Too often, companies put the burden on employees to make strategy actionable without the foundation of employee authorship.
They also lack a scalable approach to taking decisions in alignment with the strategy. Even the smartest leaders and boards with the best data-driven strategies often fail to see one critical problem — strategy and execution cannot be bifurcated.
To propel game changing strategies into action, leaders need to first recognize their current reality, then: commit to decision makers and decision-making principles; articulate how and under what conditions real-time adjustments will be made; and create opportunities to connect employees to critical changes and messages in ways that are meaningful to their own roles and responsibilities. Here are the 3 agreements leaders need to make to make these steps real.
1. Agreement on co-authorship and decision-making principles
Strategy is about making choices. The clearer those choices are deeper into the organization, the easier it will be to execute on a strategy. What this means in practice is that everyone in your organization should 1) know how decisions impacting them and their work are made and 2) who is accountable for making those decisions.
- To support the how, set practical principles for making decisions that are aligned to your strategy and can be cascaded throughout your organization. These principles should be simple enough that everyone can remember them and clear enough that everyone can apply them in their context(s).
For example, if an organization is taking a margin protection strategy, then one principle might be, “if forced to choose between a high-revenue-growth or high-margin opportunity, we will prioritize the higher margin opportunity.” This does not mean that the organization will not pursue high revenue growth opportunities. Rather, it signals the mindset with which they want the broader organization to approach their businesses and opportunities. Defining the strategic vision in such granular yet principle-based terms allows decisions to be made more quickly and ensures that minimal time is lost cycling or recycling over a decision. It also implies that leadership teams can get to endorsement of an action, even if they can’t get to one hundred percent agreement.
- To define the who, start with the person or people closest to the subject or work to be done and logically work your way back to the person ultimately accountable for taking the decision. When employees understand where they fall within the decision accountability, it frees them up to be creative and impactful within clear, strategic parameters. This approach ensures that leaders are empowered, responsible, and accountable.
Many organizations use a “RACI” model when doing this. For every decision domain, your leaders should be able to answer: who is responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed?
World-class leaders know that they can’t do this in isolation. They also know that they can’t abdicate decisions for which they are accountable. They take a balanced approach of co-authoring decision principles with their leadership teams and building alignment around where each leader (themselves included) owns 51% of the vote1. They empower their leadership team members to then scale this approach deeper into the organization.
Why is this upfront work so important to execution? If execution drives outcomes, leaders must hold each other accountable to achieving those outcomes. It is impossible to hold teams accountable to outcomes – whether metric or behaviorally based – without setting the expectation that individuals are accountable to other members of the team. The alternative is a finger-pointing competition within a team, especially when the outcome of a decision is not what was expected, and lessons learned need to be captured.
In consensus-driven organizational cultures, or organizations in which leaders lead multiple layers of teams, defining accountability in these terms can be a challenge. It can feel like responsibility is being forced onto others. However, responsibility is earned. Leaders need to be clear that decision-making accountability at the right level is an opportunity for high performers to be empowered and that it is a reward, not a burden.
2. Agreement on a culture of Change Ready Leaders™ 2
Strategies should not be set in stone. Too often, leaders set strategy into motion and then turn on autopilot, believing that with the destination set, execution will come easily. Meanwhile, the grand plan is too fixed to be responsive, is misunderstood, or is poorly prioritized throughout the organization. Change Ready Leaders™ constantly recalibrate, incorporate employee and market feedback into pivots, and study past successes (and misses!) to ensure they are moving forward in a way that best supports the business priorities. They view all results – even failures – as neutral data points, rather than immediately judging a result as “good” or “bad.”
In today’s era of constant change, overreaction to new data and overreliance on past experiences quickly limit the options available to an organization and creates a lack of agility that is required in successful strategy execution. Change Ready Leaders™ acknowledge that we are better at problem solving together and by virtue of that use context, current data, and input from the ground to adjust and thrive.
Inviting diverse perspectives into your exploration of the future and subsequent planning efforts is one way to mitigate for historical biases and gain buy-in from critical stakeholders throughout your organizations.
3. Agreement on tactics (building commitment)
A change in information does not equal a change in behavior. It’s not uncommon to see action-biased leaders overlook or gloss over the critical step of building buy-in and commitment in a way that shifts mindsets and behaviors.
One way to achieve individual and organizational buy-in is to use time together (in-person or virtually) to socialize not only the guiding principles for business decisions, but also the “who” and “how” of the execution of those decisions within level appropriate segments throughout the organization. Over the last 30 years at BTS, we have observed that leaders and their teams feel more confident in their role to execute a strategy when they are:
- Given the chance to practice taking action in alignment with decision-making principles and factoring in new information to make strategic pivots
- Given an opportunity to co-author daily expectations describing the right level of their day-to-day involvement in building the future of an organization. This doesn’t always have to be about brand-new strategies and directions – it’s just as frequently about communicating expectations and demonstrating what great looks like on a daily basis.
Next, be sure to put processes in place that guides and prompts action. Specifics are important here. In support of the new decision-making processes, guide and agree upon actions that can be implemented immediately at all levels of the organization. Showcase opportunities for growth at the individual and team level, to rally the team in alignment with the new direction. Feels like there should be something about setting expectations of what great looks like in these processes/decisions.
Why do new strategies fall to the wayside mysteriously? Strategies may seem complex, but at their foundation, strategies are about making choices. Therefore, if the choices and rationale are clear, then execution can be formulaic and achievable. The better the organization sees itself in the strategy and feels empowered to act and react closer to the point of execution, the more Change Ready™ an organization will be when strategies inevitably need to shift. By setting clear decision making-principles, fostering agility through process, and gaining buy-in across organization-wide, you’ll build critical agreement and fuse strategy and execution seamlessly.
151% of the Vote concept from the “Multipliers” research by Liz Wiseman
2Change Ready Leader research from BTS Change and Transformation Center of Expertise