It is a common challenge across a number of professional areas: how do we stop our strategic partners getting dragged down into operational and transactional work? This can lead to a CXO declaring either that more resource is needed to get on top of the operational or else to collapse into a frenzy of ‘getting the basics right’. In many situations, the problem is not that people are being dragged down into ops, but that there is nothing pulling them up into strategy.
You will have seen it – many times perhaps – and may even have experienced it yourself. To move a function beyond a reactive day-to-day approach to supporting a business a decision is taken to introduce a new role (or rename an existing one). This new way of working will be described as being proactive and forward looking. It will be strategic and get us past constantly being on the back foot when working with managers in the line. In truth what often happens is that these new roles (HR Business Partners are always a great example) continue to end up in meetings with customers where they are being asked about the most detailed operational cases and issues. This is where people – in the professional function and the business line – can begin to lose faith in this new world of ‘strategic partnering’ and revert instead to asking about sickness cases, disciplinary cases, and compliance rates.
This is the stage at which many organisations will begin to ask why their strategic partners are getting “dragged” into operational work. The question they don’t ask, in enough detail, is what work the partners should be doing with their customers instead. Where are the strategic products that their partners will be using with the business line? How are these products being used? Where is the annual work plan which sets out (with appropriate flexibility) what the strategic partners will be working with the customer on each month? Where is the people strategy that is developed from the workforce diagnostic that has been run on the business strategy (however emergent that might be)?
I think of all this work as the strategy balloon. If you can imagine operational work as being a weight to which the strategic partner is tethered the strategy balloon is the upward force that pulls the strategic partner up towards the blue skies. This balloon represents the tangible work that a strategic partner does with a customer in the business line to reach a position in which the customer sees the real value in it for their business objectives. The more you inflate this balloon, the more there is of value for the partner to work through with the customer to help realise their strategic goals. The smaller this balloon, the more likely the customer is to want to talk about the specific details of operational cases.
I’ve heard senior HR practitioners ask how we move customers away from wanting to talk about ops all the time and talk instead about strategy. The right answer is that you don’t move them, you take them there. A good HR Business Partner can do some of this in a vacuum by simply drawing on their own experience but, for the approach to become integral to the support your function provides, you need a shelf full of well developed products –diagnostics, tools and interventions – that your strategic partners can select from to support their work with the business line.
There is a well known theory about work expanding to fill the available time. It is also the case that work expands to fill the available capacity.
If you don’t have a well inflated strategy balloon to pull your people upwards, however small the operational weight holding them down, they will never be able to become untethered and achieve the heights you imagined.