The dawning of a new year is a time when many organizations look to push the execution of their strategies beyond its current level to the mythical “11” on Nigel Tufnel’s amplifiers. Therefore, it makes sense to look back at some of the lessons we learned over the past year and combine them with the emergent realities facing most businesses.
During the past year, we worked with many organizations that were at some point on the strategy continuum from creation to execution. While our clients’ objectives are fairly consistent – “better execution of the strategy” – unleashing the power within the strategy often requires a different focus.
When the economy and marketplace are somewhat predictable, our client work shifts toward refining, implementing, and operationalizing existing strategies. But in an economic fog, our work moves toward creating new strategies designed to deal with ambiguity in the near term while positioning the organization for longer-term growth.
Problems that Derail Strategy Execution
We’ve seen two major issues that occur at most businesses undertaking strategy execution. The journey we’ve taken with clients underscored the challenges of having different areas of a business own different stages in the process. In most organizations, a group of people creates the strategy, another group implements the strategy, and then the entire business executes the strategy. Problems materialize when the strategy means something different to each group. Imagine playing “pass the secret,” but instead of having the secret go around a circle, it has to move across business units and functions and then roll down to an ever-expanding number of new people – who then have to pass it along! Can you imagine how many versions of that secret would emerge after a few passes?
The same thing happens when the strategy creators finish their work, put a bow on the presentation, and simply hand it over to the implementers to develop the “curse” of all good strategies – the road show. For the road show, we present a pretty version of the strategy, making sure the information isn’t too confusing, and then expect people to apply the critical thinking needed to execute that strategy on an ongoing basis.
Helping People Understand the Strategy
In the New Normal, strategy is not neat and pretty. It’s a dynamic beast that requires real-time adjustments based on new realities. Ignorance is not the challenge. (Paul Otellini, Intel’s CEO, claims that “ignorance” will be the next area in business to become obsolete!) The real challenge is the overwhelming amount of information being thrust at people and our inability to help them process that information so they can execute the strategy. To bring some clarity to this new environment, leaders need to help people figure out how to translate all that information into insightful action. We can best do this by helping them determine the questions they should ask and identify the combination of data and information needed to find the answer.
In yesterday’s world, critical thinking depended on an employee’s ability to grasp how the business works. Today, when there is more to know and less time to know it, critical thinking requires us to understand how the information available translates into the “story” of the business so people can align their actions to the strategy.
An organization’s story is based on an effective strategy that has its execution embedded in its design. This demands a cohesive and integrated approach that builds from the organization’s unique combination of strengths. Employees must be able to connect areas of strategic intent to the sources of competitive advantage that fuel them. That’s when the strategy moves from an exercise in understanding to a source of passion and engagement that propels the business toward its goals.
A View to the Future
The past few years would certainly qualify as “trying times” for most organizations and their employees. Fortunately, we’re beginning to see the weariness and exhaustion from navigating the turbulence begin to give way to excitement and a sense of the possibilities that the coming year holds. As we start the year, I’d encourage you to make just one more list. Identify the seven most important things that you can do to help your organization deliver on its strategic plan. Then commit to doing at least the top three on a consistent basis.