The brutal reality that should concern anyone leading a team or an organization today is that 60%–90% of all strategies are never brought to life. They just don’t materialize. The dreams and aspirations of smart and caring people never see the light of day. They stay locked in a strategy deck that sits on most senior leaders’ desktops. When you consider all the time, attention, and resources that are dedicated to developing and deploying a new strategy, it is unimaginable that this effort rarely produces the intended results.
TOP REASONS WHY STRATEGIES FAIL
After considering our strategy activation experience with over 800 companies, two profound conclusions surfaced that distinguished the 10%–40% of organizations that are successfully delivering on their strategic expectations.
First, organizations often lose sight of the fact that human beings work there (this is a discussion for another day), but because of this, organizations also forget that how they engage people really matters.
Second, most organizations do not have a process for engaging people in activating their strategy. More often than not, a strategy group conceives the strategy; it’s affirmed by a senior team that declares, “I’m in;” and then it passes its final test with board approval. At this point, the senior team’s strategy work is supposedly done, so it’s tossed to operations to create initiative owners and maybe passed sideways a bit to communications for a town hall, prep rally, PowerPoint, or Zoom meeting. Eventually, someone with KPI responsibility tracks how the strategy is going and reports back on the positive and negative trends. This is not a process but a formula to ensure failure.
However, when strategy activation through people is a well-defined process and is approached with the same discipline as the customer acquisition, supply chain, or new product development processes, then success is within reach!
AN EIGHT-STEP PROCESS TO BRING YOUR STRATEGY TO LIFE
Activating your strategy through people includes constantly managing four different groups. The first is the senior team (8–15 people), the second is the next level of leaders (50–400 people), the third is early adopters and influencers (20–30 people), and the last is managers and frontline people (the rest of the hundreds or thousands of people in your organization). Each of these groups will be part of an ongoing two- to three-year process once a strategy is ready to be implemented.
Each of the following steps of a strategy activation process though people is applied to all four groups on a continuous basis. The following eight steps of the process are keys to successful strategy activation.
- Define current state: Creating an honest assessment of the current state is the first, and in many ways the most important, step of the process. Truth telling requires vulnerability and taking a bold look in the mirror to identify the issues where we are creatively dissatisfied with our current position in the marketplace, our strategy, our operating model, our culture, and our leadership behaviors. Truth leads to trust, and trust is the catalyst for strategic change and strategy activation through people. People won’t take the risks necessary to activate a new strategy if they feel unsafe to speak about what they think and feel.
- Develop a compelling future state: It’s impossible to visualize fuzz, so it is essential that a clear picture is created that illustrates how we’ll be different in the future because of our new strategy. For people throughout an organization, this picture must mean the same thing in terms of what we’ll build that doesn’t currently exist, how we’ll win, and their role in contributing to our success. This picture is a constant reminder of what we’re playing for that makes challenging change worthwhile.
- Define and align on strategic priorities: If we’re clear and honest about where we are and we have a clear picture of where we want to go, we need to ask how we’ll go from where we are to where we want to be. Priorities are clear declarations of the ways we’ll win in bringing our desired future to life for our customers, for our partners, and for our people.
- Ensure behaviors and culture support the vision: New behavioral standards are always necessary with a new strategy. Strategies will never be activated if they’re a combination of new ideas and old behaviors. New behavioral contracts must be created so any new strategy has a chance to take shape. When we ask the front line what they think of our new strategy, they typically respond with this revealing statement, “The strategy isn’t the problem – it’s our widespread disbelief that our leaders will change their behaviors to bring our new strategy to life.”
- Create broader leadership advocacy: Advocacy is a critical aspect of the process. We know from our experience that 50% of a senior team and 80% of the next level of leaders are not advocates of the new strategy they co-authored. The reasons are simply that advocacy needs to be nurtured and cultivated with involvement and assumed and expected because of a senior role. Advocacy emerges from bringing leaders into the strategy discussion as co-thinkers being asked what they think – not being told what to think. The difference is profound, and advocacy comes from leaders going to the strategy gym and continuing to examine it for improvements and enhancements making it relevant and better.
- Get everyone in the game: People will tolerate the conclusions of their leaders, but they will ultimately act on their own. Strategy without execution is meaningless and execution without engaged people is impossible. Getting everyone in the game is not determined by finding ways to get them to buy in with facts, fear, or force. It comes from the dignity felt when people are asked to co-think our strategy and the reasons for it. People want to be part of a strategy movement that believes that their ideas, insights, and thinking are critical to success. The key is engaging people at all levels by inviting their highest level of thinking rather than by telling them what to think.
- Create change leaders/advocates: Many leaders want to lead change, but they just don’t know how. They lack the mindset and skillsets to embrace the ambiguity that comes with a new strategy and to feel confident as a beginner in areas that are new and different. A critical step of a strategy activation process though people is meeting people where they are and being inquisitive about what support and development they need to become change agents for the new direction.
- Build strategic skills and capabilities: A final step of the process is to make sure that people are engaged to develop the skills and capabilities that are needed for the new strategy. Few methods are more important for people who are anxious to contribute but fearful if they can do what’s needed. That’s why a big part of building the skills needed in a new organization revolves around stories, examples, and case studies of what future success looks like.
START ACTIVATING YOUR STRATEGY THROUGH PEOPLE
As you prepare to activate your strategy, remember who you need to help bring it to life: YOUR PEOPLE. A successful strategy isn’t a one-and-done event orchestrated by your few leaders at the top. Rather, it’s a process that takes time and involvement from your people at every level of your organization. Give people the opportunity to see their roles and impacts on the company’s future and what behaviors, skills, and capabilities are necessary to make it a success. Then, as you reap the benefits, be sure to celebrate together.