Main content

Strategic work — why it matters to your people as much as your business

Michael Swan Profile picture for user Michael Swan December 17, 2020
Making the shift to strategic work is all about culture - Workfront's Michael Swan shares examples from Penn State University and Prudential to underpin how to get started with genuine transformation

Business and the goal of each person concept business confusion © Zenzen - Shutterstock
(© Zenzen - Shutterstock)

Our work in today's disruptive digital age is nomadic, distributed, and remote. To stay efficient, successful, outcomes-oriented, and competitive, businesses need to keep their people, processes, and technology connected — while staying operationally agile as corporate strategies shift.

How do businesses keep everyone focused on work that's aligned with evolving company goals and achieves the desired outcomes? By transforming how (digital) work gets done. By making strategic work a business priority — not just an ambition.

All external factors had been pushing businesses in this direction for some time, but the impact of COVID-19 and the overnight shift to remote work has accelerated that progress. A more proactive, planned, and strategic way of working must now be the norm for any organization — particularly now that budgets and resources are under increasing scrutiny.

In this article, I look at what it means to work strategically and why it's so important right now. I'll also explore the challenges — and benefits — of transforming how work gets done.

Change how you work - and use technology to manage the transformation

How do you shift an entire organization to a more strategic, outcomes-focused way of working, in which people from diverse teams are all aligned around shared corporate goals? First, you need to change how your organization views work. Instead of having individual business units working in silos, everyone needs to focus on the outcomes the business is trying to collectively achieve. This means organizing projects by shared strategic objectives, instead of by business unit.

The best way to do this is to adopt a technology platform that can centrally manage work across multiple teams in a way that connects your plans with real execution. You need this platform to provide visibility into organizational goals and how they connect to individual and team goals  — insights that help people see why they are doing what they are doing. This work-goals alignment creates a sense of shared purpose, uniting everyone in the organization around the work that matters most. It gives people in all areas of the business a feeling that they're focused on meaningful work that will have enterprise-wide impact.

In today's nomadic, distributed, remote world of work, in which people often feel isolated from their colleagues, it is particularly valuable to everyone to know how their work ties to the bigger strategic picture and contributes to the success of the wider business.

The destination is the hero, not the journey

Making work more strategic means optimizing the way you execute work to achieve clearly stated company objectives. Planning work strategically establishes a clear destination (where you are heading and why) and sets the momentum and trajectory for all work. However, the best strategic plan is one that allows for the inevitable adjustments required along the way. It gives people guided autonomy, freedom, and flexibility to make on-the-spot decisions — within a helpful framework of strategic objectives and success criteria.

Businesses need to make smart, responsive decisions that enable their plans to evolve and adapt in response to changing market factors. They need to quickly and easily compare ‘what's possible' scenarios, weighing the impacts of different variables or courses of action, small or large adjustments, on the organization's work. By comparing different scenarios before implementing them, businesses can choose the best option at every decision point, and ensure resources are aligned to achieve the most important outcomes.

Make the cultural shift from good practice to best practice; from perfection to progress

One of the biggest challenges for organizations as they make the shift to strategic work is a cultural one. People, teams, and entire businesses need to break out of their habitual work patterns. They need to stop repeating the same behaviors annually to fulfil the targets and metrics against which they have always been measured. Instead of doing the hundreds of good things they have always done, they need to switch to focusing on the ten best things that will truly transform the organization.

One organization that understands the importance of aligning employees to organizational goals to provide context and meaning to everyone's work is Penn State World Campus. It embarked on an organizational excellence transformation of its online campus and student experience, starting with aligning on shared goals for the organization. Providing more clarity on goals is helping the organization focus its teams on the right work, with benefits that include more employee engagement and collaboration - and an improved culture in which teams are empowered to contribute in a more impactful way.

Another great example is Prudential Financial. Each department within Prudential was asked to create their own change agenda to align with broader goals. Kevin Brucato, Prudential's Vice President of Creative Operations, says, "To make that vision a reality, all parts and groups within the company were asked to basically create their own transformation story that looks out three to five years, and aligns with the guiding principles they set forth." Breaking out of departmental silos, into an ecosystem mindset, is a cultural shift that takes time.

Many organizations hesitate to adopt strategic work management because they fear getting it wrong. Focus on progress not perfection. More than anything, today's world of work demands business agility. Anything you do to improve agility is worth it, however imperfect. It's better to move ahead with as much confidence as you can — and then learn, iterate, and adapt as you go. 

Strategy and execution - better together

A successful enterprise knows how everyone's work connects to overall goals. It enables its leaders to set and communicate clear objectives to keep teams and people focused on the right work. It sees the destination as the hero, not the journey-and operates with agility in pursuit of that North Star, even if the path forward adjusts and winds, twists and turns along the way.

Connecting strategy to execution — the work being done in the business by diverse teams every day — gives businesses the all-important agility they need in today's disrupted work environment. It enables them to iteratively prioritize and plan, and most importantly, ensure that every individual understands the part they play in achieving the organization's strategic goals.

A grey colored placeholder image