Activating Strategies Series #3: Define and Align on Strategic Critical Priorities

Determining a company’s priorities – its vision, its focus areas, and the initiatives that will take the organization into the future – is hard work! It can easily be a months-long process that requires the best thinking of leadership and most importantly alignment.

Deciding Where To Focus…

The process begins with creating an aligned view on the future state of the organization (#2 in the series). Another reason this future state view is important is that it serves as a test – a filter – for the strategy, which in turn tells everyone in the organization what we need to do to achieve those outcomes we’ve visualized. It must be something that an entire company can rally around.

Although it may not seem so, there is more detail and science in this step of strategic change than any of the others. Why? Because leaders must drive down to the specific tactics and pace of the needed steps. This is very significant work. And also among the most difficult depending on the leadership team.

This is where the “meaty” questions emerge. Are the leaders doing everything possible to move the organization forward? Have the current issues been addressed? What are the next steps?  In growth, innovation, and all the other critical areas, is the company structured correctly to execute on this strategy? Do processes need to shift? Do our people have the skills and insights to execute on this strategy?

This requires building a “roadmap” that sets out the current state and what is already in place. Then, it requires sorting through all the aspects of the strategy and identifying the sequence and priorities, the gaps and overlaps.

Generally, this is when a leadership team brainstorms 25 things to do as an organization. That’s a sizable to-do list, so it’s important to examine them closely and, for each one, ask, “How does this work to achieve our vision of the future?” Otherwise, the number of initiatives will be overwhelming and few will actually succeed in supporting the strategy.

To narrow down that list of priorities, examine what’s achievable near-term, assess capital expenditures, determine whether growth should be organic or by acquisition, etc. Ask, “Are we doing this because we’ve always done it and because the CEO likes it, or are we doing it because it will move us toward the vision we’ve set?”

Which Leads to Owning the Whole, Rather than “My Piece”…

With such an important task, a discipline, process, and tools are needed. Visualization and forming sub-teams can help. But even with tools and the right questions, this is a tricky step for a group of leaders to do for themselves. Because many times at the root of the challenge is that leaders tend to focus on their piece – their functional priorities vs. what’s needed for the business.

It helps to have a champion who can stand above the business and see what’s going on. Separate members of the leadership team may fight to support one aspect of the strategy, but someone impartial can see the bigger picture and help those people realize the need to give up their “special piece” for the greater good.

Although the leaders of “competency centers” are paid to fight for their specific goals, for the business to be successful, they must own the whole strategy before their individual piece of it. This means that most people must give up something, which isn’t easy. In most cases, this thinking forces a leadership team to decrease the number of things it wants to do, or at least minimize the pace and adjust the sequence.

Which Leads To Deciding What To Stop…

Leaders must be able to prioritize and simplify, because this can happen only at the top level of a business. A CEO survey by Strategy& stated that the top issue that confounds executives is the ability to align and sustain alignment on priorities. Most of our clients tell us, “We’re not good at setting priorities. We never stop doing anything!”

Leaders are experts at their own functions, but aren’t typically very literate at east-west management. This results in lots of priorities. At times, we’ve asked leadership groups to decrease the number of their planned initiatives, and when we check back, we find that they’ve actually added even more!

Nobody wants to be the first one to say, “All right, I’ll give up my initiative for the greater good.”

Successful leadership team members must be able to remove some of their own from the list simply because it’s the right thing to do for the whole of the organization.

For the larger company, the word “overwhelmed” can be appropriate at this point. When every leader pushes for their own initiatives, people are often bombarded with each leader’s attempts to drive their individual agendas.  As a result, teams and people further down in the organization are forced to make independent choices about what to do and what not to do. This array of initiatives raining down from the top disconnects everybody from doing the same things together. If leaders don’t decide this for the whole organization, everyone decides on priorities at their own level – and nothing gets done.

Which Leads To a Method for Alignment!

We have a methodology to identify, prioritize, and sequence the most critical questions that exist in an organization. These can be tied to the development of a desired future state, strategic priorities, an annual operating plan, or whatever issue the company is grappling with.  This practice surfaces the real issues so they can be proactively solved for in the planning phase, increasing the quality and speed of strategy execution.

It generally begins by interviewing business leaders and using the insights gathered in a workshop setting to identify the full spectrum of issues. Then we guide the group to identify them and decide if they need to be worked on immediately, in the short term or long term, or whether they’re currently relevant. Finally the group addresses the immediate, “must answer to move forward” questions.

The truth is, many companies have the same basic strategy as their competitors. What makes the difference and sets them apart is execution – getting aligned on a vision, getting the priorities right.  It’s not rocket science. It just takes time, including choosing elements of strategic focus and modeling a way of interacting.

Next up…Read blog #4 in the series: Activating Cultures and Strategies Means Changing Behaviors

October 13, 2021

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