Those of us who cut our teeth in a profession during the last century often lament the loss of focus. A typical reaction when we feel our organization has strayed too far from its original purpose is to talk about getting back to the basics. In today’s ever-changing environment, however, it’s important to ask which basics are still relevant, or whether the game and the players have fundamentally changed. Otherwise, we as leaders can come across as out-of-touch, or even patronizing, when stressing a back to basics approach to a job or mission. So before sending that email urging your team to go back to the basics, consider the following three questions.
Do you know the new basics? A newspaper friend told me about a reporter who tried to submit a story in time for the Sunday edition. The editors chose to delay publication so the staff could develop interactive mobile and web graphics to accompany the story. Timing to reach the most volume of traditional readers was traded to reach readers through multiple formats. Technology, the pressures of competition, and the speed of communication have changed how most of us approach our profession. When leaders acknowledge which fundamentals drive success in today’s environment, and which no longer make good business sense, they improve their organization’s ability to accept change.
Do you account for today’s challenges? According to a teacher friend, the emphasis on standardized testing to evaluate students and teachers alike has changed her approach to teaching. She and her colleagues have become statisticians to some degree, as they must interpret test results down to individual objective levels to improve student and teacher performance. On top of data interpretation, large chunks of her time are spent communicating with parents via email and preparing for potential emergency situations in the classroom. Fundamentally, she has less time to dive into her curriculum the way she once did. We expect young professionals to have a wider breadth of knowledge and skills to cope with today’s fluctuating business or operating environment, which can dilute the emphasis on the fundamentals of a profession. Its important leaders acknowledge these modern demands and expectations, and simultaneously recognize the value of intellectual agility and innovation—two traits that tend to define today’s young professionals.
“…going back to the basics really means applying discipline and focus in pursuing your organization’s purpose.”
Do you focus on the fundamentals of purpose? Many misconstrue the loss of a beloved product line or service as a loss of organizational ability. Leaders often lose sight of an important fact—the basics shouldn’t be about a product or a process, but an enduring purpose. For example, after the arrival of digital cameras, Kodak suffered losses for years until it began viewing itself as an imaging company instead of a film company. In a similar vein, the purpose of the Army is to win wars, not tank battles. The purpose of a hospital is to save and improve lives, not promote specific treatments. When we view an organization through its purpose, we can focus on fundamental skills–such as collaborating, researching, experimenting, and innovating–that enable adaptability, and avoid product-focused strategies that often result in organizational inflexibility.
In short, going back to the basics really means applying discipline and focus in pursuing your organization’s purpose. There is no doubt many of us have strayed from what we once considered foundational tasks or skills, which is understandable given the profound changes over the past few years. Given that, take time to determine the enduring basics that apply to your profession and organization, and discuss with your team which basics are always worth coming back to.
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