High-level strategy is as useful to most workers in an organization as a high-flying airliner is to people in a bus queue. The bus passengers may briefly look up and notice the plane and its vapor trail,. But, even if it is travelling in the same direction, it cannot possibly help them reach their destination. Similarly, unless you can bring your strategy down-to-earth it will have no discernible effect on your organization’s performance. Or, worse, it will create confusion, paralysis and decline.
It is often said that a strategy doesn’t fail in its formulation but in its implementation. I don’t agree. I believe that in many cases strategy simply falls through the gap between formulation and implementation: it fails in its translation. Many leadership teams, in their excitement and enthusiasm to turn their strategy into reality, fail to take the necessary steps to ensure that the strategy is sufficiently grounded and that the organization is able and geared up to deliver it.
A $500 million consumer services business I worked with, for example, had invested heavily in developing a compelling new strategy and direction. The executive team was excited about the new opportunities that were being uncovered and had set ambitious and demanding growth targets.
The CEO and his senior executives had also spent time with front-line service managers communicating the vision and the high-level strategy for achieving it. However, over the following months the CEO became increasingly frustrated that the organisation was failing to make sufficient progress towards the new goals and targets.
As we investigated we quickly discovered that there were three barriers preventing the organisation from delivering the new strategic agenda.
- First, individual accountabilities had not been re-set. Managers had understood the new KPIs, but their own performance objectives had not changed.
- Second, talent had not been re-deployed. The new agenda demanded that the people across the business work differently, with a far greater focus on providing an outstanding customer experience. The roles, however, were exactly the same as the previous strategy.
- Third, critical resources had not been re-allocated away from the old activities and projects and into the new priorities. In essence, the projects that were driving the old strategy were simply re-packaged under the new one, and none had been dropped or fundamentally re-scoped.
The result of these failures at my client was that the organisation made little progress in executing its strategy, and this is a situation that I see in many businesses. You cannot turn your 50,000 feet, high-level vision into success on the ground in one giant leap; you need to get there in a series of smaller jumps. Translating your strategic vision, therefore, involves a mix of decision-making, persuasion and acting as an exemplary and involves six leadership tasks:
Creating genuine alignment.
Tiny differences of opinion in the boardroom can become huge divisions across the organization. Rapidly reducing your chances of successful implementation. I know a CEO who, in his first six months in the role, focused on involving his new team in creating a shared strategic direction. The result was not only an improvement in the quality of the strategy, but also, and more importantly, a step-change in the level of engagement with the strategy across the leadership team.
The strategic intent should form the basis of all communication with the organization. Communication isn’t so much about the big conventions and set-piece events, it’s about the corridor conversations and one-to-one meetings you have. Whether it’s in your office or on the front-line.
Resources should be allocated on their ability to deliver the agreed strategy, and not simply reflect historic trends and decisions. Your strategy is only as effective as your willingness and ability to invest the necessary resources. Financial, people or key assets – to help deliver the results you’re after.
Talent deployment and development.
Your best and most able people should be leading the delivery of your key strategic priorities. Not only does this increase your chances of success, but it also sends a signal to the organization about what you consider important.
Individual performance, and the collective performance of the top team, should be directly based on implementing the strategy. At one of my clients the executive team broke down the company’s biggest priorities into specific targets and objectives, with managers and executives made accountable for each. The CEO now uses this summary of objectives and accountabilities to hold his team and other managers to account. As a result, strategy implementation is part of the company’s everyday activities. Not just something that happens when the ‘day job’ has been completed.
Agreeing corporate KPIs.
Your KPIs should mirror the strategy, as should your associated rewards and bonuses. Focusing the management and reporting of your strategy’s delivery around KPIs, and not just project plans. This also ensures that people remain focused on delivering results and not just managing tasks.
Don’t leave your strategy at 50,000 feet. The success of your business is based on your ability to bring your strategy down to earth so that your people can implement it and deliver on-the-ground success. This requires a focus on the six translation tasks and not simply the creation of an implementation plan.
© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.