The “What do I do” Message-01

The “What do I do?” Message

An old EDS superbowl commercial gave life to the expression, herding cats. In the spot, a grizzled cowboy (more properly catboy) faced the camera over a swelling western soundtrack and montage of cats roaming the dusty plain and being wrangled by ‘catboys’ and husked;

Anybody can herd cattle. Holding together 10,000 half-wild short-hairs, why that’s another thing altogether.

The feeling that expression and commercial evoked is one common to leaders at all levels. Ten’s, hundreds or thousands of people in your line of responsibility, who impossibly can’t seem to line up and take a concerted step together. For people in the business, and for customers, that drama feels like the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. Managers have multiple people working on multiple projects with the same goal, only to discover part-way through that they are all doing the same thing. Or customers have three different business cards land on their desk, at different times, all from the same company.

cheshire cat-smallThat’s where the role element of the message platform is crucial. It is the answer to the question, “What do I do?” and reduces role ambiguity, lines employees day to day activity up against strategy and tactics rather than transactions and activity (busywork).

Lining up that role clarity message, making sure it tracks to the carrot of targets and bonuses, and to the stick of key performance indicators and measures in the business is vital. It not only serves to line up all the “cats” and move them in the same direction, but it works across department and function, (marketing, accounts, operations) and by purpose (customer engagement, or product build). Getting it right means connections, communication and clear hand-off between individuals, teams and departments. Getting it wrong leads to gaps, inefficiencies and duplication, leading to higher cost and reduced performance.

It has been well documented that the degree to which a person is certain about what to do, and how to do their job has an enormous impact on individual performance and organizational effectiveness. Employees are put under extra stress and pressure if there is no clarity about their role in a team or within an organization, because either they do not know where they stand or because of conflicting messages and demands on their role.

A small level of stress can galvanize performance in teams or organizations, but over a longer period, undermine it. This stress effect is magnified in times of change.

During the late 90’s Gartner Group began to transition its business model from a research organization that delivered volumes of reports on paper and then CD-ROM to a web based distribution model. Like many businesses at the time, Gartner was reacting to and thinking about how the Internet would create new threats and opportunities. To help them through this phase, it brought in an outside strategic consulting firm to help define a new strategy. As employees were interviewed by teams of consultants over a period of months, very little communication about the engagement was communicated. People knew that consultants were in the building — they occupied office space, and people throughout the business were interviewed. The communication vacuum surrounding the project had the same effect as a fleeting shadow in a horror movie. Imagination holds more terror than reality. Consultants, change and closed-door interviews had employees worrying over their future.

At this point, a focus on role clarity is especially crucial. People worry that things will change usually for the worse, but without clarity on how it will affect them. This brought three different reactions.

The first was to put off or delay decisions. “The new strategy will arrive soon. Making a decision now that could be reversed soon is pointless. I’ll just stand pat.” this type of thinking rippled through the organization. Projects were put off, decisions delayed, cycle times got longer. The second reaction was to keep your head down, tucked inside your cubicle. “Change is happening. I don’t want to be on the wrong side of a list. I will cause no waves.” The sentiment being that if I cause no waves and just appear busy, my job will be preserved. Business moves from strategic and tactical to transactional. The third and perhaps most damaging consequence of the message vacuum was to make up your own strategy, the thought that, “I know what the strategy is (or should be), so I will just act on that.” This type of thinking only requires a handful of people to execute in different directions to cause increased disagreement and tension in the organization.

Managing swimlanes and paying attention to the “What do I do?” Message is key for leaders. A maxim of Lowell McAdams, CEO of Verizon, is “Do your current job.” It’s a pithy way of having the organization focus on the business, and employees understand that their personal path to success is aligned to the business’ path to success.

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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