you must do it!  

How can we really expect everyone in the business to help us excel if they don’t have clear direction; don’t understand what part they play in the business; and don’t understand how they will be compensated for their involvement?   

The janitor at Nasa could have easily replied to JFK by saying: 

“I clean floors here.” But he didn’t.  

The leadership team had made sure that every single person at Nasa knew what part they played in achieving the bigger goal. They all knew how to make that boat go faster – well, rocket, in this case.

Let’s make it easy.

If you’re responsible for coming up with the big ideas and driving business strategy in your organisation, firstly, write down your plan.  

Don’t keep it bottled up in your head.  

Still haven’t met too many staff who excel in mind-reading.  

First, share it with those to whom you report and get their feedback and ideas.  

Own it and then share it with everyone else in the business. 

Ask for their ideas. They might actually be better than yours.  

Explain what you’re trying to achieve, what the timeframes are and what success could look like.  

The best strategy docs I’ve seen are succinct and generally fit on an A3 sheet of paper.  

When folks drift off course and the boat starts to lag, then correct their position – help them understand they may need to tack a different way to help achieve the company’s goals.  

High performance can absolutely be achieved if you regularly talk about the goals you want to achieve, explain what each person’s role is in that, give feedback, recognise awesomeness and coach when you need to draw people back in the right direction.

And then, repeat.

Lastly, if individuals have a strong sense of why they are doing their work, they will become more effective and more efficient in everything they do.  

Help your teams understand their why and your boat may just go a heck of a lot faster! 

• See also: Your staff are your brand

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About Author

Senga Allen

Human Resource specialist and managing director, Everest Group Ltd Waikato HR Specialists www.everestgroup.co.nz