HR, finance, and other functions play a vital supportive role in every organization. Like the air conditioning in a car, it isn’t essential to getting from point A to point B, but it sure makes the journey much more comfortable. Just as air conditioning with no engine or chassis or wheels will not get you anywhere, support functions exist primarily to help a business fulfill its purposes in more effective ways. The key is designing support functions to be powerful enough to enable the business’ intended work and strategy – but not more or less than that.
This sometimes leads to tension inside of functions between a desire for excellence on the one hand, and not having enough resources to do everything that should and/or could be done on the other. Because all professionals want to do a good job, one of the organization alignment challenges we address when working with functional teams is helping leaders and professionals of functions come to terms with this dilemma.
A Functional Dilemma
When we come in to look at a function and develop its organization design, we often hear how acutely aware they are of all the things that can’t be done or aren’t getting done as well as they should be. These functions are hungry for resources, and they typically have legitimate reasons to want to add these resources.
Sometimes it’s a compliance risk avoidance driver: “We’re lucky we haven’t been audited, but I can just see the day when someone comes in and pulls back the covers. They’re going to see all the things we haven’t done perfectly and it’s really going to cost this organization.”
Sometimes it’s a sincere desire for organization alignment: “Even though we’re only here to support, we do some things that are really strategic to the business or would help enable the business.” HR often makes this argument around leadership, IT might make it around how to improve digitization, finance might argue that more resources would enable them to better manage cash flow or tax strategy, and so on.
Aligning Functions to the Supportive Role
However, the fact is that there will always be a limit on resources available to functions. Most of the time, functional groups will have to continue to get along with less than they desire or even feel they need. Functional leaders and teams must simply accept this reality, and learn to embrace ways of working that align with it. There are a few effective ways for them to do this:
- Be as strategic as possible within the function. Functional leaders must be willing to get ruthless about pulling cost and resources out of non-strategic work activities. This means they have to be willing to think and work differently than they may be accustomed to, look for opportunities to scale the work, and seek out efficiencies and standardization.
- Be discerning about the function’s strategic planning efforts. Too many functional leaders have strategic planning efforts that lead to goals, objectives, missions, visions, and plans that talk about being “world class,” “exceptional,” or “next generation.” While this approach sounds good and may even inspire the troops inside of the function, it risks setting the function up to provide work and services it can’t and shouldn’t resource. While the organization might occasionally invest in the function’s systems or technology, in reality it can almost never fully commit the level of resources it would take to become world class. Instead, the desire for excellence becomes a self-defeating mentality that puts a great deal of pressure on leaders and workers to make a silk purse out of the proverbial sow’s ear: it sounds great at the outset but it becomes a set of unfulfillable promises that the function can’t deliver on.
- Accept the supporting role. Professionals often come in to a function and want to bring their best to the table. Of course, they absolutely should do their best, but in most cases they need to make peace with doing their best with what is available in an environment that is adequate but average. For instance, unless an IT professional is at an IT consulting company or high-tech IT company, he or she will not be working with the latest software or get to create the newest, coolest thing. Instead, he/she may be automating a production line to make fiberglass as efficiently as possible using whatever software is available. When employees align their expectations around fulfilling an enabling, supportive role rather than a leading role in the company, it becomes easier for them to put forth their best effort and always look for ways to drive efficiency, provide great service, and so forth without constantly feeling frustrated because they’re not working in a world class environment.
Functions need to be tuned and designed for the organization alignment roles they need to play—and this requires making the most of available resources and accepting a supporting role.