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Best Training Practices
Will Kenny
3927 York Ave N
Robbinsdale, MN 55422
612-978-3050

Playing by the Rules: #6
Finding The Starting Point

when everyone's following best practices . . . but different ones!

nutshell imageIn a Nutshell . . .

Different parts of an organization can believe in different messages from management. If you don't understand your audience before you deliver the message, you won't reach them.

One company became frustrated with their inability to connect with their front line employees, to get the best practices they had identified to be the standard routines of daily work. They assumed that the employees had heard a clear message from management, and that the employees were simply undermining management objectives, either from laziness or resistance.

A direct comparison of what management thought they were saying with what employees were hearing opens revealed significant gaps in communication. A better understanding of where their audience was starting from opened the way to more effective communication, and to movement toward shared visions and expectations at all levels of the organization.

Case Study Summary

Business Function:

Financial services company, focused on providing credit to other businesses

They Said:

Employees aren't buying into the vision. We provides lots of communication and feedback, but the front lines seem determined to do things their own way.

My Take:

It wasn't clear how they decided that the front lines were resistant, or how they knew that they were reaching them with their communications. Perhaps management was just frustrated, and jumping to conclusions.

Solution:

Compare the management and employee visions of what the front-lines are doing, and experiencing. Give the Strategic Alignment Profile survey (details below). Analysis suggested that feedback was a problem in both directions, that is, employees didn't get feedback (including rewards for good performance) that would help them determine best actions in many situations, nor did they feel they were able to provide feedback to management that might lead to better practices.

Outcome:

Better discussions within management about presenting a consistent view, supported by management practices and the company culture, which helped ensure that best practices were actually implemented. Solving a communication problem, rather than a morale or employee relations problem, offered a much better long term return on the effort.

Do your management and front-line employees share a common vision of how things should work?

When every member of your team, at every level of the company, knows what to do and why it's important, and then makes every effort to actually do it, then even a simple corporate strategy can have a major impact on your company's fortunes.

On the other hand, even the most brilliant strategy won't win in a competitive marketplace if it isn't being executed where it counts, among the employees who work with your prospects, customers, and suppliers.

Over and over I encounter the following two assumptions, both of which can significantly blunt even the sharpest corporate strategy:

  1. Employees are doing what management thinks they are doing. Management has given direction, and it is assumed that front-line performance conforms to that direction, it's as simple as that.
  2. If employees aren't aligned with best practices and management strategies, it is because they are resistant to change, deliberately undermining procedures. In short, the gap between management's vision of how you do things and the actual behavior of the employees arises from the intent of the front-lines, as they deliberately ignore the rules of the game.

The fact is, many times employees are responding reasonably to the rewards, punishments, and mixed messages in the culture. They have put together an understanding of how things work, and that vision may be different than the one intended by management -- but be valid, all the same.

Too many companies head off in a new direction without knowing where they are in the first place! It's hard to plan a route to success if you don't know where the "you are here" arrow is on your map!

How It Works

The survey used was one of a family of questionnaires that I group together under the title Strategic Alignment Profile. The basic concept is to ask the same questions of management and the front lines, and then compare the results. For example, we asked respondents to indicate, on a seven-point scale, how high a level of feedback employees received about their work:

  • For management, we're asking,
    "How should an employee answer this question?"
  • For the employee, we want to know,
    "What am I rewarded (or punished) for doing?"

SAP resultsA graphical summary allows rapid focus on disparities between the views of the two groups, areas where employee experiences don't match management expectations. In this case, one area of interesting results is in the lower right quadrant, where we can see that the red (front line) and green (management) areas show little overlap.

SAP focus A quick look at some of the Internal Communication items shows where management (red) and employees (green) saw things differently:

  • Management took pride in communication being "a two-way street" in the organization. But employees saw all communication as being top-down, with little opportunity for front-line ideas to filter upwards.
  • Management believed they gave a lot of feedback on employee performance, and that performance was clearly rewarded, but . . .
  • Employees saw much less evidence of feedback on what they were doing and how they were doing it, whether through rewards or other means.

Survey Variations

This Profile is generally customized for a particular organization. Here are some of the ways the survey can be adapted to specific needs:

  • Content of the questions, that is, what is rated on the scales, is customized for the industry, market, and management concerns.
  • Length: short, five-question assessments have been used, as well as longer ones (twenty questions).
  • Different groups can independently answer the same questions, or
  • Each group can repeatedly answer the questions, from different perspectives. For example, management might answer a question about a desired behavior three times:

    first, what they want to happen;

    second, how they think the employees who deliver the service will answer the question;

    and third, how they think a customer would answer the question. This exposes gaps between the expectations of various groups and makes them explicit.

When management feels a disconnect between their message and the results they are getting, explicitly assessing these different perspectives opens the door to addressing this gap more directly and effectively.

© 2007 Best Training Practices -- Will Kenny

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