The purpose of strategic planning is not to make plans. It’s to change the way we think and act. If our newly formed visions and strategic plans are intended to propel us to places where we’ve never been, at a very personal level, we’ll be required to do things individually that we’ve never done. Successful strategy execution is all about behaviors. The act will trump the thinking every time.
Several years ago, we spent six months assisting a U.S. conglomerate to prepare their strategic plan for launch at a meeting of several hundred top leaders. Then, for three days, we worked with those leaders, discussing the merits of the plan and the critical actions required to achieve the desired results. The group seemed to be engaged.
Just before the close of the three-day meeting, we wanted to orchestrate a rousing send-off. We gave each person an audience response device so they could anonymously vote on how confident they felt about the strategic plan. We had assumed that we had won their sponsorship and strong support. But what flashed on the screen after three days of intense conversation was a stunning 19% vote of confidence by the top leaders of this 53,000-person company!
After the shock wore off, we probed the leaders who attended for the reasons behind this skepticism. We quickly found out that their lack of confidence was based solely on the all-too-transparent hypocrisy between what the new company direction claimed to be and the way senior leaders continued to exhibit “old strategy behaviors.” Once the senior leaders got the message and corrected their personal behaviors, the strategy took off and the stock price doubled.
Another large Fortune 100 company we partnered with embarked on a bold business transformation. They spent hours analyzing market data, market positions, growth opportunities, and margin possibilities. They carefully crafted a robust strategy to drive a “thinking differently” part of the overall plan. As they deployed the strategic plan to the top 225 leaders of the company and sought to enlist their leadership, we heard a single resounding theme: “The strategy is not the problem. It’s the fundamental disbelief that leaders will change their behaviors so we can bring the strategy to life.” They too stressed the “behavioral proof points” that illustrated new behaviors needed to match the transformation and cited behaviors that needed to change.
The problem in cases like these is that deeply embedded traditional behaviors tend to persist, and they change far more slowly than marketplace factors and new strategic thinking. Speed of leader behavior change becomes the pace car for strategy execution.
There are three key areas of focus that constantly turbo-charge this organizational change race
Embracing Public Vulnerability
Successful strategy execution requires a rigorous confrontation of reality. But this can be less than effective if leaders don’t go first in being brutally honest about the behaviors that they must personally change. When leaders go first by identifying their personal behaviors that are inconsistent with the new strategy, they send two critical messages. First, they set the precedent for others to be vulnerable and acknowledge the importance of embracing the discomfort associated with being accountable for dropping old behaviors and adopting new ones. Also, they send the signal that is safe to talk about other company weaknesses. It encourages managers and employees to make key suggestions to change behaviors, practices, rituals, habits, and routines for executing the new strategy.
Letting go is hard to do, but it’s core to successful change. In a recent strategy execution deployment, a Root client involved former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner in the launch of its new strategy. Gerstner said that, in the IBM transformation of the late 1990s, he constantly referred to the metaphor of Tarzan. He encouraged leaders to think of their role of leading change as swinging in the jungle, letting go of the vine, and knowing to grab the new vine – with the threat of hungry lions below and the horizon of success only slightly visible through the trees. Letting go means stopping the actions, behaviors, and roles that provided us with a current sense of value, achievement, and recognition. It also means letting go of what you’re very good at so you can develop new skills vital to the future strategy. Willingness to move away from what you do best in the business of yesterday to risk doing what you don’t know is critical to the business of the future.
Build Trust to Gain Speed.
New strategies and the need to move quickly will expose behavior changes that have been ignored in the past but are now critical to success. It’s important to establish new behavioral standards. As trust rises, transaction costs and time to results go down. Over the past 10 years, most senior teams that we’ve worked with have understood the need to establish new behavioral contracts that individually and collectively establish behavioral ground rules necessary for executing strategy. Interestingly, many teams prioritize some of the same behavioral ground rules.
These are the top eight:
- Assume positive intent, and trust our experts.
- In the face of ambiguity, provide clarity for ourselves and our people.
- Balance the need to make fact-based decisions with the urgency to act before we have complete information.
- Own the whole of the business before your piece.
- Have open, honest, candid, and direct conversations that are tough on issues and respectful of people.
- Decisions made in the room must be publicly supported outside it. If decisions need to be reconsidered, the team does it together.
- Rapidly share learnings that are uncovered in success or failure.
- Support and encourage telling the truth about execution as a regular practice.
Anyone can dictate or proclaim a new strategy. But it takes a deliberate, genuine change in behaviors from every leader to convince an organization to believe it. Otherwise, it’s just words.