Does your culture allow for change?

Assessing Challenges and Priorities: the first step of your transformation journey might just determine its destination.

How serious are you or your organization about changing your course, and how high are your odds at succeeding?  Our research shows that it is not the perfect idea or plan that will transform or turn around your business.  Otherwise we would not have met so many bright executives who “get” the scope of change needed and have inspired others with unconventional and far reaching visions of the future while continuing to run essentially conventional, product and provider-centric organizations.   I have pondered this question for many years of research and client work with changing organizations.

For starters, I found that the biggest and most common mistake is to assume that when you find the right answers—business model, strategic plan, new products or latest software–the rest will somehow automatically fall into place.  Not so.  The toughest struggle by far is in execution—whether the way that an organization thinks, learns, behaves and measures success embody the vision.  We have seen countless of smart leaders fail to move their organizations to an entirely new place in their markets because they rely on conventional processes and ways of thinking to execute new ideas and models.   And your very first steps and decisions are critical determinants of the final results: how you assess challenges; frame, communicate and act on priorities.

It is not hard to detect the strategic goals and priorities of associations that were the products of formal strategic planning and committee-led processes. In spite at how hard these associations work to make them fresh and unique, they sound remarkably similar and formulaic: support our mission; promote green architecture or chemistry, global health, and patient safety; increase professional development, and member engagement, etc.  They appear to function more like campaign themes than actionable business strategies.  Why are they selected?

In conversations with executives, my question about how their priorities help solve member problems elicits blank looks and puzzled stares. Doesn’t everybody support green science and doesn’t every doctor want to save patients’ lives?  True enough when we pick a favorite book or philanthropic cause but not when we invest in a service-based network to increase our career success.  I mean how often do doctors wake up agonizing over breakfast about how many patients they can keep alive by the end of the day?   They are much more likely to worry about problems that prevent them from practicing good medicine: broken practice models in their fields; hospital access; confusion over how healthcare reform impacts them; insurance restrictions & reimbursement, etc.  Connecting priorities to customer value and results, and the organizational capabilities for executing and sustaining them, is what begins to convert wish- lists into actionable strategies.

Generic, “feel good” goals and objectives or tactical, short-term priorities do not translate into staff motivation and new ways of thinking, developing products and doing business.  Most importantly, they do not translate into increased member value and, hence, retention and growth.  The association may look good to its board or selected constituencies but it continues to do “business as usual.”

Dropping isolated, new elements in organizations whose cultures and practices are not set up to integrate and use them will not bring about new results. An executive recently told us that his staff discouraged him from reading posts, let alone participate, in their new online communities lest he be “upset by critical comments about the association.”  Hey, why bother to learn what’s in your members’ mind and how they think so you can understand how to best serve them?

In our research we group associations in two large categories on the basis of their actions, thoughts, culture and behavior: bureaucratic or supply-driven and entrepreneurial or demand-driven. How leaders think and frame challenges and priorities is the first of eight indicators of an organization’s real orientation and market “personality” that we identified.

Bureaucratic, provider-centered organizations frame challenges and priorities from an inside-out perspective with criteria that include:

  • Board and association driven interests, priorities and decisions
  • “Hot,” current issues that they believe will increase member engagement and public visibility
  • Products and initiatives that will increase prestige and reputation while minimizing risk & change
  • Short-term fixes

Conversely, entrepreneurial, demand-centered organizations focus on priorities that are based on outside-in criteria that include:

  • Member needs and critical challenges and the types of solutions they need
  • The broader context of customers’ economic and social environments
  • Opportunities for strategic innovation
  • Addressing the larger, underlying root causes for immediate crises and narrow or tactical problems
  • Building new, long-term organizational capabilities and strategic relationships that build sustainable competitive advantage into the future

Take a hard look at the challenges and priority goals you identify as the most critical for your organization or unit and put them through a reality test from the perspective of your customers:

  • Are you identifying the roots of the strategic challenges that hamper your ability to deliver value to your members or simply secondary symptoms?
  • Why is this priority a priority?  On what basis?
  • What results do you want for your organization and members?
  • How did you decide on it?  Does it tie into your vision and strategic goals?
  • What does achieving this priority goal mean? What does success look like and how do you measure it?
  • Does this goal represent a priority for your members?  Where does it fit among their other priorities for addressing challenges? What specific problem does it solve for them and how?
  • How do you know whether or not this is a member priority? Have you interacted personally with members? Have you drawn them out to reveal the issues that keep them up at night, the kind of solutions they need, their criteria for value and priorities?
  • Do you know enough about the context for your members’ answers—relationships, work environment, ways they solve problems and frame obstacles etc. to better interpret their answers and needs?
  • How will this strategic priority translate into practical value for members?  What will they be able to achieve that that they cannot presently achieve?
  • What processes, relationships, methods, leadership, competencies etc. do you need to put in place to begin turning this idea into reality?  (Do not fall back on established ways for doing things, like convening another committee).
  • How will members/customers be involved in the development process?
  • What needs to change or be developed in your organization to deliver the value you envisioned
  • What role do you need to assume as a leader to guide this process to results?

Now try re-framing your critical challenge as a business challenge and pick priority actions in a true discovery process leading to solutions.