Is your team strategic? Advice for managers who want to say "Yes"
Every team wants to be strategic.
Few of them actually are.
It’s one thing to execute business activities, it’s an entirely different thing to know why you execute them and how they fit into a system or model.
Too many managers (and teams) are activity-centric. They move from one activity to the next in the same way a children’s soccer game is played. There’s one ball, and everyone chases after it. Around and around aimlessly until the game is done. There is only activity. There is no purpose or design or system to give it direction. But yet we want to be seen as strategic.
Does your team operate like this? Do you chase projects and deliverables and tasks around like a kid’s soccer game? Or do you have a real vision and model and system? Are you being led by your activities or do your activities have a clear purpose and role within a higher-order strategic engine?
Today we’re going to talk about how managers can move away from activity-oriented behaviors and towards something more purposeful, and ultimately more effective.
It never ceases to amaze me how few managers can describe their function (and team) as an integrated system. When I ask them about their teams, they tell me about activities, projects, tasks, people. When I ask them to draw me a picture of the system they’ve built and the strategic purpose of that system, I too often get blank stares in return.
The truth is, there are levels to management. To thinking about management and developing a team. To becoming “strategic”. And, in my experience, the upper levels don’t even reveal themselves until you’ve built a strong enough foundation to understand them. I am sure there are many levels I can’t yet comprehend because I haven’t learned enough to be aware of their existence. I don’t know what they are yet, but I’m pretty sure they’re out there waiting for me.
Today I’m going to walk you through how I think about the various levels of management and team development (at least the levels I’m aware of). I hope it’s helpful as you build a vision and model that makes your team more strategic.
Level 1 – Activity Centric
Early in a team’s development they tend to chase activities. This is especially true in early stage companies, where established systems and processes do not yet exist. Teams move from one activity to the next, focused almost entirely on the execution of those activities. They tend to measure success by the individual successes of the activities. Did we run a good event? Did we write a good report? Did we close a deal?
The biggest challenge with an activity-centric approach, (aside from it not being strategic) is that it doesn’t scale. You can’t continue applying the soccer game model as your team and company grow. It won’t work. Moreover, the activity-centric approach tends to be disconnected from the real goals and objectives of the company. When you assign intrinsic value to any one activity e.g. an asset or event or project, you miss the point. Tactical activities actually have no intrinsic value – their only value is in how they connect to a strategic business outcome. You can miss this entirely if your team is too focused on activities.
Level 2 – Function Centric
At a certain point, a manager, and her team by extension, come to realize an activity-oriented model is insufficient. Typically, the leader wakes up one morning with the painful realization that while their team can execute activities, they lack expertise and knowledge of best practices for key functional disciplines. At one time it may have been enough to have generalists working together to execute sequential activities, but that isn’t enough anymore. The best companies in the world have expertise in every function, they have specialization, they have depth. And so, we start building out functional excellence on our teams.
The biggest challenge with a functional-oriented approach is that while it may add quality to your activities by applying best practices, it is still largely disconnected from key strategic business outcomes. Now, your functional teams operate well, but they operate in silos. Instead of assigning intrinsic value to activities, they now assign intrinsic value to functional processes. They aren’t integrated. They are functions that aren’t connected to a higher-level system or process.
Level 3 – Outcome Centric
Once you’ve moved away from a fixation on activities to develop functional depth, the next level is to integrate those functions to achieve strategic business outcomes. The challenge with both the activity-centered and functional-centered approaches, is they are inherently wasteful. Resources are not efficiently aligned towards the pursuit of high priority business outcomes, they are aligned either towards activity execution or functional best practices.
There comes a moment in every manager’s life when she realizes just how disconnected the team’s efforts (and budgets) are from the actual outcomes the company cares about. They are directing resources and energy towards building expertise and best practice, but that’s not what the business is really about. And so, we re-engineer our organizational structures and processes and KPIs to focus on the pursuit of real business outcomes e.g. revenue acquisition, customer value expansion etc. We build a real architecture and model for our teams and tactics work together in an integrated system with a focused business outcome in mind. This makes a big difference and tends to bring with it, new levels of resource efficiency and connectedness between employees and strategic business initiatives.
Level 4 – Leveraged Model
Now that you have an organizational structure and model that is oriented around delivering to business outcomes, you can begin to scale it. Scaling too early only results in pain and problems. Too many teams try to scale poorly architected models and wonder why its ineffective. Too many managers get infatuated with new trends and the promise of technology and overlook the prerequisite steps to be able to take advantage of them.
But once you have a solid system and model in place, you can begin to apply leverage through the use of data and technology and automation. You can find new levels of scale. You can begin to add additional value to the business as your focus moves away from fundamental model design and towards incremental value creation. You can be strategic.
There are levels to management; to team development; to becoming “strategic”. I am sure there are more than four. I just don’t know what they are yet. My advice to managers is to plot your team against these levels and build a vision for advancing – one step at a time. I hope this was helpful to you and, as always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.