How Would Eleven-Year-Olds Judge the Explanation of Your Strategy?

I recently viewed a story about Alan Alda, who you may remember is best known for the long-running M*A*S*H sitcom. He has been a frequent host of science-rich programs that focus on communicating science concepts in ways that kids can understand.

Alda tells a story in which he recalls an exchange he had, at the age of eleven, with a teacher. “What’s a flame?” he asked. The teacher replied simply and unsatisfyingly, “It’s oxidation.” He was discouraged and unenlightened about what it really meant. Decades later, Alda comments that he sees the failure to communicate science with clarity as far more serious for society. So, in cooperation with Stony Brook University’s Center for Communicating Science, Alda set up the Flame Challenge to have scientists answer his schoolboy question the best they could. The twist was that the primary judging would be done by thousands of eleven-year-olds across the country.

After sifting through more than 800 entries from 31 countries, organizers of the Flame Challenge chose the winner as a thirty-one–year–old Missouri-born researcher studying at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. The grad student specializing in quantum physics has taken the prize for a cartoon that’s as entertaining as it is educational. (Check it out here.) The winner, Ben Ames, sent in a seven-minute animation that uses cartoons, songs, and a main character that stars as a long-bearded prisoner.

What does this all have to do with strategy? Strategies, like science, health, finance, and even public policy, are complex concepts often communicated by experts who have forgotten what it is like not to know! Saying it’s “oxidation” works for the sender but not the receiver. In company after company trying to communicate strategy with familiar words like “customer first,” “market leading,” or “preferred provider,” we see strategists fall into the same trap as the original explanation of what a flame is. Would you be able to convey your strategy to eleven-year-olds in a way that they could get it? What if you ran a contest and eleven-year-olds were the judges? Strategy needs to be relayed in straightforward, uncomplicated terms that resonate with a “beginner or novice” of the strategy. The importance is that you think about whether your people can distinguish the difference between knowing the name of your strategy and knowing how it really works.

Oh, by the way, Alda is asking a very deep and different question this year. It is, “What is time?” It’s going to be fun to see how scientists around the world answer that one in everyday language.


Visualization as a Powerful Business Tool? You Bet! Double or Nothing!


Onboarding: Starting Off on the Right Foot

Staffing can be tough.  It takes a lot of effort and investment on the part of an organization to find the right person for the job you’re trying to fill.  So once you’ve put in all of that hard work, you want to make sure it was not all in vain.  The bulk of staff turnover typically occurs in the first 45 days of employment and 46% of first-time employee’s washout in their first 18 months.

So starting everyone off on the right foot is critical.  Making an employee’s first months and year as successful as possible begins before they even show up for Day 1.  And it goes far beyond just making sure they fill out all of the paperwork, pointing them to their workspace, and giving them access to the building.

Best-in-class companies take the long view to ensuring their people are set up for success.  They immerse the new people in the company’s culture and vision.  They take steps to help connect the person’s role to the company’s strategy.  They are interested in the feedback of the employee to continue improving their experience and the experiences of future hires.  It’s not a one-day or one-week process.

Not only do these approaches help reduce turnover and associated costs – they yield business benefits as well.  A comprehensive onboarding program can get new hires up to speed quicker and adding value sooner by eliminating long learning curves.  And when you get a reputation for being a great employer, you will continue to attract and retain top talent.

Want more information?  Check out this White Paper – The ROI of Onboarding: 5 Steps to Engaging and Keeping New Hires.


What Do Student Debt and Strategy Execution Have in Common?

It is estimated that 37 million Americans have student loan debt totaling $870 billion. Some estimates place the total student-debt bill at over $1 trillion, and it now eclipses total U.S. credit card debt.  There are 1.8 million students today with loans which represent 94% of all students.  In 1993 only 45% of students had loans.  While loans can top $200,000, and often translate into payments of $1,000 a month after graduation, the average student leaves school with a $23,000 bill.  The financial pressures of graduating with debt has caused three out of ten students to move back home after getting their coveted degrees.  Graduate after graduate now tells stories of spending half of their monthly salary on debt payments which means that they can’t afford other necessities like rent, transportation, etc.  Yearly higher education tuition increases of 3 – 5%, and a literal capital expenditures “arms race” to build bigger and better facilities that promote hotel-quality rooms, gourmet food, and world-class gyms and spas, are causing people to ask – is it all worth it?

Pete Thiel, the PayPal co-founder believes the bubble that hit the dotcom and the housing market is now about to hit higher education.  “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and truly believed.”  We either don’t want to, or can’t see how to, connect the dots of reality.  Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance for the future.  Theil makes the interesting point that in any good bubble, consumption masquerades as investment.  Combine the issues of escalating student debt, rising tuition costs, an out-of-control capital arms race for facilities, a reduction of available incoming students, looming student-loan bankruptcies, anemic job growth forecasts, and parents’ reluctance to take on graduate roommates… and it is not that hard to see that this bubble is about to burst.

So, what does student debt have to do with strategy execution?  It is all about elevating your thinking and seeing the big picture as an interconnected system so that you can both see and understand what external forces are causing to happen, deciding what you want to make happen, and avoiding asking what just happened. Anticipating the future is a key success factor for all organizations, profit and non-profit.

In the corporate landscape, when people see and anticipate the three big pictures of their business, they clearly understand how to connect the dots on the driving systems of their future.  They can lead the execution of change rather than be left holding the busted bubble of change.  These include understanding THE MARKETPLACE (the why) and all the driving forces of change from competitors, customers, technology, regulation, pricing, cycle time, and market commodization and new formation.  THE STRATEGY (the what) includes the critical responses we have chosen to place our bets on for the future in the ever-changing external environment that will render some players as winners and losers.  THE OPERATIONALIZATION OF THE STRATEGY (the how) is all about the way that we will execute the new strategy which includes changes in habits, practices, routines, processes, and behaviors that will bring to life the new strategy.

The bubble can burst in higher education or your business; the key is seeing the big-picture possibilities before they become so obvious that it’s too late.


Decisions without Commitment – a Recipe for Strategic Failure

I think great performers and CEOs often have an uncanny ability to refine special skills of extraordinary anticipation and exceptional peripheral vision. A great illustrative point of that concept is hockey great Wayne Gretzy’s famous quote:

“A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

In working with many CEOs over the years, there are some key areas I believe they should be mindful of as they lead forward. These are not necessarily statements of fact that must be adopted, but rather considerations for the days and months ahead that you should search your “relevance detector” to determine their appropriateness.

Resist the temptation to be seduced by the value of decisions without commitment!

The statistics are clear. More than 52% of senior executives do not believe their company’s strategy will set them up to win in the marketplace. Ironically, these are the very same strategies they have coauthored and have raised a thumb for and declared publicly “I am in.”

Decisions without commitment are meaningless, and commitment without authentic dialogue and vetting is impossible. While decisiveness is a goal, the only chance that the change will be executed will depend on the commitment of the larger group leading the change.

On the surface, it is hard to take issue with the logic of most strategic decks. But there is a huge difference between not arguing with the analytics of the deck and taking a strong position and personally advocating for a decision or your strategy for the future.

The goal is not just making a decision, but actually building the collective commitment to execute that decision with personal passion and advocacy.

When that happens, CEOs can begin to roll out a strategy they feel passionate about, have a strong conviction in, and be optimistic about its success.



Culture vs. Strategy

I recently saw a video post from Rachel Sklar on Fast Company’s site about Culture vs. Strategy.  You may have heard the saying “Culture will eat strategy for lunch,” meaning that culture tends to be stronger in a lot of organizations than strategy.  Rachel pointed out that anyone who thinks that culture and strategy are distinct is missing the boat on strategy.  Her position is that culture is part of strategy. Watch her video.

I can totally see where she’s coming from, but I tend to think of it a little differently.  Culture along with organizational purpose is who you are.  This is why culture tends to be one of the most enduring things in organizations.  After all, evolving who you are – embarking on culture change –doesn’t happen without self-reflection, discovery, and commitment.  Strategy is how you’re going about getting to the future.  So, in simplistic terms, I think of Culture, Strategy, and Vision like this graphic to the right.

I do agree with Rachel that Culture vs. Strategy is the wrong question.  Success in organizations is usually determined by how well and how fast an organization is reaching its desired future state (in the graphic, VISION).  The best way to accelerate the pace to your vision is to align your culture and strategy so that they are in lock-step.  This is where I believe Rachel and I really agree.

Think of this in personal terms for a minute.  Let’s say your vision is to become the President of the United States.  You can have the strongest field organization for your campaign, have great messaging on policies, and travel every day meeting people for a year –all elements of your strategy to win.  But if the essence of who you are at your core doesn’t love getting up every day and meeting new people, being curious about new things and new topics, enjoying problem solving on the fly, and responding well under pressure and constant change (all elements of who you are at your core), then it will be pretty hard to get to your vision.

We can debate what qualities are really required to win the presidency, and I’m not pretending to have the answers on that : ).  But achieving your future vision is a smoother and more effective ride when your culture and your strategy are aligned.  This means that they go well together.  They support each other.  They are well suited to one another.

Organizations whose strategy is at odds with their culture should think twice, as it’s easier to change strategies than to change culture.  However, sometimes culture change is the right choice to make.  If the culture is full of unhealthy practices, success will be difficult with any strategy.  In this case, pursuing the hard work of culture change is paramount for long-term success.   And there are times when a strategy is so compelling that to not evolve the culture to fit it is just plain short-sighted.   So, whether you’re thinking about a vision for yourself or your organization, consider these questions:

Are you clear about the vision you want to achieve?  How do you define your desired future state?

Are you clear about who you are and the strengths of your culture?

Are you clear about how you’re going after getting to the future?  Which strategy (or strategies) are you embarking on to pursue your success?

Drop me a line with your thoughts.  I’d love to continue the conversation that Rachel started for us!

Related Content

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Plan a People Strategy like a Product Strategy

The first thing you might be thinking is – what is a people strategy?  What I mean is a company-wide strategy or a division initiative rollout, for example.  You need people to make those things happen successfully.  The interesting part of that process? A people strategy is going to have a greater magnitude of impact than a mere product launch.  Don’t worry, I’m not dissing the importance of a product launch – I know it keeps the lights on and people in their jobs!  What I’m getting at is that at most companies a company-wide launch of a new initiative or strategy typically doesn’t involve nearly the level of planning that goes into a product launch.  And that’s probably not a good thing.

Think about what usually goes into product development planning and then the rollout of that product to the market.  Your engineers, product developers, software programmers, product marketing, and customer service teams, to just name a few groups, do a ton of research, put together project plans, build the product, develop messaging and marketing materials, finalize pricing, and educate the sales force and the front line.  This is a HUGE endeavor and it takes months (or even years) to get all of the pieces in place.

Now think about the last time your company rolled out its new 5-year plan or announced a new strategic initiative that is designed to help the company grow significantly.  What went into that rollout?  If it was like many of the strategy deployments I’ve been involved in at other companies over the years, it probably went something like this:

  • The CEO announced the new strategy at an all-company meeting.
  • Maybe there was a follow-up email that went out to the whole company reinforcing some of the key points that the CEO discussed.
  • Some training was given to the department that was going to have the biggest impact on that strategy – in most cases, the sales team.
  • Then that was it… until the next new strategy was announced by the CEO at an all-company meeting

Now,  there are varying incarnations of company strategy rollouts; some may look like my past experiences and some may involve a bit more than what I listed.  But in all likelihood, it doesn’t involve the time and effort that companies put into a product launch.  Check out this video from Root president and client fanatic, Rich Berens, as he talks in more detail about treating your company strategy like a consumer product launch strategy.

Let me know what your last company strategy launch looked like; I’d love to hear about it!

Related Content

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Lifecycle of Strategic Change

Change is hard.  Strategic change is even harder – particularly when the strategy lacks clarity, alignment, and senior leader confidence.  One of the more frightening statistics on strategic change comes from a recent Booz & Company study that discovered that more than 53% of senior executives don’t have the confidence that their strategy sets them up to win in the marketplace.

Ironically, one of the universal truth’s we’ve uncovered in our 20+ years of helping organizations is that there are three great lies being told at the executive level:
1) We have a strategy,
2) We are aligned on that strategy, and
3) We have data to support that strategy

At the core of these three lies is the reality that most senior teams bandy about familiar strategic words, but those words don’t mean the same thing to each leader.

To compound the fact that most leaders are not clear or aligned on the strategies they create, their managers equally struggle to interpret that strategy so they can translate it to their people.  Set in that context, it’s no wonder that individual contributors have no idea what they can do to contribute to new strategies or connect their role to murky directives to successfully support and execute on the strategy.

So why does this happen in organization after organization?  There are two root causes:

1) Strategy execution through people requires well-defined processes to implement change, which are usually not present.
2) The methods and approaches that unlock human energy are not the common tools of choice.

In reality, the most common approach to execute a strategy has little to do with process.  It’s typically a cross of “sunshine pump” (churning out only good news) and increased demands for more accountability (get on board or get out).  As a matter a fact, we polled a group of senior executives and asked why they didn’t see strategy execution through people as a process.  They said there are several contributing factors:

  • Ambivalence about who should own the process.
  • The realization that a different set of skills is necessary to do it well.
  • A general belief that people should “just do it” and a process isn’t necessary.

All three contribute to the reality that 60 to 90% of our strategies don’t get executed.

Unless people bring the best of themselves with excitement, ownership, advocacy, creativity, resilience, and persistence, the “immune mechanisms” for organizational change kick in and “this effort shall too pass” without realizing the dreams and aspirations for the future.

There is a better way

Rather than focusing on helping just a few people see the future, it’s far more critical to engage the energy of an entire company.  This new approach centers on democratizing strategic information.  The real level for success is bringing strategic ideas and issues to life in a language that makes sense for all employees of an organization.  Engagement is not one-dimensional.  It’s found in sports, friendship, books, music – all facets of life, really.  It can be effortless, natural, and magnetic.  It’s learning to tap people across an organization in the same compelling and sustained way so they have no choice but to feel captivated, drawn in, and connected.

And this needs to be part of a process.  Most organizations spend little time assessing how well they’re executing their strategy through their people.  And they’re not thinking about each level of the organization in a different way.  Treating those roles and levels in unique ways is part of the process.  You have to think about how you’ll create a line of sight – a common view of the strategy from the individual role to the marketplace – for each level and how you’ll connect those roles to the goals.  Then, look at the capabilities you currently have in the organization to reach those goals and where you may have voids.  Most important, realize that this will not happen overnight.  Think about how you’re going to measure the success of these efforts and how you’ll make adjustments based on the results.

Change is part of a big lifecycle.  It’s a process.  It takes time.  Planning for change and viewing it as a process will deliver those first steps of success and be a critical ingredient to ensure sustained execution.


Your Managers Aren’t Aligned on Your Strategy

No matter how great your strategy, creating a line of sight across the business for all stakeholders comes to a grinding halt if your managers can’t interpret and translate that strategy at the team and individual level.

Odds are – most of your managers can’t do this today! As a result, managers become a “cork” in the execution of strategy. To engage people in the game plan, managers need to interpret and translate new strategic actions.

Think of an organization as an orchestra.  When a conductor is needed, leadership often picks the best instrumentalist – the head violinist, for example.  However, despite her talent as a violinist, she is ill prepared to be the conductor.  One assignment is about being an expert in a specific area, and the other is about blending the talents of everyone into a high-performing team.  Most former head violinists can’t interpret and translate the new music that must be played strategically!

Thus creates the manager conundrum.  They ask, “How can I engage people in the strategy by translating it effectively?” and “How can I lead by being an expert in one area while getting my team to perform together?”  Their plight seems difficult at best and hopeless at worst.

Managers can be either the cork or catalyst to generating results.  To successfully interpret and translate new strategy to their team in a way that makes sense to them, all managers must know four things:

  • Know the business. From the marketplace to core processes to strategic direction.
  • Know their role. It’s not all about projects and process, but about people — starting with themselves.
  • Know how to connect their teams to the business. The hands-on, step-by-step job that shows people the “why” and “how” of their jobs.
  • Know how to deliver results through their teams. The basics of effective working relationships, clear expectations, coaching and developing, and following up to ensure success.

For a strategy to succeed, managers must interpret and translate the music into something people can actually play.

How effective are your managers at interpreting your company strategy?

Related Content:

Why Parents Make Great Managers
Six Ways to Lead Change, Build Teams, and Make It Personal
Managers matter the most when it comes to engagement!


The Power of Visuals to Solve Story Problems

Power of VisualsThe other night, I was helping my 10-year-old son with his math homework. He loves math, but was confused about how to solve these problems. I like math too, but workplace math isn’t 5th grade math. To help him meant I had to communicate on his level – to somehow discuss the problems from his point of view. Now, these weren’t just good old math problems. They were story problems. I’m guessing that most of you just said, “Ugh” either out loud or in your head. Most people don’t have happy memories of them. Story problems are tricky. There are multiple elements: lots of words with lots of numbers and often more than one question to solve for.

As I read a problem, I made notes. I also drew shapes because numbers like 1/3 or 1/2 and 2/7 were part of the equation. After about 20 minutes, I asked, “Aren’t there any instructions?” And what do you know – there were a few pages that provided help! As I read the sample problem and hints, it was obvious how we would solve some of them. We needed to draw graphs, charts, and other things to visualize what the numbers represented. In that moment, I realized there was something similar between an organization implementing a strategy and those story problems.

A strategic plan is made up of words wrapped around math (metrics, KPIs) and it’s sent to employees to “solve the equation to deliver the results.” Now, I don’t mean to imply employees are like 5th graders, but they look at strategy as something new and full of words they’ve heard and numbers they’ve seen before, but it comes to them in a way that it reads like a story problem. It’s just words and figures on paper. It’s hard to see them come to life – to become something meaningful that they can relate to. But typically, employees don’t know how to draw the graphs or shapes to break down the components that make the equation easier to solve.

That’s the power of the visual metaphor! That’s the value of using a visual to anchor the math and metrics and data that support the strategy. Leaders have all the data and info, and they typically spend a year or two writing the story problem. And then, they expect employees to immediately grasp it! Employees need those pictures to help them solve it and relate their role to it. Too often, they don’t get a picture. They get memos, PowerPoints, meetings, and discussions that lead to more questions than answers.

I’ve heard from clients many times that “our employees are too smart for visuals,” that they’re “analytical and data-driven.” But we tend to overlook the fact that those same analytical, scientific people are constantly using images or visuals to solve their own problems! I was at a client’s office a couple weeks ago, and they had a lot of smart people working there – scientists, engineers, PhDs, etc. Pictures of molecular structures were posted in the corridor connecting the business building with the lab. With the naked eye, you can’t see the molecular structure of a vaccine you’re working on. But you can diagram it to show to another scientist, and when you both have a common understanding, you can work toward innovating a better vaccine. They had just proven my point! Everyone needs visuals to solve problems, from 5th graders to scientists to every employee in your company. What is your organization using as the common visual that will help employees make sense of your strategy?


Hey Trainers! Stop Shooting All of Us in the Foot! Part 2

Last time (Stop Contradicting Yourselves!), I was on the verge of berating and possibly insulting every training professional reading this blog. Now that I’ve calmed down a bit, let me explain what caused my tirade last week…

I was having a conversation with a client about a training program. The objective was to design materials that would train managers on how to access a new online policy resource. Sounds easy enough? It wasn’t. What started as a simple solution with a 10-minute captivate software tutorial ended up being 2 hours of e-Learning explaining the content of the policy resource because the corporate instructional designers were convinced that all employees “need to know this stuff.” Despite my best attempt to remind the client of the desired outcome (getting managers comfortable accessing an online resource), the focus stayed true to classic instructional design…provide a laundry list of learning objectives and an overabundance of mandatory material to achieve those objectives. And we wonder why people roll their eyes when they’re told they have to complete training. It got worse…

When the instructional designers finally recognized that the program was being over-engineered, they fell back to the last line of defense: “this is what we were told to create.” That’s when I lost it!

I understand the importance of “following orders,” but come on! We’re not in the military! We’re in business! Shouldn’t we all strive to be stewards of good business decision-making? If there is a better and more efficient solution, we need to speak up, even if it runs counter to our caring nature as trainers. In short, we need to stop thinking of ourselves as trainers and educators and start thinking of ourselves as change agents. Until we do this, we will continue to shoot ourselves in the foot, and lose out on elevating the value of instructional design to the business.

Soak on that thought for a little while… challenge it if you like! I’ll share some thoughts about what it means for a trainer to be a change agent in a few weeks.



Hey Trainers! Stop Contradicting Yourselves! Part 1

After years of being a training professional, advocating for training professionals, and working with them as a consultant, there were two recent situations that caused me to finally snap (for those who know me, this is no easy feat). Let me give you some background first…

I often peruse the message boards on training-related websites, and I’ve noticed an obvious theme that we’re all probably familiar with: Trainers and educators want to be acknowledged as valuable to an organization. This isn’t a profound revelation; after all, who doesn’t want to be considered valuable? In general, trainers and educators are passionate about their work and the difference they make to employees’ and students’ lives.

While caring is essential, it is not what makes trainers and educators valuable…what makes us valuable are the results we create for our company or educational institution. Again, this isn’t a profound statement, but how often do trainers’ actions run counter to their organization’s value proposition? The answer is…all the time! Too often, we create training we KNOW won’t add business value, that WON’T be used by our audience, and serves only to FULFILL a request made of us. We shoot ourselves in the foot every time we don’t challenge the BUSINESS value of a training program or when we ignore desired outcomes in favor of learning objectives, and then we turn to the message boards and complain that we don’t have a seat at the strategy table.

I have more, but I should probably calm down first…check back next week for what caused me to snap. But in the meantime, feel free to tell me if you agree or disagree!


Working Together as a Team is the Key to Success

Working Together as a Team

Frequently we get asked about how to create a team-based environment in an organization.  It’s actually not that difficult, but does require some work on the part of the leadership team and subsequently managers.  I recently saw this quote from Henry Ford:  “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”   It’s very appropriate that it’s all about working together as a team.

The Rules of the Game

If you want people to “play” with others they need to understand the rules of the game! That means engaging individuals in how their efforts impact their team’s success and how their team’s success  contributes to the overall achievements of the company. If people don’t understand how their work connects to team and organizational wins, they can’t possible have a team attitude or take ownership. With that understanding it will be hard to keep them away.

So many organizations try to “train” specific actions and behaviors of teamwork without setting any context.  To play on the team, people need to understand:

  • The big picture of the organization and the marketplace
  • The company’s strategy – where are they trying to go as a business
  • Who their customers are
  • How money is made and spent
  • The key business processes

Straight to the Top

Appeal to the highest level of thinking with your employees and you will likely get the highest level of participation and results. Liberate the information the executive team has and people will likely have the same level of commitment as the leadership team. People are smart and they are hungry for information, and your ability to provide them with that information in a way that is resonates with them is tantamount to success.

Connect the Dots

Helping them understand how all of the functions working together as a team contribute to the business is part of telling that big picture story.  But, it’s also part of helping them understand how their individual role contributes to their own team and ultimately the business.  That big picture, system’s thinking tied to individual contributions means they only have one choice – they cannot help but be part of the team.


The Fine Line Between Direction and Engagement – Part 2

In last week’s blog, I outlined a challenge that a current client is facing in terms of rallying his organization around an existing vision and strategy.  As we established, the organization needed to figure out how they could balance the need for leaders to establish their vision while at the same time, gaining commitment from more of its employees.  A number of guiding principles emerged from that discussion are worth sharing:

  • Leadership has an obligation to define the current reality of the business –challenges and opportunities, strengths and barriers – and to “chalk the field” for the future through the vision, strategy, and targets.  If leaders don’t define “where we’re going,” how can they expect the rest of the business to determine “how we get there”?
  • Leaders must involve a broader group of leaders in how the business will reach the future state and execute strategies through the next levels of leaders.  These people must change from mere translators of strategy to ambassadors for the future state.  The top leaders who defined the future state must take this next group on an accelerated version of their own journey so their involvement is focused on the right areas and content.  Certain questions require answers that add depth to the strategy and broaden the rank of strategic architects.  These are the questions focused on obstacles and barriers, the role of the broader group of leaders in deploying the strategy, and the connection between vision, strategies, and targets.
  • These “strategy ambassadors” must deploy the vision and strategy and create the needed understanding, buy-in, and involvement.  This understanding comes from allowing access to the same information that the strategy architects used to arrive at their own conclusions.  The buy-in comes from the process of cascading the messages into the business and the opportunities for involvement created through the ongoing planning and executing at the team level.

Ongoing leader-led action planning at the team level sustains the energy and, more important, helps the organization to deepen and refine the activities needed to achieve the vision and future state.  This process can create opportunities for leadership to communicate progress and affirm their commitment to the future state.  Effective processes allow teams to confirm what is working, identify gaps in performance and results, define and prioritize obstacles, and action-plan against the most critical barriers.  As you might imagine, our client realized there was no silver bullet for simultaneously establishing a compelling vision and engendering employee involvement for execution.  However, by creating a process that allows the business to share content in an authentic manner that trusts the intelligence of the audience and asks the right questions, leaders can build a foundation of engagement that will propel the business toward its future state.

Related Content:

The Fine Line Between Direction and Engagement – Part 1
Strategy or Values? Yes!
Six Ways to Lead Change, Build Teams, and Make It Personal
Being Part of Something Bigger Than Yourself


M&A Make or Break – Do Your Employees Understand the Value it Creates?

Greta Roberts’ recent Harvard Business Review blog post about how differences in organizational pace can undermine post-merger integration efforts further underscored for me the challenges that result from categorizing activities as either “hard” or “soft.” As soon as something gets labeled in either category, it has a tendency to become someone else’s responsibility. The hard stuff is the domain of Finance, IT, and Operations, while the soft stuff is for HR, Training, and OD to figure out. The shrapnel is left for Sales and Marketing to piece together and try to rationalize in the marketplace. All too often, any conversations about creating, supporting, and delivering new and unique value either don’t happen or happen in isolation. In rapid order and despite best intentions, integration becomes less about creating value and more about completing a list of either hard or soft functional activities. The lenses through which employees view their responsibilities narrow, and any connection to the role they are playing in enabling a brighter future is lost. Alignment, speed, value, and, ultimately, results all suffer from the lack of cohesiveness and engagement.

Some might say that integration pitfalls are an unavoidable cost of engaging in M&A activity and these obstacles need to be factored into any due diligence efforts. We don’t agree. In our experience, the speed at which an organization can generate the desired results post-integration is exponentially increased by its ability to connect all employees to the unique and differentiated value that is being created – the “culture of competence.” To be clear, this is not about culture for the sake of culture or any of the soft definitions of culture. This is about aligning organizational focus, capability, systems, and processes to develop and enable the differentiated and rare economy of scope that was identified at the outset.

Unfortunately, the culture of competence is undermined when leaders aren’t clear or aligned on the unique competence that is being leveraged or created. As a result, these strengths never get defined, communicated, or integrated into the operations of the business or any of the post-merger integration efforts.

This lack of clarity trickles down to the managers who have been tasked with delivering on the integration expectations and making sure their people stay engaged and connected throughout the journey. Unfortunately, they aren’t clear for themselves where all of the activity leads and are unsure how they will be able to add value in the post-integration world. As their engagement wanes, so does their ability to keep their people connected in a meaningful way.

For the individual, their previous mental models on how the business works are destroyed and their ability to align their actions and efforts with what differentiates the business is significantly diminished…as is their overall level of engagement.

In part two next week, I’ll outline a series of questions that organizations can ask themselves to create better alignment around what their culture of competence should look like create success.

Related Content:

The Canyon
Managing Culture Clash in Mergers and Acquisitions
Blending Entities: Minimizing the Discomfort


Missing a Critical Element of Employment Engagement?

Non-engaged employeeCreating employee engagement is a challenging endeavor for any organization, particularly if it’s suffering from low employee morale or if there is a “make or break” strategy that needs to be executed well for the organization to continue to be viable. Sometimes it’s difficult to know where to start. There is really no “one size fits all” approach. I read an article this week about BNY Mellon’s CSR employee engagement initiative, which I thought was a great example of focusing on one area of the business and developing a process for engaging the business. The author makes some very good points while sharing four best practices to drive effective engagement that are worth reading.

The article got me thinking about one other issue that is often underestimated when we look to create engagement in strategy at companies. The article focuses on the issue of sustainability, an area where many people will have a natural affinity and passion. The groundwork was set for people to care and the focus was on linking relevance and engagement more so than getting people to care about sustainability.

A lot of the strategies that organizations are pursuing might have come from a well-researched recommendation from a consultant, have a great financial argument, and a good process to pursue it, but lack compelling context or anything people can easily rally about or want to personally connect to. We often do a really poor job of telling the compelling story of what we want to create.

I have been working with a client in the building products industry that was adding countertops to its cabinetry portfolio as a strategy. For many folks within the organization, it was viewed as a distraction or another way to chase some extra dollars with an additional product. When we were able to engage people in the story, there was clearly a legitimate opportunity to revolutionize the industry. Builders purchase both products, but they have to do so from different players. With this new product, they can be served faster and more holistically and in a way no one else can. Once the story was told cohesively with greater context, the energy and commitment toward the effort changed profoundly with the group.

Most of us have heard the legendary pitch that Steve Jobs made to John Sculley to join him at Apple in the 1990s, asking if he “wanted to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world.” My point is not a judgment about either industry, but about creating a compelling case and context for the strategies we are putting in place as a key and often underestimated differentiation to create engagement and sustainment on strategy.



How Successful Strategies Win: Strategic Change as an Interdependent Process

All organizations have business processes, and today’s organizations are constantly trying to transform – from manufacturing to brand-led, from domestic to global. But if you ask organizations for the process that guides the way they manage the organization through change, you may get a blank stare.

Strategic change is a process, but it’s often managed as a series of independent events led by functions.  It’s not the process itself but how it’s executed that differentiates the winners from the losers.  Organizations that “win” have some unwavering principles that guide the way they lead the strategic change process.

1.  They force collaboration and shared meaning across functional boundaries while maintaining functional ownership and accountability. Football players have a detailed playbook and practice plays countless times before they’re ever called in a game.  They do this to make sure that every player has shared meaning for how the play should be run and the type of adjustments they may need to make.

In business transformation, playbooks are often handed to functional leaders, and the next step is “game day” execution.  Six to 12 months later, the Sales group and the Marketing group don’t look like they are on the same team!  It becomes painfully obvious that these functions never had shared meaning on the organization’s desired future state and strategic priorities.  Winning organizations allocate “practice” time, when functional leaders collaborate to form a clear, shared picture of the future state and strategy.  Then, when “audibles” are called during the transformation, they’re executed with a common mental model in mind.

2.  They invest in capability-building at all levels, starting with the top leaders. Change is difficult, and we often ask others to change before we are willing to change ourselves.  Senior executives aren’t immune to this.  They often chart a course for strategic change without considering how they need to change and grow.  At the executive level, these capability shifts are tied to observable behaviors – how leaders spend their time or what they reward.  Because employees often model their leaders’ behaviors, leadership behaviors must change first.  Winning organizations clearly define and track the behavioral shifts required by leaders if the organization is to achieve its desired future state.

3.  They shatter traditional hierarchies and enroll a larger group of leaders as advocates in the change. “Strategy” and “change” are usually very confidential.  Only the top senior leaders plan the change, while everyone else is informed on a “need to know” basis.  This usually causes the transformation to crumble under its own weight because the only “advocates” are the few who drafted the change.  Winning organizations enroll a broad group of leaders in the change.  This next level often brings truth statements, barriers, and most important, new solutions to the executive team.

Without crafting a process for managing the change you’ve planned, you’re making your game much more difficult to win.



From 1776 to 2011: Good Strategies Never Go Out of Date

In the Jan/Feb ’11 issue of The Watercooler, our topic was trends for the new year. I compared the leadership we all need now to the leadership of George Washington during the American Revolution.  I’ve always admired George, and I’m continually impressed by the forward-thinking leadership tenets he demonstrated to first his troops and then to his new country.

In my view, this is what George and his team practiced that we still need today:

  • Trust and confidence in leadership. Washington never lost the confidence of his people and their belief in him. He and his team always projected an aligned front and commitment to the plan regardless their own differences.
  • A solid strategic plan. Washington and his team developed a strategy that used the strength of their forces against the weaknesses of the enemy. He built pride and passion that drew out people’s commitment.
  • Constant reminders of the ultimate goal. Washington’s message was that they were not just waging a war – they were fighting for a better way of life, one that hadn’t existed anywhere before.

Of course, what’s happening today is a different kind of revolution. But there are still some similarities – the fear, uncertainty, doubt – that connect us to difficult times in the past.

What do you think? What other leaders or strategic plans from the past that have value now – maybe even more value than they did originally? Everybody needs a hero. Who else can we hold up as role models in the tough times of today?


Corporate Strategy Execution: The Five Fundamental Truths

Corporate Strategy Execution

What do strategy, engagement, and culture have in common?

These words are frequently used in the boardrooms of companies in Fortune 500 America. At best, they mean different things to different people, and at worst, they mean nothing because they’re over-used when talking about corporate strategy execution.

Once decoded, corporate strategy execution is really about a focused effort at all levels of the business on how we’ll win in the marketplace. When done effectively, the ability to rally thousands of employees around a common strategic direction becomes a point of competitive differentiation.

In working with Fortune 500 executive teams to align on and execute strategies, the organizations that effectively bring corporate strategies to life share a few common beliefs. And in organizations where strategy begins and ends with a PowerPoint presentation to the board, at least one of these beliefs is lacking.

The Five Fundamental Truths

1. Strategy is about trade-offs.

It’s just as important to decide what you will not do or stop doing as what you will start doing. At your next strategic planning session, ask yourself, “Am I as clear about what we are not going to do as to what we are going to do?” If the answer is no, you’re not yet equipped to execute strategy.  The output of your “stop doing” sessions can be as simple as not running an internal report that you aren’t sure anyone is reading. Or it can be as mission-critical as which markets you won’t focus on.  In fact, Jim Collins has been practicing this in his personal life for years.

2. Strategy shouldn’t be created via democracy.

By definition, strategy should be controversial. Many leaders over-value alignment, wanting everyone to agree on what the business should do. If everyone agrees, it’s likely not that controversial and may not provide a competitive advantage. The leadership teams who truly understand this reality have created planning processes and cultural environments that foster intense debate and disagreement. Then, they hold each other rigorously accountable to supporting the decision once it has been made.

3. Strategy is a look forward, not a look back, and that’s what makes it so difficult.

The balancedscorecard that measures involuntary turnover and yieldis a look back at the health of an organization, a measureof your “blood pressure” and “cholesterol.” Strategy,however, is a look forward into uncertainty, your workoutplan for the future. You need both, but don’t mistakeyour balanced scorecard for your strategy direction.

4. Most companies spend hours defining a strategy, but far too few hours focusing on execution.

Consider how much time goes into building your strategic plan. Once it’s complete, if it’s shared at all, it’s at a town hall meeting or passed on by middle management via PowerPoint. If goals are developed based on the strategy and are cascaded through the organization, everyone will be rowing in the same strategic direction – right? This belief assumes that the employees who are responsible for executing the strategy understand it and have the capabilities to execute it. The most effective organizations continually communicate the corporate strategy, assess the organizational capabilities to execute it, and develop training programs to bridge capability gaps.

5. To create relevant strategies, your entire executive team needs to spend time in the marketplace.

This seems fairly obvious. However, the next time you sit in a strategic planning session, look around the room and ask yourself how many people have spent time assessing the competition, identifying emerging trends, or meeting with customers. This knowledge is the “raw material” for strategy creation.

Ironically, this is the low-hanging fruit in many organizations; it’s just a matter of allocating time at the leadership level. Without the raw materials of a strategy that come from questioning your perceptions and being curious about your marketplace, it’s impossible to create a viable winning strategy. Shaun Rein, in Three Keys to Improving Your Strategic Thinking, gets at the concept of questioning your thinking, and the best place to shake up your perspective is not at your desk, but in the market:

Corporate Strategy Execution Requires Time

Many of these beliefs make a lot of sense when taught in top business schools. Yet, given the intense quarterly pressure of Wall Street, we take revenue wherever we can get it, and we don’t have time to think years ahead. Over the last decade, the one consistency I’ve seen in best-in-class Fortune 1000 organizations is that they found the time, were steadfast in these beliefs, and dealt with today’s fire drills while building tomorrow’s value proposition.


Strategy or Values? Yes!

You’ve likely heard the phrase, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.”  The idea behind this is that values and cultural norms in an organization are often much stronger than the strategy that gets communicated in PowerPoint decks from the company’s top leaders.   But what about pursuing growth?  Does strategy trump culture then?  How much of the CEO’s time is spent on strategy vs. culture?  I think we’ve all likely heard at some point that values and culture is just an “HR thing.”

From my experience, not much benefit comes from debating the importance of strategy vs. values/culture.  It’s not an “either-or.”  As one of my mentors loves to say about many things, “The power is in the AND.”    I’m sure we would all agree that a great strategy and a great culture are good things.  But it isn’t just that both should be strong.  Organizations benefit greatly when strategy and culture are LINKED.

Culture is all about what gets rewarded and what gets punished in an organization.  Strategy is all about where we are going and how we are planning to get there.  It just makes sense that the two should be walking together in lock step.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.  Top leaders often spend significant time working to bake the perfect strategy, while culture, values, and desired behaviors in the organization never make the agenda.  At the same time, champions of values and culture can be resistant to looking at how they should evolve to sync up with strategy and desired business results.   I was excited to see Jim Heskett of Harvard Business School doing some research this summer on the impact of strategy, execution, and culture on organizational success.  If you are interested in his thoughts, check it out at Harvard Business School,  Jim Heskett.

Linking strategy and culture is powerful, and it starts at the top.  When the executive team takes equal ownership for articulating current realities and desired future state for both strategy and culture, the right conversations naturally start happening in the business.

Is that behavior consistent with helping us achieve the future state?

Do we need to more clearly articulate for our people the cultural shifts we want to make?

Are our leaders equipped to deliver on both the strategy and culture?

Do all of our people understand why the strategy is important and how we all need to work together to bring it to life?

The next time somebody says “Culture eats strategy for lunch” or “Culture is just an HR thing,” I will be looking for the right catch-phrase to share my passion for making sure they are linked.  Any ideas?


Tilt-shift Thinking…

I’m fascinated with a new visual craze hitting photo circles called tilt-shift photography.  This is a technique where the lens is actually not directly attached to camera but separated by a “shiftable” lens or other homemade device.  It gives photos a blurred effect around all portions of the photo but the middle. This makes the items in focus look miniaturized.  There have been videos created with tilt-shift photos that give you a sense that you are watching toys move across the screen.  (See some examples after the jump.)

So I was thinking about the perception that these photos give viewers.  I’ll admit I had been quite skeptical that these photos were taken of actual places or people until I realized how they were taken.

In business, employees are often skeptical of strategies and initiatives until the “how” is revealed to them. Reality looks skewed or misguided. But when you take the time to provide a clear picture of how you’ve come to where you are, you can bring things into better focus

What happens when these images are captured in sequence and strung together? Magic.


Marketing the “Friendly Skies”

We’ve all been there before. A new strategy is presented by the CEO or business unit leader. It’s about world-class customer satisfaction, operational excellence, innovation, ambitious growth targets, and how “we” are planning to displace the competition. And after that, not a whole lot seems to change. You don’t hear much about the strategy and, for the most part, everyone returns to do their jobs as they did before.

A lot of the work we do with our clients focuses on how to get everyone to meaningfully understand the strategy, connect to it, and build the skills to execute better. There is, however, one other component that’s often underestimated – how to effectively “market” the strategy to your employees to better drive excitement and adoption of what the organization is trying to do.

By marketing, I’m not talking about creating an ad campaign to convince your people that your strategy is something that it isn’t or to create messages that seem inauthentic because we know that the truth is different. After all, there’s a reason why campaigns such as United Airlines’ “Fly the friendly skies” or American Airlines’ “Something special in the air” aren’t getting much play anymore. For all of us who travel frequently, the skies just aren’t that friendly or special these days, no matter what airline you fly.

But thinking more like a marketer and creating authentic awareness, excitement, and education about your strategy can have a profound impact on how well you execute throughout your organization.

We don’t often think of employees as the customers of strategy – just as individuals who must comply with what the organization wants to execute. While that’s true to some degree, it’s not an effective way to maximize adoption. If you think like a marketer of your strategy, you’ll try to understand the audience you’re trying to reach, their level of awareness and capability, their key points of emotional and rational receptivity, and where and how to each them. You’ll also monitor what is resonating and why, and then further invest in those areas.

We’re currently working with a large client in the travel industry that redefined its strategy and is applying these marketing concepts. Through focus groups, they gained a thorough understanding of the knowledge base of the organization relative to the strategy. Then, they brought the majority of the company together for an organizational dialogue to be sure the strategy was clear to everyone. That was supported by an internal video-based marketing campaign showcasing how senior leaders are implementing the new strategy and approach in their daily lives. They are further driving momentum and feedback loops through a wiki, a blog, and other community tools. The primary goal is to accelerate the adoption of the strategy and create an emotional connection to it.

In marketing-speak, most strategies are like products that sit on shelves way too long, with limited sales. Think more like a marketer and create a plan for driving the “sales” of your strategy product, with your employees as the customers, and you may be amazed by the business impact it can have!