Unlocking strategy execution:

Make your teams happy to change


Published on: June 2024

Written by: Anne Wilson, Dillon Lee, Scott Seiffer

The road to strategy execution is paved with great intentions.

It typically starts with much fanfare. After you and your executive leaders have done the hard work to build a great strategy, and the board has approved it, the comms team prepares to launch and go live. Scripts are written, PowerPoints are built, numbers are double-checked, town halls are scheduled.

At first, these communication efforts spark energy. Conversations in the hall and at virtual meetings are sprinkled with references to the new strategy. People start using the right buzz words and adding slides from the road shows to their presentations. Some early experiments and initiatives begin to get traction and visibility. But, as time passes, people revert to their old ways of working. The effort to figure out what they should do differently – and how to make the shift — feels hard and confusing. It’s easier to ignore the need to change or wait it out.  And renewed efforts to communicate and reinforce the strategy are met with further silence.

We often talk with leaders at this juncture. They are frustrated by the fact that no matter how many times they explain what people are supposed to do, people aren’t acting differently. And the reason for this is simple: a change in information doesn’t equate to a change in behavior. Humans need more than new slogans and mantras to act in new ways and make new choices. There are reams of research dedicated to understanding what we need to do to help people change their behaviors, highlighting approaches and tools to effectively move people in new directions. Yet this research is often cast aside when rolling out a new strategy.

3 principles to move beyond the stone wall

The good news is that people can willingly and happily change if the right conditions for success exist.  Applying the research-backed principles of human behavior and habit formation to strategy execution suggests 3 important principles:

  1. Purpose and identity matter, especially now. In most companies, executives tend to focus on organizational goals and mandated cases for change, but metrics like shareholder value, profitability, and market share matter to a very small percentage of employees.

Goals are a less effective motivator for changing behavior than identity, so leaders must start by connecting individual purpose to organizational purpose. This is especially true now as the rapid series of disruptions of the last few years have left people feeling unmoored and craving something bigger than themselves. Given the increased pressure on leaders to return to high growth and peak performance, the opportunity to connect people to the enterprise purpose—–and understand how the strategy will reinforce that—matters now more than ever.

  1. Addressing old organizational mindsets will clear the path for future change. Organizational mindsets are often instinctual, second nature, and bigger than any one person in the company. Outdated mindsets left unaddressed will create inertia in your company that will keep you from achieving your aspirational goals. It’s key to identify and understand the new mindsets that are needed to execute a new direction. Here’s how one company made a switch.

A fast-growing pre-IPO software organization attributed its accelerated success to a laser focus on the customer as its North Star. In fact, that focus had become a mantra across the organization. Salespeople would automatically say yes to any request and engineering would build expensive singular design changes if a customer asked for it. When we engaged with them to set a new, more scalable direction, company leaders recognized that they needed to let go of their deeply engrained beliefs and give the organization a new definition. Their North Star would now be about what was best for all of the company’s customers—i.e., scalable platform-based changes. This disruptive provided significant clarity on how to behave differently and set the course for an eventual unicorn IPO offering.

  1. Ways of working and structures must change, too. One of the big stumbling blocks to change is the expectation that people will somehow operate differently in the same environment. Executing on new strategies often requires employees to collaborate with different people, use different technology, sell to different buyers or in a different way, and implement other big changes in how they do their work.

Yet the other structures that shape work—what meetings are held, how they are run, who connects with whom, what is recognized, what drives action in the organization—often haven’t changed. It’s close to impossible to move an organization in a new direction if the operating rhythms are sustaining old ways of working. Take this example.

An oil and gas client was undergoing a massive transformation and used quarterly business reviews as a critical measure of progress. The aspiration was to use these meetings to surface challenges and remove roadblocks to achieving strategic goals. Unfortunately, the executive team used them to pepper presenters with hard-hitting questions about performance until they found a weak spot. Preparation for this quarterly gauntlet had grown to consume entire departments, becoming a backward-looking time sink that was emblematic of the opposite of what the organization now wanted to be. So, leadership designed a new meeting that was forward-looking—focused on opportunities, co-creating solutions, and recognizing progress. The stark shift showed that the organization was serious about changing.

Actionable strategy is about engaging the organization, enabling people to change to make the organization ready for its changes, and creating the environment to assess and pivot along the way. Our work and research have shown that people can and will change—happily—and it’s the role of leaders to provide the conditions for their success.

To learn more about how to engage the organization and make strategy execution a success in your organization, check out this white paper.

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