How Visibility Into Ongoing Work Drives Business Agility

Caitlin Veator

Visibility into ongoing work is imperative to business agility. In order to execute quickly, innovate effectively, and compete in an increasingly volatile business environment, workforces from the C-Suite to individual employees must be armed with clear, dynamic visibility into the critical initiatives and projects in progress across an organization.

Walking the Factory Floor

In the 1970s, executives at Hewlett-Packard came to a novel realization: managers, often housed in separate offices and behind closed doors, lacked enough on-the-ground visibility into the work being done by their employees to make quick and effective strategic decisions. Their solution was simple: managers needed to walk around.

 

Business agility through visibility image of Hewlett-Packer advertisement
Sources: Hewlett-Packard Museum

Management by Wandering Around (MBWA), and the Japanese equivalent “gemba walk”, are based on the belief that greater visibility into the status and quality of ongoing work makes for better and faster management decisions. Leveraging it correctly, however, means more than just a random walk to the water cooler. “MBWA only works if you know how to use it…” writes Mike Mears in his book Leadership Elements: A Guide to Building Trust. “It’s critical to be skilled in the interaction component of MBWA. Ask questions like, “What are you doing?…Could this task go better or faster if changes in the process were made?” In other words, managers must use their travels to gather the right data, from the right people, on the right work.

Complex Organizations, Blurred Vision

For executives at today’s global enterprises, the idea of gathering meaningful insight into ongoing work merely by strolling past a few employees’ desks seems quaint. Modern enterprises are larger, more global, and more heavily matrixed than ever before, and a single initiative or project may span multiple functions, business units, or continents. “Complex organizations are far more difficult to manage than merely complicated ones,” writes Gokce Sargut and Rita Gunther McGrath in Harvard Business Review. “It’s harder to predict what will happen, because complex systems interact in unexpected ways. It’s harder to make sense of things, because the degree of complexity may lie beyond our cognitive limits. And it’s harder to place bets, because the past behavior of a complex system may not predict its future behavior.”

While the effects of increasing organizational complexity on managers and employees are varied, one impact remains clear across industries and sectors: each layer of complexity added to an enterprise acts like a scratched lens, reducing and distorting leaders’ visibility into the ongoing work they oversee.

Complex organizations are far more difficult to manage than merely complicated ones… it’s harder to place bets, because the past behavior of a complex system may not predict its future behavior.”

Source: Learning to Live with Complexity, Harvard Business Review

Clear Vision, Agile Work

Organizational complexity and poor visibility into ongoing work — and the associated symptoms of poor data sharing and sluggish decision-making — are far from new phenomena. The reality, however, is that in an environment of fierce competition, increasing pressure to innovate, and new disruptive threats, visibility into ongoing work at all levels of an organization is no longer just a nice-to-have, it is imperative for business agility.

But why is visibility into ongoing work such a critical input to operating with agility? What difference does it make just to be able to see the work happening across the organization?

Aligning to Move Faster

Understanding the symbiotic relationship between visibility into ongoing work and business agility begins with recognizing the role of alignment within a team, business unit, or enterprise at-large. “Achieving real alignment, where strategy, goals, and meaningful purpose reinforce one another, gives an organization a major advantage because it has a clearer sense of what to do at any given time, and it can trust people to move in the right direction,” writes McKinsey’s Thierry Mautin. “The result is an organization that can focus less on deciding what to do—and more on simply doing.

Achieving real alignment, where strategy, goals, and meaningful purpose reinforce one another, gives an organization a major advantage because it has a clearer sense of what to do at any given time, and it can trust people to move in the right direction.”

Source: The Aligned Organization, McKinsey

But all too often major initiatives fall prey to ‘alignment-attrition’ — the tendency for agreement around a clear vision or goal for an initiative to break down over time. In large companies, weeks or even months may pass before members of a team realize they’ve gone in different directions. Without continual visibility into a unified goal — and a clear understanding of how teams are tracking against that goal — workstreams can quickly become irrelevant or dysfunctional.

Across all levels of an organization, visibility is key to ensuring that teams are aligned and moving rapidly in the same direction. Truly understanding the link between visibility and business agility requires analyzing the impact of greater visibility at each level of an organization: executives, managers, and employees.

Executives

Executives at global enterprises face a unique paradox when it comes to visibility: their position as the primary corporate decision-makers benefits from more data and added visibility the most, and yet C-Suite leaders and business unit heads often have the hardest time cutting through organizational layers to track the progress of ground-level work.

That accurate data forms the foundation for effective executive decision-making has never been in doubt. As Kenneth R. Brousseau, Michael J. Driver, Gary Hourihan, and Rikard Larsson write in their Harvard Business Review article “The Seasoned Executive’s Decision-Making Style,” “it’s essential to use a leadership style that keeps the information pipeline open and the data flowing freely, so [executives] have access to the best information and analysis.” The most useful data is that which allows executives to quickly comprehend whether critical projects and the employees executing them are moving an organization towards its strategic goals.

It’s essential to use a leadership style that keeps the information pipeline open and the data flowing freely, so [executives] have access to the best information and analysis.”

Source: The Seasoned Executive’s Decision-Making Style,
Harvard Business Review

Based on responses gathered from Fortune 500 Executives who attended Catalant’s 2018 Reimagining Work Summit, however, it’s clear that many executives rate the level of visibility into ongoing work present within their organizations poorly. The leaders surveyed by Catalant gave their companies an average score of only 5.8 out of 10 when it comes to providing executive visibility into ongoing work.

laptop-white

Leaders give their companies an average score of 5.8 out of 10 on organizational performance at providing visibility into ongoing work.

Source: Obstacles to Agility, Catalant

Executives understand that trying to make effective, rapid decisions without clear visibility into ongoing work is the management equivalent of crossing a river blindfolded. Speed, decisiveness, and working with agility demand executives who can see well enough to track granular projects, assess their progress, and make quick decisions based on what they see.

Managers

Just as the executives who set high-level strategy demand clear visibility, so to do the managers responsible for deploying ground-level people and resources against strategic initiatives. More than ever, companies must ensure that the right people are on the right work — 93% of respondents to the Reimagining Work Summit pre-event survey noted that accessing the right talent is extremely important.

93%

93% of respondents to the Reimagining Work Summit survey say that accessing the right talent is extremely important to their organization.

Source: Obstacles to Agility, Catalant

Managers’ ability to deploy their resources effectively is a integral component of business agility, and relies heavily on two results of visibility:

  1. The ability to prioritize the most important workstreams and projects around the organization
  2. The ability to dynamically understand which skills and capabilities are needed where within an organization

In order to effectively manage resources in agile environments, it’s imperative that managers have high levels of visibility into the work they oversee, the work of adjacent cross-functional teams, and the state their workforce so that they can allocate resources appropriately.

Employees

Visibility is not just important to executives and managers, but to ground-level employees as well. Enhanced visibility into the work going on around them and how their projects tie to high-level strategic initiatives allow employees across an organization to work with greater agility for several key reasons:

Cross-Pollination and Knowledge-Sharing

Increased visibility into work happening across an organization allows employees to identify opportunities to cross-pollinate ideas and knowledge across teams both as contributors and beneficiaries. However, estimates suggest that F500 companies lose a combined $31.5 billion per year from employees failing to share knowledge effectively, primarily through a combination of “reinventing the wheel, repeating others’ mistakes, or wasting time searching for specialized information or expertise,” according to Harvard Business Review. Creating visibility for employees allows them to share their expertise and experiences and benefit directly from the learnings of others.

costs-indigo

F500 companies lose $31.5 billion annually due to poor employee knowledge-sharing.

Source: Shedding Light on Knowledge Management, Society for Human Resource Management

Contribution to Mission Critical Goals

Beyond the business’s bottom line, fostering employee engagement is imperative to business agility. Contrary to some schools of thought, compensation is not the largest driver of employee engagement. One study referenced by McKinsey’s Boris Ewenstein, Bryan Hancock, and Asmus Komm looked at hundreds of variables that might impact employee motivation (e.g. compensation, tenure, etc), and found that “meaning — seeing purpose and value in work — was the single most important factor, account[ing] for 50 percent of all movement in the motivation score.”

Ensuring that employees understand the impact of their work and how it ties into the company’s most important strategic goals positively impacts the employee experience. Furthermore, when employees understand and are excited about the direction their company is taking, research suggests that a company’s earnings margin is twice as likely to rise above the median. In order to move quickly and gain employee buy-in, it is critical to create visibility at all levels of an organization and ensure that everyone from leadership to individual contributors remains aligned on the company’s goals.

Across all levels of an organization, visibility is vital. Whether it’s an employee looking to understand how they fit into the company’s mission or a CEO making a major strategic decision, access to clear information about the work getting done across the organization is imperative to business agility.

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