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As we’ve mentioned in this space before regarding the leaders need to define the playing field, a few years ago I watched my kids play a pick up soccer game with their neighborhood friends. No one bothered to define the field boundaries; they just started playing. After a minute or two, someone kicked the ball up the street: GOAL! The team celebrated. The other team, though, said it wasn’t a goal. They argued for a while and started again. The ball went into the bushes. Out of bounds, one side said. No it’s not, said the other.

The kids wound up spending more time arguing than playing, and everyone soon just gave up and quit the game. Even in a pick-up, neighborhood soccer game, the players need to know the rules of the game.

In this post and in Part 2 later this week, we’ll talk more about how organizations define the rules of the game.

For organizations, the “rules” are their values, guiding principles and beliefs. When the organization defines them clearly, the leader’s roles are clear: ensure the values get applied in all decision-making situations, and teach them to new employees, peers and everyone who does business with the company.

Many organizations, though, have not established a clear, concise set of values. That can produce fatal results, no matter how talented the employees might be.

I worked with a manager as part of an engagement with a large utility. Chris inherited a tough situation after being promoted into a division manager position. Quality and productivity had fallen within the division. Financial performance was getting worse. Customers were upset, and the morale of the work group was taking a significant hit.

Chris found that he had a very experienced and capable work group. Many of the people had worked for the company for more than 20 years. They were absolute pros and understood far more about the inner workings of the company than he ever could. But they were frustrated by their complete lack of autonomy. Every decision had to be checked with their manager.

Chris wanted to change that. But he knew that autonomy without boundaries would lead to anarchy. So he gave his team members the latitude to solve, on the spot, any problem that they encountered with the customer. He just told them to consider four questions while making their decisions:

• Is this the right thing for the customer? • Is this the right thing for the short- and long-term financial performance of the company? • Is this the right thing for my coworkers? • Will this action help us be a better company tomorrow than we are today?

Within days of implementing these values, performance on every dimension improved dramatically.

Let me leave you with two questions:

Why do you think this simple change yielded such quick, pronounced results?

This story leaves out a key part of a manager’s job when it comes to communicating an organization’s values. What do you think is the missing element?

Intrigued by what you’re reading? Download our white paper on converting strategy into execution and learn more about us by visiting our website. WhiteWater International Consulting, Inc. helps organizations understand the challenges they face and helps enterprises achieve and sustain outstanding performance through unleashing the passion and capabilities of its people. Because an organization is only as good at the people who power it.

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