Approaches for Survey Feedback and Action Planning

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1 Introduction Survey feedback and action planning are two of the most important components of an organization s survey process, but they are also the most difficult to do well. Although survey design and administration are managed by a relatively small and central team, survey feedback and action planning involve hundreds if not thousands of managers. Such a distributed process can be difficult to organize, and challenges exist in holding managers accountable for their responsibilities. One element that can help ensure success is a well-defined survey feedback and action planning process that suits the organization s needs as well as the management team s capabilities. This paper describes five survey feedback and action planning approaches that have proven to be successful in organizations around the world.

2 Contents Survey Feedback : Integrated Activities 1 A Deeper Dive into Action Planning Approaches 2 Bottom-Up Approach 2 Top-Down Approach 3 Sifted Waterfall (or Cascade) Approach 4 Process Owner Approach 5 Survey Action Team 5 Conclusion 6 About CEB 6

3 Survey Feedback : Integrated Activities Companies can use many processes to develop and implement action plans after a survey; no single process works best for all or most organizations. Regardless of the specific approach used, in most cases, the overall process involves: Sharing the results with those asked to participate in the survey process, Clarifying and prioritizing the underlying issues, Identifying key strengths to retain and leverage as well as opportunity areas for focus, Categorizing local and non-local issues, and Developing and implementing action plans for priority issues. Each feedback and action planning approach has different features, benefits, and emphases, but to varying degrees, they share the following characteristics that contribute to their effectiveness: Data-based Analyzing data collected with a well-designed survey tool is unparalleled in its ability to document the collective mind-set of the organization and sheds light on how views may differ across various employee groups. In this respect, it provides the clearest and most objective starting point for identifying the organization s perceived strengths and areas of opportunity. Establishing the ongoing organizational dialogue necessary for achieving excellence The real power of feedback and action planning is the ability to foster and organize dialogue within the organization. The actions taken in response to this dialogue can help align the organization s strategic direction and goals, as well as improve organizational agility and functioning. Developing organizational and individual skills Strong feedback and action planning approaches encourage the development of important skills, including group problem solving, leadership development, and change management. Engagement enhancing Employees become more involved in the process, which leads to higher levels of individual engagement and commitment to the organization s success. A complement to traditional continuous improvement Survey feedback primarily focuses on the people and culture parts of the change equation and is often used to complement technical improvement efforts. Transformational As this kind of participative, survey-based improvement process becomes incorporated into an organization, it can have a fundamental impact on the organization s culture, values, and leadership style. As a highly visible, company-wide process, it can serve as a model for the culture the company wants to build or maintain. For example, involving employees at all levels in identifying and implementing solutions to challenge areas noted in the survey can serve to model and develop a culture of empowerment. Avoid creating expectations that cannot be met or risk eroding leadership trust and declining engagement levels. Managing Expectations As with any organizational initiative, leadership must be careful to avoid creating expectations that they cannot meet, either because of the uncertainty of organizational conditions or because they do not want to send mixed signals about change. Unattainable expectations can lead to eroded leadership trust and lower engagement levels. 1

4 A Deeper Dive into Action Planning Approaches Below are descriptions of five common approaches to survey feedback and action planning historically used by organizations. Combinations of two or more approaches are also common, particularly in large corporations with business units in various stages of organization development. Bottom-Up Action planning begins with lower levels working on local issues, which are consolidated by higher levels of management into overall action plans for the location, division, or business unit as a whole. Non-local issues are clarified and then escalated to higher levels. Top-Down Top management use survey results to select key survey issues for action planning, sometimes complemented by focus groups or requests to lower-level groups for clarification and reactions to potential solutions. Sifted Waterfall (or Cascade) Each level selects what it needs to take ownership for and passes the remaining survey issues to the next level down. Sometimes the sift is predetermined. Process Owner Action planning is driven by the individuals, offices, and standing committees or task teams that have responsibility for or authority over a particular topic or issue area. Survey Action Team The leadership team identifies key issues on which to focus and establishes a survey action team composed of a cross-section of employees or uses existing teams and processes. The use of multiple action planning approaches within an organization often reflects the fact that some approaches are better suited to certain topics. Technical topics that require deep domain knowledge, such as solving a technology infrastructure issue or redesigning how a bonus plan is structured, are best suited to the process owner approach. Similarly, issues such as understanding the company s strategic direction and competitive advantage lend themselves to a top-down approach, whereas a bottom-up approach may be better suited to topics such as empowerment, trust, or role clarity. Finally, issues that cut across the organization and require a more integrated or coordinated effort (e.g., reducing bureaucracy, increasing enterprise-wise collaboration) may be best suited to a survey action team with members representing key parts of the business. Bottom-Up Approach The bottom-up approach has a distinctive grassroots design, with lower levels of the organization being the first to view and work with survey data. This approach has a distinctive grassroots design, with lower levels of the organization being the first to view and work with survey data. Higher levels of management become involved as summarized results and actions flow upward. Main Features Provides for maximum employee involvement Shifts ownership for solving problems down throughout the organization while still involving leadership Most extensive option in terms of collective time and effort 2

5 This type of feedback and action planning process begins with the lowest-level work group or team, where everyone reports to a single first-line supervisor. The work group clarifies the strengths and concerns, identifies priorities, and then develops action plans. When the group has exhausted the possibilities for taking action itself, it may refer issues to another level or group. The feedback leader or facilitator pushes for local action whenever possible and encourages the group to take at least some ownership for resolving the concern. An effective integration process must be in place before each of the work groups begins implementing what may be redundant and even conflicting action plans. Some type of coordinating function (e.g., manager, survey steering team) may be needed to review, integrate, and approve the action plans before work groups implement them for better collaboration and coordination. This coordination is often enhanced by the use of an online action planning system. Organizations that choose this option typically have the foundation to support the process, including: A culture that is, or seeks to be, aligned with this level of employee involvement and ownership, The manager, HR, and organizational development staff capabilities and group problem-solving skills to pull it off (or at least a commitment to developing them), A structure that lends itself to group meetings and problem solving, and A survey instrument (content and hierarchy coding) geared for work group feedback. Top-Down Approach With this approach, top management select the key issues for clarification and action planning the opposite of the bottom-up approach. Top management may elect to involve some employees in focus groups to help clarify the issues underlying the survey results. It may even delegate part or all of the action planning process to lower levels of management, particularly with key issues or hot spots unique to a particular segment of the organization. The top-down approach allows for increased employee involvement through the controlled dialogue of surveys, focus groups, and well-structured and consistent management communications, without employees developing and implementing their own action plans. Main Features Can use large group methods for communicating results (e.g., town hall, webcasts, newsletters) Allows for some employee involvement by way of clarifying issues Onus is on leadership for the solution. The process is fairly straightforward, although as is true with any action planning approach the solutions may not be. 3

6 This option is most frequently chosen by organizations that: Do not have an organizational structure and/or a level of manager and employee skills that lend themselves to group meetings or high levels of employee involvement; this may be the case in industries where the primary imperative for managers is compliance rather than local innovation or problem solving. Have key issues identified by the survey that cannot easily be solved at lower organizational levels (e.g., compensation, optimism regarding the company s strategy). Have a historically top-down management style and culture, which functions effectively. Have recently grown or changed substantially through expansion, merger, or acquisition and leadership wishes to connect with all of the new people. Sifted Waterfall (or Cascade) Approach This approach is a hybrid of the first two approaches in that leadership begins the process by selecting those issues it needs to take ownership of and address, and then passes the rest to the next level down and so on to the lowest level. The goal is to have each level address those issues best handled or acted on at that level, with each level exercising oversight and coordinating the efforts of the level below as appropriate. Main Features Ensures groups are working on issues within their direct control Gets employees involved at all levels Efficiently distributes effort; not necessary for all groups to look at all of the data Can result in a long lag time between the survey and low-level actions being implemented because lower levels must wait for the issues to be sifted down to them In the approach s purest form, higher levels would often request clarification of the issues they are working on from lower levels, either through focus groups or by directly tasking certain lower-level subgroups to respond to their questions about the nature of that issue or even the attractiveness of certain solutions. Similarly, lower levels would sometimes require feedback about upper management s future plans or intentions before they could select a solution. As with the bottom-up approach, the challenges of integrating action planning from many levels clearly exist, but with much less redundancy and more order and efficient effort. Like the top-down approach, the sifted waterfall approach has more structure to control expectations and the amount of effort expended, but with much greater opportunity for meaningful employee participation. As organizations start asking the right questions and realize meaningful improvement from their action planning efforts, they come to understand the inevitable data patterns and which actions do and do not result in improvement. This allows them to better organize or sift results sharing and action planning delegation in subsequent surveys to achieve the most gain for their efforts while maintaining optimal employee involvement. 4

7 Process Owner Approach In the process owner approach, action planning is driven by those individuals, offices, functions, standing committees, or task teams that have responsibility for or authority over a particular area. In many instances, these process owners are the subject matter experts for the organization and need to play at least an oversight role in the action plans that arise from the survey process. Many organizations have assigned an even greater level of responsibility to process owners for monitoring and even initiating improvement efforts in their respective areas. Organizations choose this approach when organization-wide demands for consistency and efficiency require a greater degree of oversight and integration that can only be achieved with substantial participation and control by process owners. The approach is often used in combination with other approaches; although the process owner for topics such as diversity or communication of strategy may be obvious, a clear owner may not exist for other topics, such as empowerment or agility. Main Features Provides data to the individuals or groups most directly involved in impacting results Efforts can be more focused. Accountability is built into the process. Feedback to employees is not naturally built into this process. Has less employee involvement In many cases, process owners may have a vested interest in defending the status quo; as a result, involving others may be necessary to challenge past assumptions and processes. Ideally, the organization learns to define the relative roles of process owners, line managers, and employees in the pursuit of improvement in each area and then structure the entire survey program to integrate and optimize the contributions of all players. In many cases, process owners may have a vested interest in defending the status quo; as a result, involving others may be necessary to challenge past assumptions and processes. Practical and legal considerations may require another level or agent of intervention to ensure a proper response. Ethical areas and HR policies such as sexual harassment or compensation and benefits are common examples where the appropriate process owner plays a significant role in investigating and intervening in local or pyramidal issues. Many organizations will continue to use such focused issue efforts as a part of their larger integrated survey process, recognizing that the overall employee opinion survey is constrained by length requirements. In those situations, focused topic surveys are an effective complement or a useful follow-up activity for clarifying and taking action. Survey Action Team In the survey action team approach, this team analyzes the survey results, identifies key issues to address, and develops and implements action plans usually in concert with leadership. Sometimes the team may even be involved in the initial phases of survey planning and design and then oversee the rest of the process. Assigning an expert facilitator (internal or external) to the team as a resource ensures full access and review of survey results, including special analytics, and provides opportunities for benchmarking best practices with other organizations. 5

8 Main Features Involves some employees in oversight roles Takes responsibility from management for driving the process More targeted employee involvement The survey action team is charged with pursuing action plans on all leadership-selected issues and may even have the discretion to recommend topics to address or develop agendas once it has thoroughly reviewed the survey results and analytics. The team often comprises high-potential employees who will benefit from being a part of an action learning opportunity and who are likely to identify creative solutions. The overall credibility for this approach will depend on a number of factors, including: The acknowledged past success of such action teams in the organization (e.g., action learning teams, process improvement teams), The credibility and representativeness of members selected and the process used to select them, and The effectiveness of members in reaching out to employees for input into their action planning process and implementation. Conclusion A survey is not a standalone event, but rather an important continuous process for improving organizational effectiveness, culture, and strategic alignment. Survey feedback and action planning involve many different approaches and variations, and clearly one size does not fit all. The key is to choose one or more approaches that fit your context the issues you are trying to solve, the culture of the organization, and practical, logistical considerations. In the end, your organization s commitment to performing survey feedback and action planning well is more essential than the specific approach chosen. Your organization should also continuously communicate results of these efforts over time and link them to the ongoing survey process. A survey is not a stand-alone event, but rather an important continuous process for improving organizational effectiveness, culture, and strategic alignment. About CEB CEB, the leading member-based advisory company, equips more than 10,000 organizations around the globe with insights, tools, and actionable solutions to transform enterprise performance. By combining advanced research and analytics with best practices from member companies, CEB helps leaders realize outsized returns by more effectively managing talent, information, customers, and risk. Member companies include 89% of the Fortune 500, 76% of the Dow Jones Asian Titans, and 85% of the FTSE 100. For more information, visit /workforcesurveys. 6

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