The Senior VP of Marketing for a major retailer recently came to me with a change management issue. Her company had seen huge growth in the last ten years and was still adapting to the fact that they are now a 2 billion dollar business. Essentially, they were growing up—and this had introduced a number of business challenges, including the need to restructure how they did their work. In addition, they were in the midst of a top-level leadership change. Finally, there were tensions and frustrations between Marketing and their e-Commerce division due to lack of role clarification.

After spending some time identifying core problems, I told them, “Look, your people don’t get the Big Picture,” and I pointed out how catastrophic that could be to their change effort. When people aren’t getting the Big Picture they have trouble clarifying roles, defining boundaries, and focusing on the right priorities.

I explained that if they wanted to navigate through all this change, they’d first have to make sure that everyone in the division got the Big Picture, starting with her leadership team and then working down to the front line.

First, Clarify the “Big Picture” 

To set the foundation for a healthy team it’s necessary that everybody “gets” the Big Picture. And the only one way to test whether everybody gets the big picture is to ask the BIG PICTURE questions.

See what happens when everyone on your team tries to answer these questions:

  1.  Who are the customers or customer segments we serve, listed in priority order?
  2. What are the products or services we provide now, and which ones, if any, need to change as we implement the current strategy?
  3. With whom (and in what priority) do we partner in delivering our products or services?
  4. Who are our competitors (listed in priority order), why is each considered a threat, and what can we learn from them?
  5. How do we measure our success now, and how might that change in the future?
  6. What is the relevant history that affects current strategy?
  7. Which external trends or issues (such as market, economic, societal, political, or environmental factors) are important to our strategy?
  8. How does our organizational structure support our strategy?
  9. What are three things our unit is doing to support the strategy? 

Start with the leaders on your team. Put the questions up on a whiteboard and try to answer them together. It should only take about 90 minutes to answer this list of 9 questions—but in some organizations it can take hours or even days. It can take much longer when there is no agreement on the answers to the questions, but if you can’t agree to these answers, it is a sign that you’re probably not aligned in other ways as well.

The senior VP at the retailer I’ve been working with is an excellent manager who has been with her company for more than 15 years in another capacity. Having just taken over Marketing, she realized that she couldn’t answer these simple questions with confidence. So how could she expect her people to? How can a team make good decisions if they aren’t even clear on questions of customer priorities and service levels? How can they understand their roles in supporting the corporate strategy if they don’t know which competitors are most important or how to measure their success?

Answer the Big Picture Questions with Your Whole Team, Top to Bottom

Your senior leadership should agree on their answers and create a short presentation. Then, lower level leaders can customize a version of the big picture Q&A for their own teams. Their managers under them can do the same, with each leader rolling down these same Big Picture questions to their people, making the answers more granular for their particular group until there is alignment top to bottom.

The Big Picture questions should eventually be answered by everyone—right down to the receptionist, the photo researcher, the copywriter because this is really important stuff. Everyone on a team should be clear on it. The measure of success here is that everybody up and down an organization can answer these simple questions and sound like their bosses and peers.

Last week, I heard back from the senior marketing VP about her company’s progress. This executive—who is normally not effusive—said, “It’s a miracle!” Her division is using these Big Picture questions to clarify roles and set priorities. They are actively making sure that everybody’s projects line up with the strategy for the company.

Even though I was glad she was happy, I wasn’t satisfied until I asked her a follow up question. I said, “How do you know your people ‘get the Big Picture?’” Her answer was spot on. She said, “Because I walked around the building and showed up at some team meetings and asked them the questions point blank. I spot checked consistent answers to the questions by literally ‘testing’ front line employees in my org to ensure they were confident that they had clear answers. I decided it was too important to leave this to chance.” She said the spot checks gave her a lot of insight into which teams were the furthest along in getting the big picture and which teams still needed work. Overall, the progress was really encouraging for everyone.

Summary: To be a more successful change manager, have your team answer the Big Picture questions about yoru organization and its strategy. Wehn answered throughout your team top level to bottom in cascading fashion, these questions will clarify employee roles in supporting the strategy, help define boundaries, and get everyone focusing on the right priorities.