Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Word Playing with Priorities, Imperatives, and Initiatives

Words have power. “Delegate”, for example, is fundamentally different from “empower”. In the first case, the leader hands off prescribed tasks and responsibilities to the employee. In the latter case, the leader lets the employee figure out the optimal way to achieve results.
Two entirely different outcomes, two entirely different vibes.

I recently sat in on a top management meeting where the importance of words took on, well, importance. I noticed that the managers in the meeting were frustrated because they were disagreeing on which organizational policies and processes were must-do non-negotiable, driven down from the top—and which policies and processes were open to challenge, and, for that matter, which policies and practices ought to be generated bottom-up. If you think about it, these are critical distinctions which many leaders fail to properly confront and articulate.

I made a simple suggestion. I had noticed that in discussing the above alternatives, the managers were using the terms priorities, initiatives, and imperatives interchangeably. My suggestion was to distinguish among those terms in this way:

• Strategic priorities are driven top-down. They describe broad plans of action, missions, values and organizational performance standards that are developed by top leaders, who are perfectly within their right to expect everyone to adhere to them. Priorities define the direction and tone of the entire organization. Here’s the market space we’re in, here’s what we’re striving for, here’s our compelling value proposition, here’s our business model, here’s how we relate to each other, here’s what we stand for. Unless there is compelling evidence and logic to the contrary, priorities ought to be driven from the top and non-negotiable.
• Imperatives are also top-down entities, but with more opportunity for bottom-up input. Imperatives are more micro oriented than priorities. They define the goal, performance and behavioral kinds of expectations that leaders have for particular teams and units within the organization. What do we hope and expect from this division, or this region, or this facility, or this marketing department, or this accounting function? What do we hope and expect from you the individual? Smart leaders are involved in this process, and they usually make the final decisions, but they encourage lots of input, feedback and dialog from all ends.
• Initiatives are bottom up flows, with, of course, opportunity for leader input. Initiatives reflect self-propelled ideas and actions that represent contributions to revenue-line enhancement, cost-reduction, customer care, supply chain management, product development, and such. Individuals and teams at any level develop them, champion them, run with them, and apply them. Leaders are involved, but often only at the end, when results are available. Sometimes they take a hands-off approach, assuming that their people are empowered and accountable for using their brains, and touching base with them only periodically. And in performance reviews, smart leaders ask two questions: One, in addition to “doing” your job, how did you “change” your job? What changes and improvements did you initiate that created new contributions to value and wealth in this organization? Second question: have I (the leader) created an environment where you had the expectation, tools and the capability to launch initiatives.

Am I being nit-picky on words? You decide. All I can say is that words do have power, and too few leaders make the priority/imperative/initiative distinctions clear to their workforce, and doing so sure helped the executives in that break through some serious management impasses.


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