Over my time spent studying business, working in business, and now running a business, I’ve used something over and over.
It’s a simple equation that has held up for me over time.
Here’s what it means in the context of teams and work;
What are you trying to accomplish? What is your reason for being? (the company or group, not your personal existential reason for being, as important as that is also)
Why is the world a better place because your group or team exists and are focused on the work you’re focused on?
That overarching umbrella of Intent has two distinct factors, Vision and Goals.
The Vision is long term. It’s sometimes called the mission, the big picture, the purpose, the raison d’être (for fancy folks).
And for most organizations it’s a set of platitudes.
Across many businesses visions are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Do you know a company that doesn’t say they value customers and employees? Any business that doesn’t say they want to make the world a better place? Any for-profit company that doesn’t care about shareholders?
That lack of differentiation is not necessarily a bad thing, just in the same way that millions of people want to be good parents to their children or good partners to their significant other.
The vision doesn’t need to be fully differentiated. Many companies will share similar visions for their organization. You’d likely have a hard time matching a vision to a company if someone handed you a set of 10, but there are slight nuances that matter when you’re setting the vision for your company. What you say, how you say it, and what you leave out, are important guardrails for what happens below the vision.
Visions don’t change often (in normal times), but they shouldn’t be immovable. Very few companies aiming for a lengthy tenure can afford to answer the ‘Why are we here?’ question the same way as their industry changes, as technology changes, as the workforce changes, and as the world changes.
Knowing exactly when to pursue a new vision is more than we’ll cover here, but adjusting your vision is just as important as having a vision.
One level below the vision are the goals, and how to achieve them. Similarly, these go by a different names in different circles; strategy, plan, commander’s intent, and so on. Goals are the middle term. Middle term varies by business. If you’re selling concrete, that might be a longer time horizon for forecasting goals than if you’re selling computer chips. The volatility of your business, and your group within that business, will dictate how far out you need to have goals. But make no mistake, no business moves fast enough that goals become irrelevant. Goals focus people and keep teams moving in the same direction.
American President Dwight Eisenhower said “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
American boxing legend Mike Tyson said "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke put it very similarly when he said “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”
While this may be one of the few things these men have in common, the point is just as relevant in business as it is in boxing and in war. Initial goals will only take you so far. You must be ready to adjust as necessary once reality is injected into the situation.
The alternative, though, is to not have a plan, and that is unconscionable.
In my experience, Process is made up of 5 key parts. Feedback, Conflict Management, Inclusion, Decision Making, and Power.
I’ve written before about some of these (Feedback and Inclusion), and I will write about the others in depth at a later point, but for now, essentially, here’s what these mean;
Feedback - How do you want people to communicate what is going well and what is going poorly in your group, team, or organization?
Conflict Management - When there is task conflict (e.g. ideas and ways of working) or relationship conflict (e.g. personalities), how do you want to handle it?
Inclusion - What type of environment do you want to create? Congenial? Supportive? Individualistic? Goal-oriented? Competitive?
Decision Making - How are decisions made? By the leader? By a majority vote? By a full consensus?
Power - Personal Power. Positional Power. How will influence and power be magnified or minimized, encouraged or diminished?
Notice that these are questions, not statements.
There are lots of books, research, and scientifically studied ‘best cases’ for each of these Processes; ways that produce the best outcomes in laboratories and possibly in the majority of situations. But ultimately what is important is that you choose how you want your business to run, and that you find people who believe in, and will operate in, those ways.
That advice is contrary to those who may want you to operate optimally, but each business is an organism and has to make deliberate choices. Businesses have succeeded in an almost infinite number of ways, but what most had in common is that they were honest and clear about what they believe, and they invited along people who knew when to challenge and when to align.
And for those of us who don't lead the team, these questions provide a blueprint for understanding. If you don’t know the answer to these, find out. If you don’t like the answers to these, provoke change. If you can’t stand the answers to these, it may be time to explore other options.
Transparency is distinct and important, because some businesses and groups have put the time into the Intent (vision and goals), and the Process, but they continue to struggle because they haven’t put the effort into Transparency. And let’s be clear (no pun intended), Transparency is not something that just happens. In the best organizations Transparency is active and deliberate. Transparency is intentional communication as the Intent and Process that the organization has decided are disseminated and expected. Having a great and well thought out Intent and Process is worthless if your team doesn’t know them, understand them, and work in support of them.
Whether folks agree with them is another matter.
When your organization or group is clear about what you’re going after and how you operate, you give everyone the information they need to opt in or to opt out. Every person then has the chance to, with full and complete clarity, decide if your business is where they see themselves being successful. That honesty is what we owe each other in the workplace.
The Outcomes vary depending on your business, but most businesses see these manifest themselves in things like meetings, work products, innovation, performance, turnover, engagement, hiring, terminations, promotions, and so on.
The Outcomes are many times where we focus our attention, because they’re visible. But those outcomes are the proverbial tip of the iceberg, because what comes before the equals sign in the equation (Intent, Process, and Transparency) are what produce Outcomes.
We can take Outcomes, meetings for instance, and evaluate whether or not they are reflecting our unique Intent and Process decisions. If Outcomes are ‘off’, we can use those to dig deeper and identify the inputs that are leading to unproductive Outcomes.
This equation isn’t rocket science, but it is difficult. It’s just like exercise, eating well, saving money, getting enough rest, or anything else that we know is good for us but we find ways to regularly justify our way out of.
It’s easier to take action in ways that are expeditious but out of alignment with our goals. It’s easy to revert back to old behaviors, or to let others revert without giving the difficult feedback. Most people want to do great work, but we want to do hard work where we understand the impact we’re having, and where we believe in the organization.
Most of us also understand that we’re not going to find a job where everything is exactly as we’d like it. We want to know that we've joined a company where we believe similar things, our work is furthering the organization’s goals, and we know what success looks like.
That, in essence, is why the ability to stop, reflect, and recalibrate is so important. If your team isn’t seeing the outcomes you want to see, use this math to find the challenges.
It’s the most important math equation I’ve ever used (sorry Pythagorus).
This equation is also about personal responsibility; because what I’ve laid out is not simply the responsibility of senior management. When organizations engage the entire workforce, they maximize an existing resource with significant potential. And when workers, not just managers, have the chance to participate in the way the organization functions, incredible things happen.
I’ve used this math for a long time to help my own businesses, and I continue to use this math to consult with other businesses.
Hopefully this math helps you too.