Recently, I was attending an executive team meeting which was focused on the team’s organizational goals for the coming year. In a previous meeting, they had identified their objectives, and this day was to be spent prioritizing them. After the leader outlined the process they would be using for the day, one of the team members quipped, “So we’re going to spend today prioritizing all of our goals, and then still execute against everything.” Though delivered jokingly, the remark clearly has its roots in experience and speaks to one of the biggest challenges to execution: a lack of organizational and operational discipline.
Organizations face very real constraints on their resources&madsh;if not on money, then on time, talent, space, raw materials, and more. Even a company like Apple—though currently operating with an unprecedented cash surplus—must continually question how many products and services it can support while still offering a seamless customer experience and capturing the imagination of the marketplace. 60 billion—with a “b”—of cash and marketable securities. While there is pressure on the company to offer shareholders a dividend or to make more acquisitions, it hasn’t. Instead, it recently made a $4 billion investment to ensure a smooth flow of displays (screens for iPhones, Pods, and Pads) from suppliers. COO Tim Cook said he thought the investment was “an absolutely fantastic use of Apple’s cash.” Instead of diluting their focus and trying to do more, they’re operating with discipline and investing where they think it will give them a strategic advantage.
Aligning an organization’s vision with available resources requires leaders to make difficult choices. Often, what an organization chooses not to do is equally important as what it does. As an example: a defining metric for many of the IT functions I work with is the number of applications they support. While local sites may have experience and comfort with the applications they use, when those applications aren’t aligned globally, it introduces complexity that limits the function’s ability to provide support, its ability to take advantage of economies of scale, and the organization’s ability to share data and knowledge across its far-flung units. By streamlining options, they are able to provide better support, better inter-operability, and a better return on their investments.
Of course, tough decisions are only part of the equation; priorities must be communicated in a manner that conveys leadership’s vision for the future. If employees are to truly support an organization’s vision, they must understand why decisions are being made—that leaders have carefully considered the future and are balancing the vision with existing organizational realities. Using the example above, if local employees only hear that their favorite application is no longer being supported, it will lead to a different outcome than if the employees understand why the application is being discontinued, how the decisions were reached, and the advantages of moving to a more global standard. An even better approach would involve giving employees a voice in defining the organization’s vision and priorities.
Which brings us back to discipline. Often, it is not a lack of knowledge that prevents organizations from following through on their priorities, it is a lack of will. Many times, the teams I work with know that they need to make the tough choices, that if everything is important then nothing is important, and that communication is the key to translating their priorities into action. They just need to listen to that voice—either the one in the back of their heads or the one that calls out the reality masked in a joke—and hold themselves accountable to it. Chances are it’s what everyone else is already thinking.