When we started Volition Partners almost a year ago, my partner and I began with the hard-earned knowledge that many companies face a yawning gap between their strategic planning assumptions and the day-to-day operating model upon which those plans are executed. Time and again, we see theoretically brilliant strategic plans that just aren’t being well-executed, due to struggling and frustrated teams. Or teams that look great on paper, who are grappling with infighting, mistrust, or inefficiency due to some fundamental misalignment in their understanding of strategy and priorities. We started Volition Partners to solve this strategy/execution gap and unlock the power of high-performance teams.
The first question we asked ourselves when we started was, “Could we accurately measure and benchmark a company’s performance on such subjective areas as culture, strategy, purpose, and execution in ways that lead to rapid insight and improvement?” We designed a standardized diagnostic that has become a centerpiece of our work on building high-performance teams.
A typical summary scorecard from our diagnostic
After months of running the diagnostic at organizations that have ranged from fortune 500 consumer products companies to technology startups, from professional services firms to non-profit organizations, we are starting to see some clear themes emerge. Here are five of our most interesting findings so far:
Low leadership trust scores can correlate with low-performance scores across a much broader set of organizational measures such as innovation and collaboration. As we continue running more diagnostics, we hypothesize that levels of trust will show up as the single most important ingredient to high-performance teams and companies.
“Strategic alignment” is much harder to achieve than it may seem on the surface. We’ve seen several organizations receive a high score on a general question about “strategic alignment”, with leaders who believe that everyone is basically pulling in the same direction. But when we probe deeper into the diagnostic and ask individual team members to define their organization’s strategy in their own words, the answers often vary widely, **especially** for fast-moving organizations. Our lesson is that you can never assume that your team understands the strategy no matter how often you say it. You have to take the time to stop and ask.
Clarity of purpose is a highly motivating “through-line” that will bind a team together in the face of all kinds of obstacles. So much has already been written about this and our data support this conclusion too. But on its own, it’s not enough to drive success. Purpose-driven teams may be more willing to “tough it out” through confusion and inefficiency, but our diagnostic has shown that they are often no better at aligning strategy and operations than companies with more mundane aspirations. This is a tremendous opportunity.
Every team we’ve encountered has some inherent organizational superpowers - things that make them uniquely special and good at what they do. It may be pride in the quality of work being produced that sets a high bar for everything else, or a culture of collaboration that drives strong accountability and creativity. Those superpowers are enormous points of leverage for building from strength to strength. Leaders need to truly understand what they are and how to nurture them.
All organizations we’ve measured had some “self-limiting” dynamics that are undermining their work. Many of these negative dynamics are self-inflicted, with relatively straightforward solutions - if you know how to identify and correct them quickly. For example, most early-stage companies quickly run into cross-functional alignment issues once they start to scale up. Establishing basic team charters that clarify roles and decision rights at a fast-growing startup can create enormous progress towards better collaboration and speed.
Getting in sync is harder than it looks
One last thing we’ve noticed is that the process of running the diagnostic itself, which is a mix of employee interviews and surveys, creates positive movement and fresh thinking among participants. Making overt connections between strategy, operations and people breaks down barriers between the business side of an organization’s work and the human side in ways that can lead to rapid performance improvements and better thriving teams. The simple act of asking the right questions can unlock an organization’s inherent capabilities.
We’re excited to see what more we can learn as we compare results across more companies and industries. So if you are seeking answers to questions like the ones below, we’d love to hear from you!
Why are we struggling to meet what we thought were achievable goals or deadlines?
Do we really have the level of trust and camaraderie that we may see on the surface and if not, what can we do about it?
Does everyone on the team have a common understanding of our strategy, AND how it applies to their everyday work?
What are our organizational superpowers, and how do we best capitalize on them?
What potential “fatal flaws” are we not addressing in our organization’s operating model?
How has COVID/work from home affected our company dynamics and performance? Where should we focus to ensure a reasonably smooth transition back to a “new normal”?