Keeping your strategy alive and relevant: Optimize operating rhythm to create space

From the Visual Rhythm exhibit at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art

It’s a well-known fact that a clear, commonly understood direction is foundational for any organization’s success. It’s also something that is frequently absent. At one point or another we’ve all either said or heard the following statements:

“I feel like I have no idea what my piece of the bigger vision is.”

“Everything feels like a priority… I don’t have time to do any real work.”

“We have competing priorities! It’s a constant struggle between us and them.”

Without a clear, common direction, people can’t effectively make decisions, prioritize, or coordinate across teams. Everyone needs an answer to the question, “What are we ultimately trying to achieve as we navigate the day to day fog of decisions and competing priorities?”

Establishing and communicating a clear direction is a challenge all organizations face, and it’s a tough one. Perhaps even more challenging is figuring out how to effectively drive day to day operations with an overarching purpose always in view — especially in an environment rife with unpredictability.

These challenges are particularly relevant for The Ready right now, because we recently began work with a client to more clearly define their purpose. We’re using a modified version of the essential intent matrix, originally created by Greg McKeown and discussed in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. The essential intent matrix is a tool that prompts you to create a holistic, concrete picture of purpose, or system of intentions that constitute your organization’s strategy. Take a minute to look over the intent matrix and the resulting intentions it helps organizations articulate:

Essential Intent Matrix

Intentions Generated by the Essential Intent Matrix

  • Purpose statement: A visionary statement that is very high-level, inspirational, and enduring (could last 100 years) but not helpful in guiding day-to-day decisions.

E.g. Tesla: To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.

  • Values: Words like “leadership” or “innovation” that guide behavior but don’t do much to inform where you’re going.
  • Essential Intent statement: A statement that is inspirational, concrete, meaningful, and measurable. It is time bound (typically three to five years) and describes action (how to win) in service of the vision.

E.g. Tesla: Develop a self-driving capability that is 10 times safer than manual via massive fleet learning

  • Short-term objectives: Concrete goals that direct attention but lack connection to meaning.

E.g. Tesla: Produce about 20,000 vehicles, representing a sequential increase of nearly 30 percent.

The essential intent matrix is a very useful tool for translating a high-level purpose statement into something that allows people to identify what not to do. In addition, the process of filling out this framework forces leaders to get clear on what they mean when they say “priorities” — a word which is so frequently used it’s often meaningless.

The set of statements produced by the matrix establishes an initial direction for the organization to move in. These guidelines push teams to define their specific role in achieving purpose, increasing accountability and understanding of impact. They create a good starting point, but that’s where the framework stops.

Operating Rhythm as a Driver of Intent

One of our clients highlighted the limitations of these statements of intent when she asked an important question, “Once we have these drafted, how do we keep them alive and relevant?”

Keeping the statements alive requires effectively communicating intent broadly and aligning people to undertake action towards achieving them. Let’s assume we get that first part right and everyone is aware of the intentions that have been articulated. How do we get people to commit their time and resources to collective goals even over their own? How do we translate our intentions into action? These are some pretty big questions when you consider them on an organizational scale.

There are many factors that play a role in the answers to these questions. I’m going to focus on the role of operating rhythm — the Meetings, Rhythm, and Coordination field in the OS canvas. Operating rhythm is a powerful tool for bringing strategy to life and maintaining it as a living, breathing driver. It can and should be used to build good organizational habits around strategy.

We are all accustomed to a certain combination of standing meetings, processes, and reviews. But, as Aaron pointed out in his piece on organizational debt, it’s often the case that processes or meetings are added without taking a step back to look at the whole system. When something is added to our rhythm, we typically forget to consider what should subsequently be removed or rearranged. Before we know it we have a jungle of calendar invites and processes that get in the way rather than a system of meetings that clears space for us to get work done.

Your meetings, rhythm, and methods for coordination shouldn’t just be a hodgepodge of decades-old decisions.

Meetings and processes should be designed to create space for the conversations your organization needs to have.

Process and meetings — which create an operating rhythm — should be designed to drive the organization: to create shared ownership of organizational intentions, drive coordinated execution, and foster focused, continuous modifications to keep direction relevant to demands from the market. Conversations about driving and adjusting intent shouldn’t come up only because of individual initiative; they should be baked into the way you run and review operations.

A good operating rhythm keeps you disciplined in the right ways. It promotes learning, and creates predictability for the things that can and should be made routine, like, for instance, routinely reviewing whether a market signal is supporting your pre-determined strategy or not. Your meetings and processes should be structured to push the right conversations to the surface and maintain the space to dig into them.

Designing Forums and Finding Your Rhythm

How do you design a system of forums and rhythm of communication that accomplishes strategic alignment, coordinated execution, and disciplined learning? Since you’re likely not working with a blank slate, here are some questions to help you reflect on whether your current rhythm is driving alignment and linking organizational goals to execution:

  • What conversations do you need to have to effectively drive organizational goals? Is there a forum for all of those conversations? (E.g. aligning intentions, identifying shared accountabilities, reviewing decisions, sharing tactical updates, cross-functional information-sharing, etc.)
  • Is the forum structured in a way that facilitates the right type of discussion? (E.g. does it promote learning/adjusting objectives in response to outcomes or a report-up, report-out mentality? Are questions being asked or do people show up and tune out?)
  • Does the frequency of conversations match the frequency of change in the area the conversation addresses? (E.g. Are outcomes of decisions transparently and continually reviewed against higher-level priorities or are they held until quarterly meetings? Is strategy reviewed only once a year or as new information is obtained?)
  • Are the right people in the conversation? (E.g. When determining objectives, is there a forum for peers to discuss impact and interdependencies? Is there a space for front-line employees get access to higher-level intent and the opportunity to provide feedback?)
  • Does the right information flow into those conversations and out to the right parties or forums afterward? (E.g. Are high-level objectives continually referenced in tactical reviews? Are decisions shared with teams or do they remain stuck with just the participants in a particular meeting? Are lessons learned in information sharing forums then stored in an accessible location?)

Creating a truly purpose-driven organization is a difficult feat. It requires not only clear articulation of intentions but a thoughtful method for connecting those intentions to action at an organizational level. Transitioning to a way of operating that always keeps purpose in view will take a combination of decluttering calendars, retiring old processes, and coaching people on new behaviors. The essential intent matrix and above questions are just two small pieces in the puzzle of how to keep your strategy alive and relevant, but they are a useful start for any organization looking to connect their big picture vision to operations.

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