The big arrow or how important is alignment when you plan the future

Several years ago I was hired to facilitate executive team off-site meeting in a mid-sized company.  The goal of the meeting shred to me was to find opportunities for upgrading their efforts and results during the next year. Everyone looked engaged,  presentations were going as planned,  people were strict with the timekeeping.  At the beginning, or at least in the first half of the day it seemed they have excellent preparation and didn’t need a facilitator. I walked through the room and talked with different executives,  just to find that from their perspective, everything looked just perfect –  structured presentations, time management,  respect to each other. All of them expressed similar information. In the end, I wanted to talk with the CEO about his position.  My surprise in the beginning was that the CO  didn’t share other enthusiasm and has seen it from a different angle. In his eyes people were defensive and ready to collaborate and focused only on themselves.

After this short conversation, I started looking more carefully into details and soon I have understood what this team main challenge was. They were not thinking as a team.

Each person represented different parts of the business of the company. He or she had its concerns and goals, but they weren’t aligned with others or in some cases even opposing them. No one had the “big picture”. No one was looking for a one body company strategy. Instead they were trying to plan only for their department without any interest how their plans are going to affect other departments. None of the people in the room was committed to a higher purpose than the one of its department. If I have to  represent it with  a graph may be the best visual  can be an arrow with  detached internal powers.

What I quickly understood is that each person in the room was thinking only on his or her arrow,  or their piece in the company,  but no one knew where its department or goals are positioned into the whole company and how are they connected or opposed to the others goals. It could have been fine if each of them was running a separate company, but they weren’t.   I couldn’t blame them for that. They were all smart, educated and energy and purpose-driven people.  All of them understood very well the importance of having a solid strategy, committed to a larger purpose.  What they missed was to set a reminder to help them stay on track with the larger company’s purpose and goal.

At the next pause, I have asked them to come with me to one of the flipcharts and draw there the arrow from the figure above with all the small arrows inside. Then I explained to them what  I have observed and how their strong strategies and goals are missing the big picture the CEO sees and the company aims to achieve. 

After that, we started debating again on the goals each department has set.  We reduced some of the goals,  redefined others, removed some of the projects and combined others.  It took u more than 3 hours, but in the end, we had a strategy and goals containing 35% fewer goals and 11 projects less. Then I stand up and draw again an arrow, but this time when I filled the content of small arrows they looked different.  There was no clue of the chaotic show up in the beginning and while I was drawing the arrow I have explained every step e got trough.

When I asked of the perception of this second arrow I got a different answer than in the beginning. The leaders in the room have understood that as clear and aligned the strategy is as many and bigger results they will achieve as a team and company.  The alignment set back some of the goals departments have set independently but gave them strength to focus on important and interdepartmental goals with higher impact on company goals and results. Then, after almost 4  hours of hard work, this leadership team set up goals and agreed on them in less than 20 minutes. We were able to discuss clients they wanted to acquire and serve, vendors, brands,  the products they were able to produce as a company,  the processes in the manufacturing, etc. The discussion then went in so short time (less than 20 minutes),  because these leaders weren’t designing a new strategy, but reminding each  other on already well-developed strategy. Then we moved to the most challenging part of the day – making decisions.  This part is challenging because it insists on courage  to make choices and set priorities, take on or off opportunities,  focus on and admit problems that can’t be ignored.

Here everyone shifted their small arrows in the direction of the big arrow.  Some of the conversations got emotional and some people started acting defensive. But still,  the conversation remains productive, respectful and clearly focused on the big arrow.

If you have to do a similar workshop and don’t feel safe to finish it successfully then you will need to focus on something.  I have focused on this group  on two  min things, that  defined our direction and level of achieved results:

The big arrow

Every time you meet to discuss something you need to focus on the long term goal(your big arrow). It sets direction, sets boundaries, energizes discussion.  This big arrow also serves as a filter for decision making for assessing viability  and productivity of each decision.

Emotional  courage

Aligning all small arrows to the direction of the big arrow is the most challenging leadership job.  It is also emotionally hard.  You will need to decide if you must say  “No” to a tempting opportunity and accept a strategy that will move your company to a sustainable long term goal. This is always hard, because people, no matter the position or experience are always searching for the shortest way to win. This is where the leadership shows it’s full power and potential.  Being immunized from short term fast decisions you will need to focus on explaining and selling long term success to your team.

IN CONCLUSION:

No matter what metaphor you will use (big arrow,  triangle, etc.) your most challenging task as a leader is to look over the next day and set clear direction for your team and company to achieve better and more impactful results in the long term.  Being emotionally grown person and having clear direction in your mind about the “big picture” you want to draw will help you and your team in the process of setting and achieving most fulfilling and successful goals and strategies.

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