Five Questions to Test Understanding of Strategy and the Big Picture

The following guest post really struck a nerve for me. I love the opening dialog – I can’t you how many times I’ve overheard the exact same conversation. In fact, when you see it in Dilbert, then you know it to be true.

From yesterday’s (1/8/11) Dilbert comic:
Wally: “I’ve decided to become more of a big picture guy. Lesser minds can do the managing and implementing while I criticize them for “not getting it”.
Dilbert: “So…… you want to paid for being a jerk?”
Wally: “Said the implementer”.

Steve Trautman really nails it, and offers a “look in the mirror” test for executives with this guest post:

I once had an executive tell me that he had fired an employee because the employee didn’t “get the big picture.” A dialog ensued between us that went something like this:

Me: “I’m sorry to hear that you had to let Mike go. What happened?”
Executive: “He just didn’t get the big picture.”
Me: “That sounds bad. What do you mean?”
Executive: “He just didn’t get it.”
Me: “Get what?”
Executive: “The big picture.”

And so on…

You get the idea. As is often the case, what is obvious to senior leaders is not obvious to their teams. Strategy and the big picture are two concepts that often fall into this category. Top leaders nod knowingly as they discuss these concepts while others on the team are left wanting.

And the consequences are extremely costly. When strategy and the big picture are unclear, people can end up working very hard on the wrong thing, make poor decisions and even quit out of frustration. As the economy recovers, executives and their talent management teams will be dealing with onboarding new employees, as well as retention issues with their existing teams. Turnover becomes even more of a risk if strategy and the big picture are unclear. An important part of every leader’s talent management efforts must include effectively providing this baseline of information.

The questions are:

• Who is to blame when the strategy and the big picture are not clearly and universally understood? and
• What can be done about it?

When you’re a senior leader, you have an obligation to be certain that your talent management team is clear about your strategy and the big picture. If they don’t “get it,” the first place to look for the problem is in the mirror.

Luckily, the solution to this problem is pretty straightforward and we describe it in detail in our new book The Executive Guide to High-Impact Talent Management, published by McGraw-Hill.

If you’d like to know for sure whether your strategy is understood and can be executed, try testing your team’s ability to discuss the big picture. You can start by setting a standard for what you mean by “getting the big picture.” For example, you could say that if every employee in your organization could answer 5-10 questions about the strategy and sound like their own manager and their immediate teammates, then they “get the big picture.” Conversely, if they can’t answer the questions consistently, it is a measure of being out of touch with the context in which the business is being run. This works at every level from a front-line team all the way up to the C-suite. If you sound like your boss and your peers, you’re golden; if not, you’re likely out of sync.

What, then, are the questions that the team had better be able to answer and how should the executive go about ensuring this information is widely understood? Here are five examples of questions included in our new book:

1. Who are the customers or customer segments we serve, listed in priority order?

2. What are the services we provide now and which ones, if any, need to change as we implement the current strategy?

3. What is our value proposition and how does it set us apart in the marketplace?

4. Which environmental trends/issues (such as market, economic, societal, political or environmental) are important to our strategy?

5. What are three things your division is doing (and/or doing differently) to support the strategy?

Each of these big picture questions gets at the intent behind the strategy. There are right and wrong answers to these questions. Of course, the answers change when the strategy changes.

And, a superficial understanding is not enough. Good people can be working really hard on the wrong thing if their understanding of these questions is off-base. Everyone involved in talent management has to have a deep understanding of the big picture so that they can provide programs with the right mix of staff, skills, tools and processes to execute the strategy.

Regardless of your current job title, you have an obligation to ensure you can answer each of these questions (plus others as needed) for your business. If you’re a senior leader, you have an additional obligation to ensure that everyone in your reporting structure can answer these questions in a manner consistent with your expectations. So, go ahead, walk around and ask the questions. See what you learn and then take action.

Steve Trautman, author of Teach What You Know: A Practical Leader’s Guide to Knowledge Transfer, has advised executives on practical ways to hire, train, motivate, and measure employees to ensure high-impact performance—and profitable outcomes—for more than two decades. Trautman’s tested approach combines humor, street smarts, and boardroom wisdom to give today’s executives what they need to become practical leaders.