Your strategy is someone else’s operations (and other workplace misunderstandings)

18 Jul

Your strategy is someone else’s operations (and other workplace misunderstandings)

I was chatting with someone last week who was trying to solve a work problem. I suggested that they speak to a certain person in their business to get that colleague’s perspective, to which I was bluntly told, “I’m not going to speak to her, she’s not strategic.”  The response surprised me. I found it curious that this view seemed to be confusing strategic orientation with somebody’s place in the hierarchy. Moreover, it got me thinking about how often we develop blind spots or misunderstand each other, because of our own fixed perspectives.

In my years of working in the field of organisational performance and leadership development, some patterns have become clear.  Above all else, there are two perspectives we develop that have the biggest impact on our effectiveness, and also hold the secrets to our blind spots:

(i) How we lead, and

(ii) How we make decisions.

Leadership styles can be plotted on a continuum. At one end is the transactional leader, whose bias is toward control, order, planning and KPI’s. At the other is the transformational leader, more interested in vision, change and possibilities. These extremes represent a bias toward leadership for individual needs verses leadership for collective interests. 

Each is highly effective in the right circumstances, but spectacularly ineffective in the wrong circumstances. There are many other well documented leadership styles, but in my opinion, they all fall somewhere on this continuum, exhibiting more or less of the characteristics of each style at the extremity.

When it comes to decision making, there is also a decision-making continuum, although it is less obvious. Some enjoy strategic decision making, abstracting up to a high level, understanding the impact and the strategic choices necessary to achieve a vision.  Others are great operational decision makers.  They analyse data, spot trends and mobilise resources quickly to ensure the right outcome on the ground is achieved. The strategic and operational decision makers are both incredibly valuable, but capability for both rarely exists in the same person. 

Something interesting is revealed when we plot the transactional-transformational leadership continuum against the strategic-operational decision-making continuum.  The overlay creates four domains, which are illustrated below.  The domains embody four distinct characters in organisational life, each necessary, and each with real strengths and weaknesses. Importantly, we need to understand that the four domain characters don’t always play nicely with each other.  

1.  The Change domain (transformational and strategic).

I call these people our explorers and entrepreneurs. They create change. Unflinching optimists, they are obsessed about growth, opportunities and (occasionally) risks to achieve their vision.  These are our big picture thinkers.  They can miss the detail, but are great at trusting their instincts, often seeing possibilities that others cannot. They can get bored quickly with operational detail and can be dismissive of the effort and skill of the detailed operational people.

How to spot them – These types will often choose not to read a report that is provided to them in advance of a meeting, as they’ve simply not prioritised it as important.  If they take a peek at the report and don’t like its contents, they won’t come to the meeting at all.

2.  The Governance domain – (strategic and transactional).

These are our governors and auditors. They are exceptionally good at understanding and implementing controls and policies. They make, enforce and follow rules.  They are good strategic thinkers and keep the rest of us on track through their frameworks and policies. They make evidence-based decisions and ensure everybody else does as well.

They are not as deft at incorporating people into their rules-based frameworks, expecting everybody to work within their system and constantly being surprised when they don’t.  Consequently, they can be cutting in their assessments of people who don’t see the world like they do.

How to spot them – They know that there’s a policy for that issue, as well as what’s in it. But they will insist that you to read it for yourself.

3.  The Management domain (transactional and operational)

These are our traditional managers and analytic thinkers.  They take care of the detail.  They work well within existing systems and processes and will build them if they don’t exist. They ensure they have the right operational reporting in place and are close enough to the action to observe the strengths and weaknesses of the existing system that they work in. They are often suspicious of the ‘big thinkers’ and visionaries. They may present as stern and pessimistic, because they know exactly what can go wrong. Change generally represents danger for our managers.

How to spot them – Ask them to show you their work plan. They’ll have it, and the detail will blow your mind. 

4.  The Impact domain (transformational and operational)

I call these our sociologists and coaches. They have a great understanding of the impact of strategy on people and work diligently on the ground to ensure that operational performance meets strategic expectations. They are sensitive to indicators of climate and readily swing into coaching mode to get people back on track. 

They are masters of relationships but get frustrated with being boxed in by rules and policy requirements and often struggle with governance.  They can be loose with detail, preferring to leave some wriggle room, because they know that the human experience needs flexibility, but this frustrates others who need more structure.

How to spot them – They know what’s wrong with Kevin and are working with him on his problem.

The creation of the four domain characters reveal much about why we find alignment with some people but struggle with others. 

Firstly, the more you understand yourself, the more likely you will know which domain you fit into. Don’t kid yourself that you are a delightful mix of all four domains. That’s not how our brains work and it’s not how organisations work. If you are not sure which domain you belong to, ask a trusted colleague. It is relatively easy for somebody else who knows you well to judge where you sit.

Secondly, your domain can change over the years. As you experience the wins and losses of professional life, you transform and so do your thinking and work preferences. 

Thirdly, you will find it relatively easy to align with people in domains adjacent to yours, but very difficult to find common ground with those who occupy the domain diagonally opposite. That is because either your leadership style or your decision-making locus is aligned with those adjacent to you.  By contrast, the people you encounter in the opposite domain don’t approach leadership or decision making in the same way as you. It is almost certain that you will, at times, misunderstand each other.  At its worst, the irritation you feel with each other can result in a breakdown of trust, leading to confrontation.  If you get closer to these people and develop empathy for their perspective, then your effectiveness will skyrocket.

Understanding the different domain characters in your business and recognising and celebrating the roles they play, will substantially increase the likelihood of getting a great result.  When people play to their strengths and feel valued for those strengths, great outcomes are achieved. 

It takes all types to make a great business. So where do you sit on the leadership and decision-making continuums and which domain is your natural home?