Make Your Strategy Great Again – Part 1
I’ve witnessed this several times first-hand: a leadership team spends days focused heavily on strategic planning activities. Whiteboards are filled up, stickies are put on the wall, and strategic artifacts and action plans are drafted and distributed to everyone involved. Top-level strategic priorities are announced to the organization and some form of the strategic plan is uploaded for employees onto the company intranet website. And then… well, and then everyone pretty much goes back to their day job, while this strategic plan pretty much sits there on the intranet in a state of “transparency” for anyone interested in reading it.
DRIVING THE STRATEGY CAR
Strategy is sort of like a car. Many leadership teams do excellent work to create a great car, aka strategic clarity, at the highest levels of their organization, but then it gets ambiguous how and where to drive it. Like hopping in a new car in a busy commercial district, teeming with buildings, parks, traffic lights, and paved roads, you can start driving the latest strategic planning framework forward with clarity and confidence, only to find yourself (and your team) a while later on an unmarked dirt road far out in the countryside, with few signposts or landmarks to guide your way from there. What do you do, now?
There are many resources and advisors who about how to develop a clear vision and strategic plan, many of which are helpful at a high level. But once you have a vision and plan, what do you do with it? The more you’ve actually tried to take the outputs of a strategic planning process to your organization and make something of it, the more you’ve probably encountered many strategy frameworks’ conceptual city limits.
COMMON APPROACHES TO IMPLEMENTING STRATEGIC PLANS
Strategy is the logical thread that ties your purpose to your future results. But once a strategic plan is created, leaders find fewer and fewer signposts guiding the way to effective implementation of it into the organization. Why? Because while strategy development is a pretty standard exercise, its implementation across an organization must be tailor-fit to each company’s unique characteristics and context. Often, under pressure from all sides, leaders will go about implementing a newly-minted strategic plan in three well-meaning, but counter-productive ways:
1. They keep calling most of the shots. The main problem here is scalability. What’s the point of strategic planning if the top one or two leaders are going to keep making all the key decisions anyway? Even the best hip-shootin’, bootstrappin’ leaders would have to acknowledge that any strategy that depends heavily on their personal decision-making simply cannot scale very well beyond them.
2. They prematurely delegate the next rounds of what and how decisions. The main problem here is alignment. A too laissez-faire leadership style that makes big, broad strategic strokes and then throws the devil and all his details over the operational wall introduces a higher risk of costly misalignment and misunderstanding within his or her organization. It’s like kicking off simultaneous lines of the telephone game–and hoping they’ll all be saying the same thing at the other end. Nope. When leaders prematurely delegate decisions without building enough strategic context, the strategic plan will almost always fizzle out due to misalignment and misinterpretation.
3. They return their attention and energy back to familiar work functions and patterns. The main problem here is speed of progress. Strategic planning creates focus by lifting everyone’s head out of the daily work to look forward into the future. I think of it like pulling back a rubber band. But rather than releasing all that potential energy effectively into the organization, when leaders simply return to the “daily grind”, all this strategic momentum is lost.
All of these ways of implementing a strategic plan betray the very point of strategic planning: to prepare the organization to move forward with greater alignment, scale, and speed to get better results. Therefore, good strategic planning is not over until you see evidence that the organization is producing a greater number of aligned decisions faster. Ultimately, if the organization never produces better results than you would’ve gotten otherwise, your strategy wasn’t any good. Good strategy, like leadership, is ultimately judged by superior results.
HOW TO DO THIS
Ok, great. So in a world of extreme change, how do you motivate and mobilize a whole organization around the strategy? Are there better ways than others to tie strategy to execution? We’ll focus on answering these questions in Part 2.
Joe is the founder of Edifiers Consulting. He has helped companies in cybersecurity, software, healthcare, logistics, manufacturing, and others create clarity in their strategy and prepare their teams to win.
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