Jeffrey Saltzman's Blog

Enhancing Organizational Performance

The One Thing

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For many years, in manager training sessions which covered how to utilize your employee survey results, I always suggested to managers that they decide on which two or three issues were the most important and take action on that limited number. No more than two or three, not a long list of tasks, a long list that would almost certainly ensure that nothing would actually get done. Keep the list small, keep the list manageable. Everyone’s plate is already full and piling on to-do’s would simply become overwhelming. I am re-evaluating that advice, but my evaluation is not about whether managers should have a longer list of action items, but rather should the short list be even shorter.

While it may sound odd after spending so much time and energy on planning for an employee survey, collecting the data, analyzing it every which way and reporting it back, but I am beginning to feel that the best advice on what to do with it, in today’s environment is to pick “The One Thing” that rises to the top, that the management team feels will make a substantial difference and to go out and make a difference on it.

When you examine norm data and look at who are the top performers on a particular issue, which companies score most strongly for instance on customer focus, innovation, timeliness, cooperation, etc. or more broadly on Message, Performance enablement (against message) and Future related issues you find a somewhat different list of top performing organizations. Meaning that the list of top performers is a changing list, depending on which item you are looking at. It appears that a widely admired company for instance will not be the top performer across the board necessarily, but rather will excel in some areas, and be more average in others.

I would argue that no company has the time, energy or resources to simply come out and say that “we will be the best in the world on everything”, I would further argue that the logic doesn’t make sense. By definition resources are a limited commodity. No one has infinite money, people or time. Further there are relatively few cases where two companies exist in exactly the same market niche. In fact much time, money and people’s effort are spent in figuring out how to differentiate one’s products from the competition (both the products sold to your customers and the employee value proposition sold to your employees). Organizations need to choose which areas will be most critical to success in their niche. Will it be to become the most innovative, having the leading edge product to market before the competition, or to be the most responsive or to be the most value for the money spent etc? Sometimes these choices are somewhat contradictory. For instance if you are going to be the organization that provides the most value, stretching the consumer’s dollar, it can be difficult to be the most innovative, as innovation often carries a price tag as would concepts like being the highest quality or most responsive.

Companies that try to be all things end up having a confused Message that will hurt their performance, with changing directions and priorities the norm internally and customers seeing and experiencing inconsistencies. No one knows what the organization really stands for, including the organization.

Managers who are examining their employee survey results and require themselves to pick “The One Thing” are in essence defining what is important for their organization to stand for. What is the one thing that if done better than anyone else will enable the organization to succeed?

There is another aspect to “The One Thing” that is important and that is you can’t hide from it. When managers have picked 2-3 issues to tackle from their employee survey results they invariably go after “the low hanging fruit”, the easy fixes. While that is all well and good, sometimes after going after the fruit, they never quite get around to tacking the tough issues, the thorns higher up on the branch. Later on they can point to progress made in some areas, after all we got the low hangers, but the real challenges are still the real challenges, those thorns are still as sharp as ever. If managers pick “The One Thing”, when evaluating their progress they either did it or they did not, period.

The challenge is to pick “The One Thing” that has the potential for the greatest across the board impact, and that is where initial effort needs to focus. Which thing is the thread that if pulled will impact all the other threads that make up the organizational tapestry? Where do you concentrate? As you begin to think this through you rapidly come to the realization that picking “The One Thing” does not necessarily lead to any less work or effort to be expended in responding to survey results, it leads to a more focused, a more concentrated effort. In order to successfully accomplish “The One Thing” it is very likely that multiple other things need to be addressed as subtasks as well.  

Should an organization pick one standard thing, driven from the top so that everyone is working the same issue or should local managers pick the one that is critical to them at their level? I believe that Sr. Managers should pick “The One Thing” that is critical at their level and they should champion it. They should be held responsible for getting it done and for driving it through the organization. Other managers within the organization should be picking their one thing, which is in support of the top level one thing, within their control, if the organization is to have a concentrated effort in responding to the survey results and actually make a difference on an identified critical dimension. I believe that there are some nuances that will come into play here depending on where an organization resides across the board on some issues, but in general that is the concept.

“The One Thing” can be scary. It is much easier to pick a whole host of issues, knowing that if you do a bit of everything you will likely touch on the ones that are really important to your organization, but you will touch on them in a lukewarm, less focused way. If you are looking for maximal organizational improvement impact “The One Thing”, while likely the most challenging, has the most potential to deliver.

© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 17, 2009 at 5:56 am

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