Seek to understand before you seek to solve…

It’s the time of year when organizations review what they’ve accomplished, evaluating achievements against goals set in January. Often, this navel-gazing will result in revised projected budgets, staffing changes, or executive bonuses. Even when things seem to be going relatively well, it’s easy to (mistakenly) assume there is a good alignment between what the leaders project and what employees experience in the trenches.

2020 has gummed up the gears of business even more than usual

Why not take advantage of the wrecking ball that 2020 has taken to your plans and address one of the core disconnects that holds you back? It’s time to ask your employees – who know where the proverbial bodies are buried – what needs to be done to get back on track, then tap into their expertise to generate a workable solution.

Over the years, we’ve worked with lots of companies who ask our team to help them achieve specific goals. The leaders know exactly what they want to accomplish, and they believe they have clearly communicated it to their teams; yet, they don’t see the desired results. No amount of training or technology seems to help solve the problems any faster. When we sit down with their managers and employees, we discover a big disconnect: Often the problem executives want to solve isn’t the same issue that employees identify as their biggest obstacle in hitting strategic goals.

Is your organization where you want it to be? Or is there room for growth and a need to evolve? It’s time to start valuing employee input.

Considering your employees’ input may be the best first step you can take in developing strategic plans. Our team believes it’s always better to improve a process than simply follow it, but not if the “improvements” increase customer and employee effort or destroy the bottom line. Time after time, however, leaders set a goal that further complicates the situation, because they are addressing the wrong issue.

Let me tell you a story

One company’s CEO wanted to cut down the time it took customer service reps and the engineering team to resolve complex and expensive customer equipment issues. The CEO took quick and decisive action to resolve customer complaints—without consulting the two teams—and tied end-of-year bonuses to resolution time. Rather than resolve the handoff issue, however, he created a competitive and somewhat hostile work environment that only made customer wait times even longer. Why? His solution pegged each group’s bonus based on how long the equipment was in their departmental workflow. This meant that each group had an incentive to delay accepting the equipment as long as possible, and then pass it off to another group as quickly as possible. It was not a cross-functional measure.

If the CEO had elicited the teams’ feedback on why resolution times were so long, asking for their suggestions on how to fix the problem, he would have realized that rather than setting them up to compete, they needed to build a more collaborative, cross-functional team. By allowing employees to help identify and solve problems based on their own experience and expertise, leadership can ensure their buy-in and enthusiasm in adopting new processes to resolve challenging issues.

I think the best thing all organizations can do as we near the end of 2020 is talk to their employees. Find out what their pain points are, learn where they think the process bottlenecks, hear what they think leadership is doing right and what they can do differently.

Seek to understand before you seek to solve

Our team created an assessment that we’ve found to be incredibly insightful. Based on our years in the service and support trenches, we developed a short, simple employee survey that asks for their input on strategy. It’s just 14 questions, and it takes less than three minutes to fill out. But this isn’t a typical human resources employee poll. We ask questions about people, process, technology, culture, leadership, and metrics. Their answers help us build a picture of the organization through the employees’ eyes.

Why is this important? Asking employees these kinds of questions helps leadership understand where there is a breakdown in both vision and execution. For example, our team may be brought in to help a company stand up an intelligent swarming initiative which involves cross-functional collaboration in real-time. Leadership may be gung-ho on such a step, but after talking to employees, we discover that the overwhelming environment is viewed as one of command and control. It doesn’t make sense for them to leap into intelligent swarming without a culture of trust and collaboration. For leadership to achieve the ultimate goal of intelligent swarming, their first initiative should be creating an environment where people want to improve knowledge every time they interact with it, leaving it in a better place for the next person.

If you’re in the process of reviewing your 2020 goals while developing an outlook for 2021, I strongly encourage you to look to your employees for guidance. Seek to understand, before you seek to solve.

If you find that many of the goals you set this year fell short, the issue may not be one of employee performance but rather one of process improvement.

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