Outside of Timisoara, Romania, near an industrial district that borders on beautiful countryside, is one of the strangest cornfields you will ever see.
Growing up in Iowa and Wisconsin, I was accustomed to dense, even fields of high-output corn, the result of years of technological and process enhancement — as the saying goes, "knee-high by the 4th of July." I first saw this cornfield in Romania right around the 4th of July over a decade ago, and it appeared that about twenty percent of the rows met the knee-high criterion, but they were scattered. The other eighty percent were shin-high at best, the plants in them unhealthy. What could make such a difference in one field?
It turns out the field was a great example of the failure of bureaucratic decision-making. At the fall of communism a decade before I saw the cornfield, there was a lot of controversy about how to divide up state-owned lands such as farms. The decision was made, at least in this one small field, to divide it up two rows at a time. Every two rows were owned by different micro-farmers. No efficiency of scale could be achieved because there was no collaboration or alignment between the farmers. Some micro-farmers, given the same resources in land, water, and seed, were able to produce easily twice as much output as their neighboring plot owners. The only differences, given the exact same resources, were people and the decisions they made.
Faced with less-than-ideal economic conditions now, many leaders face a similar situation. We have comparable access to people, facilities, addressable market, and existing customer base. Some of us, however, are able to eke out just that little bit extra, not by placing huge strategic bets, but by ensuring the strategy we already have in place gets executed. Aligning people and the decisions they make yields greater results.
Our organization conducted research with Wharton and Stanford that supports this. We studied 153 customers across multiple industries to find out if simply executing your business strategy, no matter what it was, made a difference in share price. We set up and tested four hypotheses that we believe are foundations for a company's ability to execute:
Setting clear goals and adjusting those goals when necessary based on changing circumstances, resulting in more frequent but more relevant goals;
Aligning goals throughout the organization, top to bottom and across;
Identifying and treating high performers differently than low performers through consistent feedback across the organization;
And using software at all levels to provide process support, analytics, and insights into all of the above.
In farming and in business, there are so many factors you can't control — from drought to floods to the Greek bailout — the key is to focus on those areas that you can control. Your ability to execute is definitely one of those. In a sense, our people are the seeds of our growth and shareholder value. We can surround them with resources and nurture them with benefits, but if we don't communicate explicitly with them and decide to align our resources in similar ways, they will make decisions that yield uneven results. Parts of the organization will perform to world-class standards, and parts will look like the puny rows of corn in Timisoara.
And yet demographic shifts mean that giving feedback and aligning employees is about to get even tougher than it already is. As Jeanne Meister and I have written before, nearly half of the workplace will be Millennials — people born after 1977 — in just three years. As hiring picks up and Baby Boomers retire, we will shift to a younger workforce who have a need for more feedback than organizations are used to giving, and will want to see indicators that the work they're doing matters to the organization. And we won't be able to rely as much on managers with decades of experience to herd employees into alignment.
At the same time, the fast, volatile business environment we're in — the new normal — means we'll need more real-time capability to adapt, both changing our strategies and ensuring our employees can shift to meet new strategic directions.
There's an easy question to assess whether your organization is aligned and executing strategy: If you changed your company strategy now, are you confident your employees would align behind that new strategy within a few months?
Can you afford to answer "no" to that question?
Karie Willyerd is the coauthor of The 2020 Workplace. She is also the CLO of SuccessFactors and the former CEO of Jambok, a social learning platform acquired by SuccessFactors. The views expressed here are solely the views of the author.
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