Do you work for or run a company that spent last autumn nailing down a new awesome strategy that is guaranteed to create a better future for you and your customers? Then I suggest you read this article as it will significantly increase the probability that execution of your strategy becomes a part of your employee’s everyday life.
Strategy… Roll the word in your mouth. Does it give you the chills? No? In the wrong way? Face it; even for us strategy nerds, the word has a certain ring to it that is not all positive and you can be certain that your employees feel even worse about it. Why? Because the word itself has no meaning to them. To make it even clearer: test your management team on what strategy means to them. I am sure you will find as many explanations to what strategy is as there are members on the team.
You have hopefully developed a strategy that is ambitious, that requires new learning, that requires the company to change in order to claim the position(s) outlined in the strategy. So your biggest challenge with the implementation is going to be a) to understand the level of change needed, and b) lead the organization through that change.
NB! About change, let´s be clear: there is no such thing as “the company” or “the organization” when it comes to change requirements. The only thing the company and the organization is represented by are unique living and breathing individuals, and unless you manage to coerce them into a state of growth they will not change, and the likelihood for your strategy to be implemented becomes very limited.
I am sure you have “People” as part of your strategic target/focus areas or even embedded in your corporate values and mission statement. After all, it is only people that can create the success you urge for.
Below you find a short list of 8 things to consider before strategy implementation created specifically for those of you that are looking for the list. Keep reading and you get more meat to the bone.
1. Strategy is a CEO responsibility. It is vital that the CEO maintain control and leadership and is/becomes a role model to the organization to make sure that the strategy does not end up in the desk drawer.
2. Operations will try to kill any strategic effort. In between Strategy Definition and Execution there is therefore often a need for strategic development before handing over the strategy to the organization.
3. You must engage your employees. Build momentum for execution by building a bottom-up movement where all employees understand what is expected of them in order to reach the goals you have defined.
4. Think about how you communicate. Do not speak about strategy – speak about goals and actions and rewards. This way of communicating is 100% aligned with how the brain process information for decision making and will increase the likelihood for execution.
5. Identify and make use of internal role models in order to secure that you get the organization on your side. People are more likely to copy a colleague they look up to, then a distant executive they have no relationship with.
6. Implement strategic task forces composed of people from all parts of the organization for the development part prior to operations handover. This will secure maximum focus, effort and traction. (Might be good to get some of those young promising people involved here?)
7. The very definition of Strategy includes the level of change we are going to need in our organization. Driving change is not a task for a consultant, it is a task for leadership, both personal and formal and in order for it to happen you must train your leaders on strategic thinking and execution.
8. Ultimately your people are the only resources you will rely on for execution. And change requires courage and stamina. You need to have a plan for how you intend to grow your people so your teams can grow so your business can grow.
And now to the meat
1. Maintain CEO ownership
It cannot be stressed enough how important it is that the CEO (not only executives) maintain ownership of corporate strategy. We often see a swift delegation of strategy execution to senior and mid-level managers once the strategy has been presented to and formally approved by the board.
If you really believe in the strategy and you tie the future of the company to the execution of the same, you need to stay on top of execution and remain the leading star for your organization to follow, simply because people do wish to follow and it is a behaviour deeply etched into our biology. At the same time, we do not follow anyone so handing it over to a 3rd or 4th level resource for execution will severely limit your chances for success especially if great change is needed.
Remain the role model you want your leaders to be and assert your commitment to the strategy over and over again to make sure that people follow you on the path to success.
2. Make use of a transition phase before handing over to operations
You know the saying that culture eats strategy for breakfast? Our experience is that operations eats strategy for breakfast. The very definition of the word “organization” reads: “A structure established to execute on a well-defined value-chain and working processes with clearly defined roles and responsibilities”. I.e. everything else but things related to the need to change. In fact, the essence of efficient and effective operations is for people to stay within the framework, not to challenge it and definitely not to change it.
Imagine a day in the life of your average employee; they come to work in the morning and they know exactly what they need to do and they know exactly how to do it. Beautiful isn´t it? Highest possible efficiency, and profitability.
Most decisions we make on a daily basis are autonomous and happens in our sub-consciousness. The amount of decisions we make without thinking increases with stress though, and when we make autonomous decisions the only option is to do what we have done many times before. So when a person prioritizes how to spend his or her time it will be based on what happens in the deeper parts of the brain and it will be a re-enforcement of the behaviour you as manager have helped develop over time – the culture you have fostered.
If you want your strategy to succeed, you should try to add a transition phase into the process so that once the line organization meet the strategy it is so well defined that it can easily be absorbed as part of every-day life.
3. Engage your employees on all levels
One of the biggest issues with strategy execution is that it does not engage people and what does not engage does not warrant autonomous actions. Your only option then is to use methods where you force the people to commit to the strategy. Many companies do that by having the CEO speak at a conference to all employees and then implement some form for KPI structure and compensation scheme that rewards execution in the relative strategic direction. Once the speech has been delivered and the incentive system is aligned it is believe that work is done – people now understand and work towards strategy. Not true!
Now, I am not saying you should not do CEO presentations and incentive schemes, but you need to make sure that your employees are passionate about the strategy so they execute without you or your mid-managers being there pointing their fingers and constantly re-enforcing the importance of the strategy. If they must, then you have failed.
Here are five tips for engagement creation
1. Define a clear communications strategy and plan, including a detailed outline of all relevant channels at your disposal to create both push communications as well as driving collaboration. In this I do not only mean intranets or digital surfaces. Identify the most important arenas for you as a company and be creative about how you use them. Meeting rooms for example? Wall surfaces in the hall-ways? Printed material on desks?
2. Focus on activities with positive outcomes that lead to strategy execution. Once a person associates an activity with a positive feeling, it will become an automatic priority to participate. These activities can also be devised in such a way that it drives the development of new habits resulting in new behavior and thus the development of a new corporate culture.
3. Celebrate the victories by fronting individual success stories. This points to the effect and results rather than the focus on strategy. By picking out the right kind of success stories and people that are role models, copying will emerge and a change of behavior will happen.
4. Make sure you stay creative through the whole period and not only in the beginning when strategy is new to you. We see that this is a major challenge for most organizations without external support. Find new and exciting ways of doing things and you will make sure that you have the continued attention by your employees. If you go back to business as usual in the way you act and communicate, interest and commitment will fade.
5. Use technology and mobility in your activity and engagement process. Everyone (well most anyway, and if they don´t maybe you should revise your digital strategy?) has a smartphone and using an App for low-fi posting of videos and content will not only drive engagement but it will connect people to each other across the organization as well. Do you use FaceBook at work? It is admittedly better than nothing but there are better solutions out there specifically developed for strategy collaboration and engagement.
4. Think about how you communicate
Communication is a funny thing and bad communications is most likely the root cause to most conflicts we see in the companies we have worked with for the past 15 years.
Communications is the art of making other people understand what you want them to understand. In order to understand how to do that you need to start by acknowledging that communication is what and how things are being understood and not what you say, hence communications is all about perception and how we perceive things is merely a reflection of who we are.
On the sender side two things are especially interesting; Your body language (controlled by 50 Billion Neurons roughly) and hormone production responds automatically to what you speak (actually think) about. The more you care about a topic, the more your body will respond and the more vibrant you will appear. When you speak about things you do not believe in or might not care about, a dozen of things happens on the receiving end. The sub-consciousness of the opposing party automatically sense that something is wrong and you lose their interest. Stay on topic of what you care deeply for on the other hand and the opposite happens.
It is a mistake to think that the CEO should talk about everything and care equally much about every aspect of the strategy. Hopefully though, everything in your strategy has a passionate owner in the executive management team. Our advice to you is to allow executive management to speak only on topics that they care deeply for. This might result in some strange crossing of boundaries, like a Risk Management director speaking about Customer Focus, but that´s ok as long as he or she is clearly the most passionate about the topic.
A specific advice is to avoid talking about strategy, but rather talk about goals and what you will do to reach them. This will be in alignment with how decisions are formed in our brains. We are extremely goal driven creatures and do nothing without a purpose behind it. Most of the times we cannot explain it but the goal is always there.
In order for the brain to build up a decision potential, there needs to be a reward at the end and a trigger in the start. In between the trigger and the reward there is the action network. Neuroscientists have managed to explain exactly how this process happens and it is not as cognitive as we would like it to be – it is actually largely driven be emotions and hormones.
Your ultimate task as a leader is to understand how to communicate the goal (reward) in such a way that all wish to join in on whatever it takes, and use a compelling argument or activity (trigger) to generate the activity (action network) needed. Sounds complicated? Not so much actually – let´s have coffee and talk about how to make this happen.
5. Use internal (secret) ambassadors
One way to drive engagement is by diverting focus away for the guys at the top to people in the organizations that are seen as role models. Identify these people and appoint them as secret ambassadors with the purpose to aid you in your communications, engagement and activity efforts.
Once these ambassadors start speaking about and acting on certain topic of relevance for your strategy implementation they will automatically capture the attention and interest from their peers.
6. Implement virtual and dynamic strategy task forces
A great way to overcome the aspects of operations stalling strategy execution is by making use of temporary task forces given well-crafted assignments to execute upon. This will give you the opportunity to generate cross functional engagement and specifically create focus on strategy execution by operational resources.
These teams will most of the time operate on a part time basis working on specific topics of great importance to strategy execution. It might be the need for insight of some kind, development of a specific concept, or even development of new solutions.
The main challenge you are going to face with this team are how to draw them out of the operational mode they are in every day. You will need a very clear understanding on how to build a high performance team in a matter of weeks, and you will need a solid plan for how to lead the team through their assignment.
This is by no means an easy feat but our experience helping our partners with such efforts points in one direction: when done properly the teams become so much more than the task they perform. Besides the delivery they will found new meaning working for your company, strengthen collaboration across functions, improve internal communications and in general increase employee satisfaction.
7. Train your leaders
If you believe your managers are capable of leading and driving strategic execution you are certainly in a league of your own and everything I have written in this document are old news. Studies however point in a different direction: most companies that are experiencing some degree of success are doing so mainly because they are super-efficient in their day to day operations, while at the same time lagging severely behind on the topics of innovation and strategic thinking.
The Peter principle, developed by Laurence J. Peter, states that when people are recruited for their performance in their current role rather than for the abilities required in the new role, people are promoted to their level of incompetence, and there it stops. It is a common mistake to promote a good sales rep to become sales manager and later sales director. The same thing with technicians, analysts, customer reps and any other functional area you might recognize. The real question is whether your managers where recruited for their ability to lead, to see things in a 360-degree context and to think and act strategically?
Chances are that your managers are strong professionals but poor leaders.
Strategy execution requires you to find new solutions to old and new problems. It requires the development of new knowledge and it requires courage and stamina. To maximize the results requires your leaders to know how to work with people and how to get the absolute best out of everyone, and the key here is not professional understanding but the ability to develop other people.
Your leaders need to lead, to coach, to set the goals, to frame the strategic challenge, to help people find their inner drive, to set individual KPIs aligned with their passion and to give them tasks that they will excel in executing without any effort at all.
8. Help your employees and teams to grow
In the end when all is said and done, strategic execution requires individuals to make everyday decisions in a specific (new?) direction and any direction that requires change from an individual perspective requires courage. If your employees are not equipped with a solid portion of self-esteem and self-confidence (both are required, but the first is more important) chances are they can become nothing but pawns in your game of chess.
Being pawns are all well and fine, but pawns do not drive development autonomously. More important though is that all employees belong to a team on some level, and the outcome of a team, the goals they are willing to commit to and the activities they set in motion are all derivatives of individual and collective self-esteem.
In her book “Mindset – The Pscyhology of success”, Carol Dweck writes: True self-confidence is “the courage to be open—to welcome change and new ideas regardless of their source. Real self-confidence is not reflected in a title, an expensive suit, a fancy car, or a series of acquisitions. It is reflected in your mindset: your readiness to grow.”
Do you have a growth plan for your employees? If not, what level of change do you expect to achieve?
Most of what I write here is logical and makes common sense, still so little of it is put into practice. Remember that one of these efforts will not make the difference – it is the full picture and your 360 degree understanding of what it takes to motivate people to change that is important.
Do all of the above and chances are that your company will not only reach but exceed its goals with employees happy to take on the next challenge. And the next. And the next.
Innovator, Business Developer and Impact Investor