3 min read

Strategy: not your job?

Strategy: not your job?

When the task obstructs the goal

Here's a little vignette from my life last week, juggling work, kids, and clients.

It was three days before the kids would return to school for the year, and I had an important client meeting in the morning. This is no problem for my older kids who don't want to leave their rooms, but slightly dicier where my youngest is concerned.

When the time came for my meeting, Miss 8 was happily occupied at the table sorting out her school stationery - but I knew that wouldn't last for long. If I didn't find someone to hang out with her, I knew she'd be busting in mid-meeting to ask me an important question about stickers, Duraseal, or the Spotify playlist. 

Being the strategist I am, I rapped on Master 13's door, and made it clear that I needed his help:  "I've got an important meeting for the next 30 minutes or so - can you please help your sister cover cover her books until I'm done?"

He agreed, and installed himself at the kitchen table. Sorted.

15 minutes into the meeting, my office door opened. It was Miss 8, asking a question about the Spotify playlist. Her brother, she told me, was back upstairs in his room. I managed the interruption as best I could, and as soon as the meeting was over, called for Master 13.

He looked at me, baffled: "I covered the books, like you asked. What's the problem?"


We have a version of this problem week in, week out. Helpful, kind, and eager to please, my lovely son will always complete the task I ask of him. No more, and no less... regardless of the overall objective. I'm trying to get better at giving context in a very explicit way about the actual goal of the task - i.e. "make the floor clean" rather than "mop the floor." We're getting there, but the book-covering/ babysitting confusion was an example of what happens when the system fails.

It reminds me of an internet meme that did the rounds a few years ago - Not My Job (NMJ) syndrome. I like this one:


This is an extreme example of what can happen when people are focused on the details of a specific task rather than connected to a bigger purpose or outcome. Because as far as the research goes, that's what people look for in their work – a sense of meaning and connection to purpose. We want to know why we're doing something and how we're contributing to the overall goal - and when we don't, the consequences can be counter-productive.

Strategy is everyone's job

It's a bit like a rowing crew. Building momentum and getting results is challenging if everyone isn't rowing in the same direction - and when it comes to modern workplaces... they usually aren't. Research suggests that only 10% of organisations successfully align their strategy with their organisation design.

Your teams know this too – 70% of workers believe a lack of alignment prevents them from fulfilling organisational objectives. Not that we need statistics to tell us it's hard to make progress when other teams are getting in the way (our engagement surveys tell us that already!).

“People at work are thirsting for context, yearning to know that what they do contributes to a larger whole.” – Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

The first step to strategic alignment is a top-to-bottom understanding, throughout the entire organisation, of our strategy: who we are, what we're about, and what we're trying to do.

Given most modern organisations have a strategy or strategic plan of some description, that should be sorted... right?

Sigh. No. This is why we can't have nice things.

Instead of writing useful guides to show the future direction of our place, we talk in boring buzzwords and useless platitudes, say we've got 20 "priorities," stick it on the intranet, and dust our hands. Most people who write strategies, or approve them for that matter, don't even know how they work!

(If you, or someone in your organisation needs a hand with that, check out this 4 minute low-down.)

Strategy shouldn’t be a pretty but abstract document that sits on a wall, bookshelf, or table. It shouldn't stay at the executive table, either. Setting and communicating a big-picture direction is a senior responsibility, yes, but making strategy meaningful and delivering on change is all about everyday decisions and actions.

Progress toward a meaningful goal is the number one motivator for employees. People want to know how to prioritize, how their work makes a difference to the big picture, and that they will be recognized in ways that reflect that.

Making progress toward big-picture goals is satisfying – it enhances culture, boosts retention and underpins organizational performance. So, stop kicking the can down the road, translate your strategy out of Corporate Crapese and tell people about it!

3 quick tips on how to make strategy everyone’s job

  • TELL – Use consistent, shared language to clarify priorities and expectations. Repeat it over and over again. Make strategy visible.
  • ASK – Connect with good questions - what changes will be needed in your team to make this real? What will people need from you and each other to support change?
  • SUPPORT – Remove friction and walk the talk! Celebrate short-term wins and reward alignment with strategy – instead of short-term, conflicting KPIs.

More like this

Are you impatient? Manage daily annoyances with 4 key strategy skills

Are you impatient? Manage daily annoyances with 4 key strategy skills

In this post Four ways to help you calm your impatient farm: 1. Go back to the future. 2. Get some distance. 3. Remember why. 4. Quit everything. Do...

Why are you like this? Tricky questions that need asking.

Why are you like this? Tricky questions that need asking.

"Why am I like this?!" is a bit of a catchphrase in my house. Usually, I’m bemoaning something I’ve stuffed up. Either I’ve messed up my admin,...

The future of work belongs to the strategist

The future of work belongs to the strategist

ATMs and Strategy When ATMs were first rolled out, economists, politicians, and the media panicked. Automation was to rob bank tellers of their jobs!...

How to lead people when you’re feeling worried: 5 top tips

How to lead people when you’re feeling worried: 5 top tips

In this post: It's hard to lead when you're worried It's OK if you're feeling worried Five things you can do. It's hard to lead when you're worried

3 myths about decisions that need busting

3 myths about decisions that need busting

In this post: Three myths about decision making I used to think differently I've been interested in what it means to make good, long-term...

What strategic planning is about (and not about)

What strategic planning is about (and not about)

In this post: The #1 outcome of strategic planning What strategic planning is about What it is not about Last week, I sent you a 4-minute...