Sunday, January 9, 2011

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.


Christian Fey said...

Thank you Dan for this! So often people believe they see the big picture for the future posturing of an organization, and yet, have no real and clear understanding of what that entails. When managers are on different "pages" with regard to strategy, a shared vision is nigh impossible to attain.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much. As a small business owner I AM the CEO. If I can’t answer these questions clearly and concisely I’m just awash in the seas of despair. I’m screwed. I need to take a look at my goals and make sure I’m focused on the right areas. Great post. I need to print this one off.

Julie McManus said...

Dan, thank you for sharing. Steve Trautman makes it clear that communication skills are critical and that the failure to communicate lays squarely in the hands of the leader. I don't think we can hear this message too often.

Pat Sheehan said...

How sad it is that we are so accepting of dictatorial behaviours from people who claim to be leaders. We need to explore the concept of leadership bit more deeply; I would have thought to be a leader, one needed followers. These egos out of control are unlikely to have followers. Thanks Dan for a great article.
Pat Sheehan

Mike Henry Sr. said...


Great post. I saw the Dilbert too and laughed out loud. Your five questions are great. Sometimes I like to suggest to teammates that if you understand what your customer is trying to accomplish, that is the foundation.

Dan McCarthy said...

Christian, leaderinme, Julie, Pat, Mike -
Thanks for commenting on Steve's guest post. I love it when I can connect readers with great new content like his - and get lot's of thanks! (-:

Sunita Bhagatjee said...

Thanks for this post.
You were very right when you call these " Baseline information'
Will be very helpful to all who read this,am sure.

joek said...

Great article. I work in education and it is sometimes hard for teachers to really look at these topics. This will be a great exercise.

Dan McCarthy said...

Sunita, Joek -
Thanks for your comments! Hmmm, I wonder if these questions could be answered by faculty?

Daddy-O said...

Understanding these critical building blocks is a necessary (though not sufficient) step towards employee engagement. If your people don't know the competition, it is difficult to see how they can beat the competition.

More here:

Dan McCarthy said...

Andy -
Thanks for your comment!

Jude Fischer said...

Thanks for posting Steve's thoughts, Dan. A great reminder of the need for effective communication channels in both directions. After all, it's not only important for the front-line team to be able to convey the corporate "big picture," it's also important for them to be able to communicate back how well that picture is being viewed (i.e. accepted) on the street -- without fear of having their head chopped for so-called dissention.

Dan McCarthy said...

Jude -
Good point on being willing to listen. Without that feedback, execs run the risk of being iosolated from reality.

Keith R Szewczyk said...

Dan great topic! As a senior executive responsible for defining strategy and delivering results, I agree that vision and strategy is critical. If the vision is wrong and the strategy is not correct a company will be spinning their wheels. The "Big Picture" must be carefully defined and vetted by the executive team using market data and trends. Most company's get this wrong and either not maximizing their potential or just simply causing self destruction to the organization. Also, be humble and hire experts to get involved in the vision and strategy only get one chance to get this right!