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Welcome to the August 2008 issue of Alignment Solutions! Last month’s theme of organizational clutter seemed to resonate with readers, so we’re approaching it from a different angle this month. To acknowledge the 2008 Summer Olympics that are taking place in China this month, we offer a sports analogy as a tool to help you align people, programs, and processes with organizational goals.

In the Feature Article, Optimizing Results by Defining Your Playing Field, we provide a sports analogy to help you establish clear boundaries so you can distinguish easily between factors that should be in play and those that are out of bounds (i.e., organizational clutter and other obstacles to success).

In How to Define Your Playing Field, the Business Solutions section suggests a simple tool to aid in cutting through the clutter and focusing on what really matters.

In the Personal Solutions section, Clearing the “Mind Clutter” describes a technique that helps you banish distracting and irrelevant thoughts on a day-to-day basis so you can concentrate on the task at hand.

I invite you to visit my web site at www.BusinessAlignmentStrategies.com to find other articles and resources that may be of value to you and your colleagues. I welcome your feedback!

 

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Optimizing Results by Defining Your Playing Field

To optimize business results, you first must define clearly what those expected outcomes are AND, importantly, what they are not. In my experience, while most executives can say what the desired results are, far fewer are able to say with any precision what they are NOT. Articulating both these concepts is critical: when organizations waste resources on activities that do not support their desired outcomes, they cannot optimize their results.

An analogy that I have found very useful in making this point is that of a sports playing field, such as that used by football or soccer players.* You can see the concept clearly if you draw a rectangle on a piece of paper. Everything inside the rectangle represents the playing field; everything outside does not. During a football or soccer game, only those actions that take place entirely inside the boundaries count toward making goals. Things that occur outside the boundaries do not count, and in fact, are penalized by giving possession of the ball to the opposing team. Similarly, in a business context, only activities that occur inside the organization’s playing field are effective in helping achieve its business goals; those outside the boundaries incur penalties that range from sub-optimal results to providing an advantage to competitors.

Here are a few of the benefits your organization can realize by defining the boundaries of its playing field:

  • Optimal business results occur as actions, behaviors, values, and results are aligned with organizational goals.
  • Openings for new opportunities emerge when the clutter is cleared from the field and priorities are delineated sharply.
  • The “big picture” is defined clearly when the field is surveyed from the perspective of the Goodyear blimp rather than from a seat in the stands.
  • Performance and productivity increase due to clear distinctions between what is “in” and what is “out.”
  • Employee engagement increases as individuals see clearly their roles in organizational success, just as athletes on teams play specific positions.
  • Managers spend less time micromanaging projects and people because clear expectations and standards support the big picture.

Have you defined clearly your organization’s playing field? If not, I encourage you to sit down with your staff, draw a rectangle, and list clearly those things that are inside your organization’s playing field and those that are outside. Your list may include activities, values, behaviors, decisions, and/or results. That “picture” then becomes a visual representation that lets employees know which actions, behaviors, and results are in bounds and which are out of bounds. Similarly, managers can tell easily which programs and processes support organizational goals and which do not.

The ability of employees at all levels to make the distinction between what is in play and what is not is a critical success factor in optimizing results. Have you provided the tools necessary for employees to support your organization’s success?

* I give Alan Weiss credit for this analogy. It appears in several of his books, including The Great Big Book of Process Visuals (2003).

Please see the complete article Optimizing Results by Defining Your Playing Field on my web site.

 

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How to Define Your Playing Field

Do you ever find your organization getting off track – i.e., doing things that result in misalignment with organizational goals? When that happens, it is impossible to optimize business results. In my article Optimizing Results by Defining Your Playing Field, I use the image of a sports playing field as an analogy* for identifying clear organizational boundaries that enable everyone to see plainly which elements (e.g., activities, behaviors, results, values) are in alignment with expected outcomes and which ones are misaligned. I also list the benefits of taking the time to clarify the boundaries. In this article I explain more specifically how you can use the playing field concept to distinguish easily between what is in play and what is not.

Try this exercise with your staff:

  1. Draw a rectangle on a large sheet of paper.
  2. List the organization’s goals, values, and expected results – in short, all the elements that go into establishing the value it brings to clients.
  3. Have a discussion about WHY specific elements are either in or out to sharpen and personalize the ultimate big picture.
  4. Use the drawing as a tool against which employees make decisions. That is, the elements inside the boundaries or on the playing field are, by definition, aligned with organizational goals. (See example below.)
  5. Review the elements in the playing field periodically with your staff.

For example, one of my clients has been very successful in its niche market. When I started working with the company, we drew a rectangle that represented its playing field today. This showed executives immediately that most of the ideas they are considering as areas of expansion are outside the existing playing field. As we work on developing a business strategy, the executives know they must make purposeful choices about which existing elements to keep or discard, and which new elements to bring in or to leave out of bounds. This visual has enabled us to keep discussions on track at any given point in time: as we draw playing fields that represent different scenarios, we can see immediately which elements are “in” and thus open for debate, and which are “out” and not open for discussion right now. Identifying and discarding what does NOT belong on the playing field has been invaluable in enabling us to focus on those things that should be in play.

You can modify this tool for more narrow uses. For example, several clients wanted to incorporate designated values into their respective cultures. In this type of situation, we can draw a playing field that delineates values that are in bounds (i.e., aligned with the organization’s goals) and those that are out of bounds, or misaligned with the goals. A discussion about why and how the values inside the boundaries are included can be beneficial in personalizing them – i.e., helping employees see how each value plays out in their own jobs. The values also can be used as standards of performance. For example, if “respect” is an organizational value and a manager is yelling at an employee, one need only ask “How is yelling at someone consistent with our organizational value of respect?” to make the point effectively. Now everyone knows when they are “playing” in or out of bounds!

* I give Alan Weiss credit for this analogy. It appears in several of his books, including The Great Big Book of Process Visuals (2003).

 

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Clearing the “Mind Clutter”

Do you ever feel as though your mind is going a mile a minute? Are the thoughts whirling around in your brain so demanding of your attention that you can’t seem to focus? When this happens we feel overwhelmed and unable to concentrate. Here is one simple and very effective way to clear what I call “mind clutter” – i.e., those intrusive thoughts that hamper our ability to focus.

  1. Take out a pad of paper and a pen or pencil. (Note: Typing or texting may not be as effective as writing manually.)
  2. Start writing on the paper whatever thoughts are in your head. Do not think about whether the words make sense or are grammatically correct, and do not judge them. Just write.
  3. If your mind goes blank at any time, write “I don’t know what to write” over and over until other thoughts emerge. Trust me, they will!
  4. After 30 minutes, stop writing.
  5. Go back to the task at hand. You will find it much easier to concentrate because the “mind clutter” will be gone.

I first learned of this tool when I read The Right to Write by Julia Cameron. However, I have seen it described in other places in slightly different ways. The important point is to write continually for 30 minutes, without stopping to think. Just keep the pen moving over the paper. After about 30 minutes you will have depleted your current store of mind clutter and cleared some space for focused, purposeful thought.

Here are a few suggestions for using this technique, some of which are contrary to others. Experiment, and then choose the ones that work best for you.

  • Write first thing in the morning before you get out of bed to help you clear your mind before you face the day. OR
  • At any point during the day when you find that mind clutter is preventing you from being effective, take out a pad and pen and start writing.
  • Write in whatever form works best for you: narrative, bullet points, sentence fragments, or any combination of these.
  • Write without intention other than to clear the mind clutter. You can write specific reports or memos later, when you have re-gained the clarity to do so effectively.
  • Throw away the pages after you have finished them. You may read them before you toss them or not; it's your choice. OR
  • Keep the pages and re-read them later to see whether they contain a kernel of an idea that may be useful to you.
  • Read the pages with a sense of curiosity. I often am surprised by what I write because I haven't thought consciously about the ideas.

Putting thoughts down on paper is a way to acknowledge their presence and move beyond them. It also may help to organize them. Writing without intention and without judgment are critical success factors in clearing mind clutter. The point of taking a short period of time is to deal definitively with distracting thoughts so you can move on with a sense of clarity and purpose. Having said that, often I find a bonus in the form of an idea hidden among the words and phrases that addresses an important issue I’ve been mulling over, or that helps me see something from a different point of view. Sometimes I even find I have created my “to do” list for the day! In my experience, once I write down the “stuff” that is running around in my mind, it either goes away or fades into the background, allowing me to focus on what is most important at the time.

I encourage you to reduce your mind clutter by taking 30 uninterrupted minutes each day for one week to write your thoughts. Not only will you be able to focus more easily afterward, but you may find the answers to your challenges in those pages! At the very least, you will gain a sense of peace. Aren’t those outcomes worth half an hour each day?

 

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Date of Publication: August, 2008
Pat@BusinessAlignmentStrategies.com
www.BusinessAlignmentStrategies.com | 562.985.0333
Copyright 2008 - All rights reserved, Pat Lynch