Three key focus areas every leader should be thinking about right now in order to create a more collaborative, outcome-focused culture
According to a recent Gallup report, employees who strongly agree that they can link their individual and professional goals to those of the organization are 3.5 times more likely to be valuable contributors in their current and future roles. Unfortunately, only 44% of individuals strongly agree they can see this connection.
This resource is intended to get to the crux of what leaders should be thinking about right now in order to create a more collaborative, performant organizational culture in 2021. It’s called a “quick-start guide” because it outlines the most important activities and conversations every enterprise leader should be prioritizing in order to adapt on the fly and create a culture of healthy, sustainable, and performance-driven accountability.
It's really about being able to step back and say, ‘I'm responding to this change, and I'm willing, as a leader myself, to change my value prop … potentially at the cost of my own comfort because that's ultimately what I think good leadership will look like in the future and what will win in the market.
— Ryan Kinane, Sr. Principal Program Lead,
Organizational Planning & Agility, Chick-fil-A
50% of the S&P 500 are expected to be replaced by 2030. So, at a time when the future, in general, is still largely uncertain, it’s absolutely critical that you work to create a more open, collaborative environment where individuals have access to the info they need in order to work smartly and autonomously so that they can make well-informed decisions for the greater good of the team and organization.
When things are going well, meaningful change or adaptation often struggles to take hold, particularly since there isn’t a prevailing feeling that anything needs to change. Yet, recent events have taught us that proactive change is absolutely necessary. In fact, you’re likely feeling the intense spotlight that’s again illuminated many of the most common, yet problematic bugaboos in an enterprise environment: misaligned initiatives, siloed teams, inefficient or overly bureaucratic processes, atrophied capabilities (as a likely result of positive reinforcement from false-positive market signals), and perhaps in some instances, even a loss of cultural “grit.”
Still, though, while it may feel contrived or manufactured, there is reason to be optimistic. You won’t have all the answers right now, and you’re not expected to, either. Good news: Your ability to lead through difficult times is not dependent on having all the answers. It is, however, largely dependent on your ability to overcome barriers, rally others to the cause, and create a more transparent culture where accountability can be directly tied to specific, strategic objectives.
It’s likely that many of your recent plans have been radically altered, including your organization’s top-level business objectives. So, making sure that you and your team are still pointed in the right direction is likely more difficult—yet necessary—than at any point in recent memory.
It can be far too easy to discount clarity of purpose and/or transparency as nothing but an unnecessary luxury for teams and individuals. In fact, it isn’t a luxury at all; it’s a necessity. What you’ve been presented with, then, is an opportunity in time to reset expectations, course correct (as best as possible), and do what’s necessary to create clarity of purpose for all involved. Doing so allows each individual to visualize exactly how their work ladders up to the business’ objectives, to identify where natural points of collaboration exist between teams, and to shift effort, energy, and focus toward value.
So, perhaps more so than any other move you can make right now, your first and most critical step is to re-confirm your strategic, organizational objectives (since they likely shifted or changed entirely over the course of the past year). This is your starting point. Simply, if you have clarity of purpose and alignment to specific outcomes, you have meaning. And when you have meaning, you’re able to create value—both for the organization and your team—because you see the bigger picture. Transparency becomes more sustainable and self-serve when all involved can clearly map the big picture to their day-to-day.
Historically speaking, true accountability in the Fortune 500 environment has largely been siloed, isolated, and confidential. I think it’s mostly a side effect of size and structure, but also probably a little bit of complacency, to be honest.I'm now trying to help my teams move toward an attitude that accountability is communal … it's blameless, and it's all about how we keep getting better together.
— Kramer Johnson, Agile Transformation, Restaurant Training,
Key decisions can sometimes be made in a vacuum, then broadcast more broadly to those affected—whether directly or indirectly—by a certain decision.
In and of itself, such a sequence of events isn’t particularly troublesome, especially in circumstances where the very nature of the decision requires fewer individuals, less public transparency, and closely guarded sensitivity. Still, though, if key decision-making processes are consistently hidden under a shroud of unnecessary secrecy, the long-term effects can be particularly damaging to teams, business units, and the organization as a whole.
This isn’t to say that you should advocate for transparency at all costs in all situations (we wouldn’t pretend to make that claim). As a leader, however, you should take it upon yourself to push for situational transparency in order to reduce or eliminate “decision-making theatre,” which is often overly exclusionary and rarely serves a constructive purpose.
Yet, actually creating meaningful momentum toward transparency may not come naturally (or may even be met with a fair bit of fear and anxiety), especially if you’ve spent a considerable amount of your career learning to prosper in a highly bureaucratic environment. If, over the course of your career, you’ve been hard-wired to “perfect and protect”—instead of “progress and share”—you’ll likely find it more difficult to alter and model desired transparent behavior. Nevertheless, it is possible to make serious strides toward eliminating the theatre of decision making. Thoughtful transparency can magnify desired alignment around your objectives to produce positive energy toward each new decision made.
Healthy organizational accountability requires a cultural shift that views success as a journey of targeted, imperfect experiments where the only goal is continuous progression, not perfection.
— Josh Stanley, President, RevUnit
If you’ve historically struggled with the notion of progress over perfection, you’re not alone.Many leaders—especially those who’ve built a successful career doing things a certain way, find it difficult (and potentially unnecessary) to seek out opportunities to share half-baked thoughts, real-time progress, in-flight decisions, and other details that border on the confidential because they’re hesitant to accept the perceived social pressure that accompanies such transparency.
Similarly, if push came to shove, many leaders would be hard-pressed to welcome such open transparency—whether individually or on behalf of their team(s)—because they’re often fearful that such openness could, at some point, work against them as they continue to advance their career (especially if the results aren’t there).
Consequently, many have clung tightly to the notion that it’s far easier to reveal critical information only after it’s reached a general state of completeness. In most cases, the average professional would prefer to wait until the story of success is clearly written before revealing the details simply because it’s usually far more comfortable than the alternative.
Even still, individual, team, and organizational failure is still often seen as a flaw of professional character or a capability deficiency as opposed to exactly what it is — a necessary, repeated outcome that you’ll encounter often. So, while it sounds obvious, remember that your path—both individually and at an organizational level—will include “more misses than makes.” Your job is to aim for continuous progression. To do so, you’ll need to establish a common performance language that creates shared accountability of outcomes, not outputs.
I see visualizing work as one of those softer ways to create a culture of accountability — and potentially even a culture of inspiration. I'm inspired to do the work and put in the effort because I see the work, and I see my name next to it, and I see what it connects to, and what that could mean for the business.
— Ryan Kinane, Sr. Principal Program Lead,
Organizational Planning & Agility, Chick-fil-A
Most large companies are made up of dozens of business units or functional departments, all of whom utilize different methodologies, vocabularies, and tools to get work done, often without knowing whether or not their work is contributing meaningfully.
That’s why creating accountability to outcomes must start at the leadership level; that is, those in leadership positions need to first recognize and agree that real change is needed. If this sort of “buy-in” isn’t present (or isn’t communicated more broadly), you just won’t see any sort of meaningful change. It’s critical, too, that leaders openly acknowledge the very real challenges and difficulties that will likely exist in transitioning toward a more outcome-driven environment. Simply, don’t shy away from that which will be difficult. Address those challenges head on, and ensure that you’re sending supportive behavioral signals to your teams.
One such signal should be the adoption and implementation of a unified performance language. Truthfully, that sounds fancier or perhaps more scientific than it should. For instance, you’re likely familiar with the popular OKR Framework (Objectives and Key Results), or the concept of either SMART of FAST goals. We won’t get into the merits of each framework in this guide (nor is it critically important that you remain steadfastly loyal to one over the other). Instead, what matters most is that the organization chooses a goal-setting method that: (1) Makes sense for their dynamics, (2) Can be communicated clearly, and (3) Includes guidance for teams that outlines how to most effectively use the selected method to create clarity of purpose for teams and individuals.
To really have transparency of in-progress work and status of outcomes, you need a common way to track the progress and surface it in a way that’s easily understood across the organization.
— David Baker, SVP, Client Experience, RevUnit
Your goal—once you’ve adopted a common performance language—then becomes to make sure that you’re regularly capturing and visualizing progress toward those outcomes. In doing so, what you’re actually doing—whether you’re acutely aware of it or not—is essentially an exercise in data collection, visualization, and storytelling (a topic deserving of a more in-depth guide in its own right). Even still, there are a couple of components that are critical to visualize real-time progress.
First, you’ll need to implement some baseline data governance standards that outline, at a minimum: critical data points that will be needed in order to enable progress visualization at scale, the methods and processes by which you’ll collect that data, how you’ll go about verifying the accuracy of the data, how often you’ll report on critical progress, and ultimately, how all of that progress is then presented in a useful, easily understood manner for various audiences within the organization (each of whom is likely to need the same data served in a slightly different view).
It’s worth acknowledging that this process, in and of itself, is a massive cultural shift for most organizations. It’s not easy, nor does it happen overnight.
Second, there is a very real need for relatively homogenous tooling in this case. Things can quickly become messy, confusing, and especially detrimental to progress when teams are all using different tools for similar purposes. Thus, it’s equally important that organizations and their teams take some opinionated stances when it comes to tooling. In this case, less is more. You have to get all involved to agree on a select few tools that serve the most critical need (in this case progress tracking) in order to democratize data collection, break down data silos, and enforce basic data governance practices that allow systems, teams, and individuals to share progress more easily.
Most individuals say that they struggle to see the connection between their own goals and those of the organization (only 44% say they can see the connection). Most lack clarity of focus and purpose in their work, which casts real doubt as to whether or not those teams and individuals are working on the right things, or the things that will actually deliver value in the places that will have the greatest impact for the organization.
Yet, as a leader, you have a unique opportunity; the need for healthy, accountable, and outcome-driven performance has never been more real. That said, you won’t be able to create a more transparent organization without key partners and executive-level sponsorship. That’s true of most provocative change at scale, so should be neither surprising nor discouraging.
You can, however, take action today to advance the cause, create clarity of purpose for your teams, lead with trust (not title), control both how you and your teams make use of data, and thus, your ability to model the type of change you want to see within the rest of the organization. Doing so isn’t easy, but by taking consistent, deliberate action that’s aligned with what’s most important to the business, you’re more likely to create the type of cultural transparency that creates meaning and value for individuals, team, and organization.