Lighting the Fire Within

Recently, I was working with a client who is an ardent supporter of my notion that everyone in the organization has an important role to play in the creation and execution of strategy.

In fact, at CMOE, we believe that developing and executing strategy is less like playing a role and more like performing a duty or fulfilling an obligation to the organization.

Everyone must have an eye on the here-and-now—and an eye on the long-term success of the business. Everyone can and should be proactive, innovative, and able to lead strategic change within their sphere of influence.

My client said that at one level, this concept makes total sense to him and everyone on his team. They had been through the learning phase and had a solid understanding of most of the tools they could use to help create some traction on their strategy.

My client knew that these initial steps would help the team get started with its strategic journey, saying, “I believe my team knows how to do it. I think they can see the benefits intellectually.”

However, he went on to assert that while he knew the team was smart enough to push forward into uncharted strategic space, they still needed help with the actual creation and execution of strategy.

His argument was that they still weren’t quite there in terms of their personalities, history, or motivation to act more strategically.

I asked him, “What is your team really good at?”

He explained that his team members  really excel at their traditional, typical assignments, and they’re great in a crisis. Any time there’s a tight customer deadline or a client-project disaster begins to unfold, the team really knows how to kick it into high gear. They can knock down a grease fire faster than any team my client had ever seen.

But that wasn’t the issue.

He said, “Maybe I can’t expect them to be great strategic thinkers. Maybe what I have is simply a really good team of firefighters—‘operatives’ who can best contribute to the status quo through excelling at their normal, routine responsibilities.” I asked him whether he could live with that, and his response was unquestionably, “NO!”

His feeling was that allowing this to continue would be a death sentence for the team; everyone needed to be engaged in the strategic process in order to move the strategic needle for the organization.

He said, “In this day and age, if we don’t continually transform, we will be obsolete in just a few short years. If we don’t change and adapt, the corporation will likely outsource the operational work my team currently does to a less-expensive, private supplier.”

“Does everyone know that?” I asked.

“I refer to this harsh reality constantly, but we are still stuck,” he said. “I don’t know if people believe me. Every week we have an accountability meeting, and people keep telling me we are doing ‘pretty well’! In fact, many members of my team believe we are winning—but as far as I’m concerned, all we’re ‘winning’ is the battle with the status quo. The challenge is that we are pretty talented, and we keep busy doing the usual stuff. In fact, our KPI seems to suggest that we are well above average in that area, and I agree with that assessment. But when it comes to working on new, creative, proactive projects, everyone seems to think that they don’t have enough time. Instead, they choose to work on tangible, internal, operational problems.”

“It seems pretty obvious to me that you have a classic time issue,” I said. My client seemed intrigued and asked me to say a little more. “If you are asking the members of your team to trust you and invest a small portion of their time and energy working on strategic initiatives, but they are having a hard time getting into the right rhythm and incorporating strategic work into their daily responsibilities, your people are probably being reinforced for taking action in the moment. The future may seem like a long way off.”

Exactly,” he said. “But I don’t know how to light the fire and make a change.”

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About the Author
Steven Stowell, Ph.D.
Dr. Steven J. Stowell is the Founder and President of the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness, Inc. CMOE was created in 1978 for the purpose of helping individuals and teams maximize their effectiveness and create strategic competitiveness. Steve’s special interests lie in helping leaders and organizations transform into high-performance cultures that are focused on long-term, sustained growth.

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