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3 Lenses for Management Success

Dedric Carter is a former senior advisor for strategic initiatives in the Office of the Director National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va. and a member of the MIT EMBA class of 2014. He is currently associate dean of engineering and professor of practice at Washington University in St. Louis.

In moving quickly, we can easily become entrenched in our own perspective, oblivious to other forces that may affect our business success. One technique for calibrating what we see involves viewing an initiative through three types of lenses: political, strategic design and cultural.

The Three Lenses

The strategic design lens is that of the organizational architect. The architect designs strategies, processes, and procedures that fit the environment and facilitate the organizations objectives. The political lens is that of the influencer and power player. The influencer navigates personal relationships and sees the organization as alliances, ambitions, and hierarchy. Finally, the cultural lens is the realm of the storyteller. The storyteller operates in the world of norms, values, and artifacts used to create and relay meaning and context. To be good managers we must embrace all three. Let’s take a closer look at each.

Power: Political Lens

Power strongholds are often temporary in organizations. Understanding the sources of power will help to deepen the roots of your initiatives.  I experienced these shifting winds when at the start of a new initiative in the public sector we worked diligently to move quickly. Initially, that movement was fueled by top-level mandates and the balance of power was politically tilted toward dictates. But that power balance was a tenuous one. As the newness of the program waned, fatigue set in and resistance against continuation mounted. The program actually became a lightning rod for sentiments about moving too quickly.

Dismissing mounting concerns would have been a mistake. This was the time to look for strength in numbers. To do this, we instituted a regular team meeting to ensure that transparency (or at least translucency) was the general practice. The front line perspective is the spirit of the organization thus true power and influence rests there.

Alignment: Strategic Design Lens

In the initiative I mentioned above, the organizational architects realized that the high-level processes we put in place had significant workload implications at the execution level. Agreement could include as many as 80 signatures on an electronic form to move forward. Though theory was sound, the design in practice was flawed.

Having an underlying understanding of the processes in place and the purpose of the processes helped us to revise the plan and generate an executable strategy. Bureaucracies are meant to be stable not necessarily innovative, but understanding the importance of stability can fuel innovation. Otherwise theory and practice can become out of balance.

Motivation: Cultural Lens

As good storytellers, new initiatives must be rooted in the values that have lasting meaning to the organization. This can expedite adoption of an initiative.

I was taught an important lesson through my work at MIT: As a newbie to an organization, know where you came from and know where you are. Where you are is the culture you are dealing with. In other words, it is important to know that well-defined cultures have intrinsic power. While culture does not change easily, you can use culture as a facilitator of change by rooting the change in the context of the organizational culture.

In my case, the momentum that compelled our core team to move aggressively on the initiative did not necessarily resonant with everyone in the organization. Culturally, we were failing to draw upon the underlying reason that everyone showed up to work at the agency each day.

That failure to align threatened the fundamental health of the initiative. The lesson learned was that the story of the initiative had to be one that was rooted in the cultural underpinnings of the agency. To address this issue, we aligned the need for rapid response as an analog to short-term data events in research. Harnessing and fueling the endless frontier is core to the organization. We took advantage of that to make our message relevant and effective.

Bullets Are Not Silver

We all know there are no silver bullets. The real power is to step back and evaluate your project through different lenses. Hopefully, this gives you insight into the landscape that needs to be navigated for you and your project to succeed.

How have you evaluated new initiatives? What other lenses do you use? What challenges have you faced?

Originally Published: MIT Executive Insights Blog
Author: Dedric Carter