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The Imperative of Operating Principles

The Imperative of Operating Principles

When the winds of change blow, what do you hang onto?  When uncertainties abound, what’s your anchor?  When complexity is heaped upon complication, do you have a baseline?  When catastrophe strikes, and it always does, can you be counted upon to do the right thing, first time and every time?

These, and similar, questions are put to business leaders almost daily.  How they are addressed is easily as important as the “what” that gets decided upon and implemented.  Regardless of the issue or circumstance, successful navigation of troubled waters begins with unwavering adherence to a set of clearly articulated operating principles.  And, no, I am not referring to a set of platitudes that become miniaturized, laminated in plastic and carried around in a shirt pocket or purse.  Rather, I am talking about “this is what we do and how we do it” and being consistent about it over a period of time so that your people develop confidence in your leadership because they know what to expect from you no matter what.

Organizations, be they be big or small, need to go through an affirmative exercise of defining who they are and affirmatively creating their company culture.  Failure to do so results in a culture created in a void which produces an environment that neither employees nor customers can understand.  Confusion is to be avoided, it almost guarantees sub-optimal results.  And who leads or starts a business with sub-optimal results as the objective?

But there are no shortcuts.  You cannot hire a consultant to come in and tell you what your company identity should be.  You’ve simply got to develop a process to come up with the answer on your own.  Accent on the word “process,” more on this in a minute.  Remember that old expression, “the soft stuff is the hard stuff?”  It’s absolutely true.  A leader and his or her team need to tear themselves away from the day to day and make time to consider this matter seriously and to create a process to arrive at the desired place.  I do not recommend a proclamation emanating from the corner office.

Rather, I would suggest the process to be as inclusive as possible, involving all employees and as many stakeholders as you can.  Stuff like “be customer focused” is pretty useless.  As an alternative: “do an environmental scan, determine the needs of your customers, design operations processes to reflect those needs” is an example of an operating principle that is not pretty useless.  And, it says a lot – be customer focused, here’s how we actually operationalize that.

The leader and leadership team should make the time to develop the questions that will lead to usable answers in creating a set of operating principles from which a recognizable culture will derive.  It is very important as well to keep in mind that we are not talking about religion or Zen philosophies here.  Ultimately, operating principles should call to mind a solid business rationale that makes a connection for every employee.  Say, you start with headline areas of importance: customers, people, partners and go into levels of detail under each.

And, about inclusivity, I know a company is not a democracy.  But to ignore input from people who daily are closest to the customer or who ply the market at the ground level seems to me to be a dubious choice at best and sends the wrong message.  Moreover, I can provide assurance that when the leader/leadership team receives and evaluates that input, a full throated debate will ensue.  That’s healthy, right?  Group consensus and mutual commitment to behave in concert with the resulting set of operating principles produces harmony at the top of the business.  And organizations take their cue from the top.

There’s no such thing as guaranteed success.  There’s no prescription for a corporate culture either, many different styles work.  A leader should do all he/she can to position the organization for success, however, by assuring that “the soft stuff” gets the right level of attention.