Thursday, January 04, 2018

Finding the Organizational Why

Recently, a major university changed presidents.

Any leadership change at the top is an excellent time to take another look at the organizational why.

With the prior president, this university attempted to become a respected research institution.  Unfortunately, they lost their north star in the process.

What do I mean by “north star?”  I see it as the primary differentiating value.  The thing that sets the organization apart no matter what happens around it or within it.

For this university – the north star has been its location and how the university can serve its student body through its location.  From how the university paid for administrative costs (student tuition) to the programs put in place – the focus had been on the student.  Until the last president.

Seeing falling student enrollment and the inability to increase student tuition, he decided to steer the cumbersome university ship towards research and research money.  They built large buildings for scientific research. New programs focused on  STEM activities over their traditional Politics, Media and Business strengths.  The IT department spent millions developing an enormous, high-speed, research network to support this direction.

Amongst all this new activity, the university lost sight of its differentiator.

Student enrollment (particularly graduate student enrollment, which was one of the key performance indicators for this new effort) dropped.  Unfortunately, this university decided to become a research institution during a time where available research money is becoming harder to find, even in the sciences.  The new income stream didn’t flow as strongly as they predicted.

The new university president has decided to go back to the university’s traditional strengths – location and student experience.

How do I know this?

Happy New Year!

Looking to get more organized in 2018?

I’d like to share a free PDF containing a useful personal prioritization exercise to help you get started.



I hope you can join me on this journey!

You can get a lot of information from accessible sources.

Most of these sources are either publically available or show up in your inbox.

Thankfully, you don’t need to do this analysis that frequently.

I recommend doing a strategic source analysis during a change of leadership, changing jobs, a significant shift in strategy (usually announced with much fanfare), or annually if nothing dramatic has happened over the course of the year.

When I start working with an organization, this is how I figure out an organization’s purpose.  This process takes me 2-4 hours to get to the point where I can start asking intelligent questions and confirming some impressions.

However, I’m starting cold.  You, likely, will be able to do this much faster.

Since I’m a historian by education, I think of information resources as primary and secondary.

Primary sources:  Primary sources are the direct messages about the organization.

I bias the public, stakeholder-facing message as a more accurate indicator of where the organization wants to go. These messages tend to be highly-vetted, carefully crafted, and are often aspirational. This is what they are telling their customers.

  • Website – The website is the first place I go to figure out what an organization is trying to do and what they are telling their customers.
    • Home Page – What is the FIRST thing you see on that page?
      • I am selecting my three alma maters as examples. Since I am writing this after fall commencement and between semesters, higher education homepages will typically stress graduation pictures.
        • Virginia Tech – graduates and research news.  Their focus is on research.
        • The University of Georgia – football players and sports news. Their focus is on sports.
        • Towson University – graduation and student life. Their focus is on the student experience.
      • For the university in my earlier example, one year after the new president came on board, they have changed their website to again focus on the student experience and the university location.
    • “At a Glance, Factbook, Rankings, History, Traditions, etc.” – These pages tell me where the organization feels the most pride. How closely does this information align with what shows on their home page?
    • “Priorities, Mission, etc.” – These pages tell me what the institution feels is their crucial differentiator to their customer.
      • How easy their Priorities and Mission page is to find tells me their confidence level in these priorities. Is it proudly on their homepage or do you have to search for it?
      • How clear is it to you?
      • Do you sense the priorities and mission change regularly or are they consistent?
  • Strategic Plan – This is the formal, committee-approved plan for how they will move forward.
    • Is the strategic plan easy to locate, or do you have to search for it? The more you have to work to find it, the less confident they likely are in the plan.
    • How close is it to being replaced?  If you are looking at a strategic plan that expires about one year out, it may be time to go digging for a draft.  SOMEONE is working on it.
    • What keywords do you see in the strategic plan? Is there a precise definition of what each keyword means?  Keep track of these to see how often these keywords appear in other materials.
      • Example: In the Virginia Tech Strategic Plan (which becomes outdated in 2018 – so I would look for a new draft if I was working there), they talk about globalization.  Upon a cursory reading, it appears that successful globalization includes:
        • Attracting more international students
        • Attracting research partners from around the world
        • Focus on becoming more internationally recognized and comparing to the best global research institutions, not just US-based research institutions.
    • How have they defined “success?” The clearer it is to an outsider, the clearer it is to employees.
      • From the current (2012-2018 Virginia Tech Strategic Plan) – “Our goal is to increase the number of programs recognized as among the best internationally.”  Seems pretty clear to me.  Next thing I would look for is target numbers and which programs they included in this initiative.  You might find it in the strategic plan itself.  Often, you will have to do more digging at the departmental level.
  • New Employee Orientation materials for the overall organization – Most organizations hold an organization-wide orientation for new employees. Check to see how closely the message for the employees maps to the public message.
  • CEO/Board of Directors/President communications – This is what the head of the organization says is essential without the filtering or trickle-down done by the managerial layers. Is the message consistent?


Secondary sources (interpreted messages):  Secondary sources in organizations tend to be where the grand vision of the organization gets acted upon. With this analysis, you are trying to find the gap between what the organization says it wants and what is happening.

  • Departmental websites – This is how the individual departments and divisions interpret the organizational direction.  How close are they?  How clear are they?
  • Departmental strategic plans – Again, this is an interpretation of the organizational direction. You will likely see any struggles and potential misinterpretations in this document.
    • Is the department central to the organizational strategic plan or are they struggling to align?
    • How many “important side projects” are there?  Can you determine WHY they are important?
  • Departmental orientation materials – The orientation for the department should help the new employee act on the organization’s direction. It’s still an interpretation.
    • Check to see how closely the orientation maps to the department’s plan.  Are the skills and tools you learn during this more comprehensive introduction going to help or distract from their stated plan?
    • Talk to newer employees (1 year or less).  What are their impressions of the onboarding process and the direction of the organization?  How do they define the organization’s north star?  Discrepancies here are telling.
  • Any managerial level communications beneath the head honcho – These are all interpretations. Important interpretations, but interpretations nonetheless.  You could be led astray here.
    • What biases do they or might they have?
    • How secure do you think this person is in his/her position?
    • What is the general reputation of the individual?  Does this person have a reputation for possessing an accurate sense of what is going on?  You can figure that out by…
  • Talking to the old timers – From these folks, you get an idea of the history of the place (especially from those who have been with the organization 5+ years), how consistent the organization’s direction tends to be, culture, the unspoken rules.  Again, check for biases.
    • Which departments seem to hold “all the power?”
    • Which executives have good reputations? Bad reputations? Seem to be great politicians?
    • What is their understanding of the organization? Do they feel that their direction is “short-term?” “Another change initiative?”
    • What is the general feel/attitude?  Do they feel like they are making a difference or are they punching a clock?

I recommend running your final analysis by your colleagues and a respected mentor or two within the organization.  Running it by your boss after receiving feedback is also a good idea.

“I’ve been taking a look at our strategic direction to better align our efforts to where the organization is going. I think we are headed this direction (give a short summary of your findings). How far off am I?  Did I miss anything?”

Checking the goal can help prevent you and your team from expending a lot of effort marching in the wrong direction.

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