How to prepare for influencing and leading from the middle

Nowadays we often hear about strategic planning. In almost any organization you can here people from the CEO to the junior specialist, being part of this process. People plan strategically about anything-  from 5-10 years vision to how to change a 3rd party, low-level supplier. And there is so much stress in this process. Companies research markets,  gather data and use it to ensure that the plan will meet stakeholders expectations.

Senior leaders present shiny presentations filled with numbers and graphics.  But the hardest work on this strategic framework is always in the hands of the middle management in each company. The group of people, representing this organizational layer is often stressed out by the senior leadership team to prepare the best strategy for growth that their department or team can fulfill. But in most of the cases what happens as a result is unsatisfactory, because companies invest a lot in building soft skills, but many  of them don’t have a structured approach  or tools, how to analyze the environment, to get the most comprehensive information to help  their mid-level managers and  leaders to better structure their strategic plans for growth.

In my experience, I have used three tools that have helped me to better structure my strategy and milestones for achieving great results. The funny thing is that  I hear many people around me talking about these tools, but few of them using them to get to the information they need in full, to ensure a meaningful and challenging strategy that leads to results and sells to the senior leadership team successfully.

These tools I will shortly present for you below. But first, you need to understand that they are more effective if you collaborate with other colleagues and use collective knowledge, experience, and insights to produce a quality strategic analysis. The ability to use the tools is not based on your seniority in the organization, but on the level of collecting and analyzing information skills, you have built. These tools can be used separately or together. They are usually employed in the early stages of the strategic planning process.

To use them,  you will need to focus on initiating a strategic conversation with other colleagues. The most important element of this conversation should be to ensure that all participants are heard and that their views are respected by others.  The outcomes from a strategic planning conversation you can easily use to influence senior leadership team about key priorities. That will lead to enrichment of the development of organizational strategy and will also  create a greater awareness of the actual  organizational  culture:

PESTLE ANALYSIS

This analysis enables you to examine the internal and external environment of the organization and search for relevant political, economic, social, technological, legal and environmental factors, that can affect your strategic planning process. Let us look at each of the factors included in this analysis, shortly:

P (POLITICAL) –Includes the wider policy and regulatory environment in which organization exists and operates and the role of the key stakeholders for this organization. Here you must collect information about the stability of the political environment, budget policies shifting and what effect they have on organization and least but not last the political agenda for different stakeholders for the organization.

E (ECONOMIC) – Refer to the long-term prospects for the economy in the field organization operates.  They include different hosts of issues. Here you can look at unemployment level and rates, interest rates, levels of income and supply demands and expenses.

S (SOCIAL) – Includes social, demographic changes such as population growth, migration rates, and patterns over time, gender and diversity issues, based on cultural differences that may affect the organization.

T (TECHNOLOGICAL) – Can be referred to the technological developments and innovations in a very broad sense. Often it is seen as the way the new or outdated technologies can impact organizational performance. What new needs can technology development create, how will it affect processes and people in the organization, etc?

L (LEGAL) – Connected with the laws and regulations in the area. What is the current situation, are there planned discussions for new laws or regulations that can affect the business of the organization, etc.

E (ENVIRONMENTAL) – Describes how is the organization acting against environmental regulations. Are there any that may change the business model or generate uncertainty or discomfort.

Combining information from all these factors can give you a very good understanding of the environment in a historical way.

SWOT ANALYSIS

This type of analysis is a way of identifying strengths and weaknesses, as well as opportunities and threats that an organization can face. After using this tool you will know better where to focus to ensure that you haven’t missed a great opportunity.  The SWOT tool analyses strengths and weaknesses which usually are internal factors you can influence. You must focus on them with this tool by recognizing that the other two factors – opportunities and traits are external and you don’t have control over them. The best you can do with the external factors is to analyze the possibility they can show and prepare the organization for minimizing risks and maximizing opportunities when they appear.

The SWOT analysis involves a series of questions you can use to aim at a specific problem. Some of the areas you can formulate these questions are listed below in each of the pillars of the SWOT analysis:  

STRENGTHS questions:

  • What is an organization is known for? (advantages, outperforming of others in the field)
  • What is the organization doing well or better than others? (projects, activities, etc.)
  • What aspects of organizational structure works well?
  • What are the strengths of organization employees?
  • Who are the main stakeholders and are they going to change? (in terms of complexity)

WEAKNESSES questions: What are the main challenges? (disadvantages related to others in the same field)

  • What is the organization doing worse than others in the field?
  • What aspects of the organizational structure need attention?
  • What patterns should be avoided?

OPPORTUNITIES questions:

  • What are the trends that could become or open opportunities? (geography, technologies, demand, supply, etc.)
  • Are there changes in government policies? (current or expected)
  • Are there changes in social patterns? (values changes, population changes, etc.)
  • Are there any events that may discover new opportunities?

THREATS questions:

  • What obstacles are more likely to emerge?
  • How can current or new competitors affect business?
  • Can technological changes become a threat and how?
  • Could any changes in policies affect the organization in a negative way?

CULTURAL MAPPING

Your organization culture can have an important impact on the way strategy is developed and after that implemented. The compatibility with organizational culture is key to achieving strategic goals and priorities. One of the major indicators of successful organizational change is the way that everyone understands cultural norms.  For ensuring the process of cultural mapping and analysis happens, the role of mid-managers a professional is crucial. This tool is a powerful way to influence change in the organization. It consists of two major steps, that are working to form the image of the organizational culture and identity.

Step one – Data Collection

To collect and model information about organizational structure, you will need to focus on six basic pillars. By executing the process of data collection you will have to try to avoid judging the information that you collect. The judging must come from the cultural norms and beliefs in the organization. Look below to identify the six categories of cultural mapping questions and what the useful questions for each category are.

1. Stories – they are part of the company life. The questions useful to extract information from stories:

  • What stories are told across the organization?
  • What are these stories related to? (strengths, weaknesses,  failures or successes)
  • What are these stories about? (Mavericks,  heroes,  villains, etc.)
  • What beliefs these do stories represent?
  • How these stories sustain an organizational culture?

2. Symbols – they represent the company best-recognized elements.  You  can extract them by using similar questions such  as:

  • What form of language is used in the organization? (formal, informal, jargon, specialized language, etc.)
  • How understandable is the used type of language for people outside the organization?
  • What are all the symbols of the organization? (logo, uniform,  website, office, parking, perks, etc.)
  • What and how is communicated about the organization? (financial  statements,  direction, experience, staff news, good or bad news, etc.)

3. Power structures – these questions will help you to understand how the power is distributed across the organization. Here you  can add some questions like:

  • How is power distributed? (power of stakeholders)
  • How power distribution affects culture and change? (cultural sustainability, the impact of change to the organization)
  • How do employees speak about people with power?

4. Organizational structure – these questions give you an idea of how the organizational structure supports or delays decisions. Some of the questions here are:

  • What type is the structure? (flat, hierarchical, etc.)
  • What is the level of formality? (formal or informal  structure)
  • What does this structure support as an interaction? ( collaborative or competitive structure)
  • How do different parts of the structure interact?
  • How is this structure aligned with organizational values and culture?

5. Control systems –   these questions are more connected with the level of control in the organization. To explore further this topic you can ask:

  • What is important to be measured in the organization?
  • How are control systems and measurements, related to the organizational strategy?
  • How are organizational culture and people behavior impacted the control systems and tools for measurement?

6. Rituals and routines – these questions come from the forming phase of the organizational culture. To explore in this area, you will need to include questions such  as:

  • What are the key organizational rituals and what values and beliefs do they reveal?
  • What behaviors do they encourage or discourage?
  • How routines reinforce cultural norms of the organization?
  • What will look indifferent if a ritual or routine changes?
  • How easy it is to change these rituals or routines?

Step two – Data Analysis

After finishing with the first step you will have enough amount of information about the culture of the organization. In some cases, it can also become a confusing mass and some of the details may appear unnecessary.  To conduct your analysis, you will have to go through a complex process that can take a lot of time. To optimize that process you will need a good tool to manipulate the data collected. But also, you will need a strategy to help you move forward fast. Here I’m offering you several steps to move through the sea of information you have collected:

  • Chose a method of presenting information that will allow you to easily display it visually;
  • Summarize details from all six areas into themes;
  • Look for patterns in each of the six areas;
  • Summarize the patterns;
  • Create a strong statement, based on the patterns and representing the current look of the organizational culture;
  • Center the created statement and add details from each of the six areas you have explored;

After doing all this work you are now ready to move forward with your statement.  With all this collected and analyzed information, you can now go to the senior leadership team and present the findings you, maid. As stronger your analyses and facts are, as stronger and qualitative your impact or influence can be.

IN CONCLUSION:

Leaders from the middle are one of the most unappreciated groups from the organizational population. But with a structured approach and enough strong evidence, based on the deep and qualitative analysis they can change patterns and whole organizational strategies, and influence long term decisions and significant transformations within organizations. The only thing they need is persistence in their plans.  

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