Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Sharing the Vision

When you work in the field of employee engagement , as I've done for the past year at River, it's hard not to pick up a thing or two about the subject. Luckily for me this was already an area of interest - as I wrote in this post I've always placed a high value on the motivation and personal development of the individuals in my teams, so working in the field of employee engagement is a great opportunity to extend my own knowledge in an area I care about.

Whilst researching the subject of engagement, one strong driver of people's commitment to their employers that I've seen referenced as crucial across a number of studies is when they share in a vision of the company's goals and culture. This sounds like a simple thing to achieve, however many organisations struggle to do exactly that.

The importance of vision

Studies such as this one of employee engagement and motivation, such as this one have identified the feeling that you are a contributing part of a larger vision for your organisation as one of the strongest factors in engagement and motivation. In fact some studies have concluded that a feeling of being part of a wider vision is the single most important factor in employee motivation.

But what do we mean when we talk about a vision? Well what I'm not referring to its a facile written statement, posted on the office wall - although I'm aware some organisations seek to compensate for an absence of genuine vision with just such a weak imitation.

This is not to say that vision statements themselves cannot be inspirational - this list of vision statements for nonprofits organisations contains some wonderful examples (though you have to admit the creation of an inspirational vision statement must be somewhat less challenging when ones organisation has such inspirational purposes). For organisations with less altruistic goals the encapsulation of the vision into a one line statement can feel contrived, and I personally find written vision statements in isolation from company practice or principle both trite and unsatisfactory.

A vision is, and needs to be, more than a statement. Just as in agile development we describe a user story as a place-holder for a conversation, so a vision statement needs to act as a place-holder to summarise the common values, goals and behaviours that characterise the employees of an organisation. A company vision is more like a shared consciousness of where we want to be, and how we want to get there and has to be not just understood but embodied by the individuals working for that organisation.

Missing the vision

Given the importance of a vision it's surprisingly easy to overlook when hiring teams and structuring work. This HBR article quotes 95 percent of employees being unaware of the company strategy. In development specifically I've seen situations where there simply isn't a high perceived value in sharing corporate goals with development teams. Perhaps it is the often quiet, focused nature of roles such as development and testing that results in the perception of people in these roles as resources that can be moved around interchanged, needing only their immediate inputs and outputs to be defined to deliver effective work. It is easy to target peoples' efforts on tackling the feature developments, bug fixes and releases that the make up the day to day activities, without considering any value in their understanding the wider organisational vision.

Why would we worry about missing the vision? As we tackle the tactical work that is prioritised around our immediate needs there will be opportunities to advance ourselves towards our longer term goals. Whether or not we take these opportunities depends heavily on whether the individuals working on those activities identify them as important. I've seen very successful cases of teams identifying opportunities. For example a team working on a customer website project recently identified the addition of a new user role in the programme as an opportunity to start introducing a content management capability that was one of the long term strategic aims of that programme.

On the flipside, opportunities can be missed if those involved don't have context of a wider purpose. I've also encountered projects that deliver value in the project context in question, but miss the opportunity to deliver value on a more central strategic level for the organisation of the work had been approached slightly differently. If the whole team is not on board with the strategic goals of the company then opportunities can be missed.

Vision workshop

Small companies, such as the ones I've worked in for the last 12 years, often have a distinct advantage when it comes to sharing a vision in that they are likely to have a much more accessible CEO or leadership team than larger organisations. Having a leader that can interact directly with employees is one of the key strengths of smaller organisations and I believe can provide competitive advantage in the motivation and engagement that it can drive. Software development and IT teams in particular can be operational silos, separated from the roles with a more direct business connection. Having access to top level leadership who can convey the importance of the work that is being achieved across a company is a huge benefit to these roles.

Recently I organised a workshop day with the main aim of sharing the vision of the CEO with the new product owners recently brought into the company and to allow those POs the opportunity to cement their relationships with other key people in the company. An introductory session from the CEO on the history of the company justified the day before we'd even hit lunchtime. I'd not previously appreciated the direct historical link from the very first engagement rewards company to the modern company that we were now part of. Learning the history of River and how this has shaped the programmes and capabilities now being offered was both interesting and important knowledge for the attendees to understand.

In further sessions we explored our capabilities across various customer programmes and examined how these fitted with the theories and models of engagement which are relevant to our business domain, as well as looking at options for how to validate new ideas and innovations through the research and development lifecycle.

Whilst some elements of the day were more successful than others, for example the sessions probably generated too many high level ideas at the expense of practical implementable suggestions, overall the value of having the Product Owners in a room with the experience of the CEO and creative and UX folks discussing our products was invaluable in instilling in them a vision of the company and where we wanted to be.

making your own vision

Not everyone has the autonomy to arrange events such as the one I just described. Even those that do sometimes don't have the luxury of an inspirational leader or a company situation that they find engaging or motivating. The good news here is that in my experience it is still possible to engage people with a vision in the form of a group cause that people can get behind.

At one point in a previous role the development department were struggling with motivation. A significant change was being imposed externally which as a group we had little control over or belief in, but risked a damaging impact on the quality of our work and our pride in it. It was a challenging time where engagement was in short supply. Whilst it was never going to be an inspiring project, I focussed on establishing a collective cause for the development team. Our goal was to take ownership of the situation and do the best job that we could of providing a quality delivery. As a group we renamed the project to introduce some team ownership of the situation. We established the work we were able to do in the short term to understand and improve the status of it and defined and communicated appropriate approaches to refactoring, testing and documenting the changes (the testing was based around my mind map for testability).

I believe that the work done in the time available on that delivery was exemplary. As a group, having a shared vision of what we were working towards really helped us to gel together, when it would have been easy to descend into melancholy and denial of the situation.

Just do it

"If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don't have to be pushed. The vision pulls you". Steve Jobs.

Even without inspirational leadership of the nature of Steve Jobs it is possible to create a vision within a department or team that motivates and inspires. This could be working towards an aspirational goal or simply collectively tackling adversity in a constructive way. Just as there are always going to be times when things aren't going as well as we'd like and a clear vision can help us in persevering, so it can be that when times are good a vision helps individuals to make connections and create opportunities to move us further, faster.

Having a higher purpose in terms of a group or organisational vision is such an important motivator that, if you don't have one, and you don't have access to someone who does, maybe it's time you made your own.

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