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Why telling won’t sell strategy implementation:

How to engage your organization to make strategy real

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Published on: June 2024

Written by: Anne Wilson, Dillon Lee, Scott Seiffer

So much time, energy, analysis and thought go into building a strategy to ensure your organization grows and thrives. It’s your role as a C-suite leader to set a vision and ensure a broad enough perspective. It’s the organization’s job to take that vision – and figure out how to get it done. Isn’t that what your functional leaders and their teams are there to do?

The high failure rate of strategy implementations suggests that in fact this is not a recipe for success. And further, one of the 3 leading reasons why strategy implementations fail is because company leaders place the burden on employees to figure out for themselves how to make the strategy actionable, rather than engage them to figure it out together.

By their nature, long-term strategies are necessarily high level, as painting a multi-year vision for a complex organization to grow, evolve, and thrive requires a certain altitude and necessary lack of details. Most C-suites leave it to the next levels of leadership to “connect the dots,” and make it real for their teams. This is often done through a “cascade” process of breaking down the activities required at each level of the organization to execute on the strategy, communicating those activities and then measuring progress.

The challenge is that the communication, which focuses on broadcasting a mandated case for change, typically flows in one direction. And that’s a big mistake for two reasons:

  1. It’s a long way down. The standard approach to communicating down through the organization is like the world’s largest game of telephone, but with a fairly weak signal to start. That initial message about what to do differently is often as high level as a managers’ script with talking points, which poses a real challenge to the next layer of managers, who are left to translate abstract concepts into practical, real-world changes. They often feel accountable for, but unprepared to answer, inevitable questions from their teams yet also feel ill equipped to take action to figure things out.
  2. It misses out on all the important intelligence. One way communication down in the organization overlooks the people closest to the customer and the actual work. These are the people who are most likely to see potential gaps and risks in the new strategy. But these front-line workers, along with most of the rest of the organization, don’t see the strategy until after it has been “approved,” at which point the goal isn’t to get their feedback but rather to drive execution and accelerate results. By the time the strategy is cascaded out to the last person in the field or on the floor, it’s far too late to act on what they know.

The common thread is that leaders are waiting on employees throughout the chain of command to interpret and figure out what the new strategy means on a day-to-day basis, without first having brought them into a shared conversation up front. Not given a chance to wrestle with the trade-offs, test the assumptions, and participate in the dialogue, even the most enthusiastic employees are going to have a hard time figuring out what the strategic shifts mean to them personally, let alone how to execute them. Note that this is not about asking all 50,000 people in your organization to weigh in on what the strategy should be. Instead, it is about setting the direction, and then engaging them in the process to understand what the new direction means and how it translates for them. The key is creating the right environment to engage the organization most effectively.

3 ways to bring your leaders and teams into making strategy actionable

  1. Make the new strategy real and tangible, as strategies must be experienced to be truly understood. When it comes to engaging people around a new strategy, it’s important to remember that a change in information does not mean a change in behavior. People don’t act until they understand what will be different in their day-to-day work. Senior leaders who can take the conceptual and make it concrete enable people at all levels in the organization to see themselves in the strategy and feel like active players in making it real.[1] Until you take people for a test drive to see and feel what actually changes about their job, you will have a challenging time making the strategy clear.

Take for example a financial services company who made a commitment to double the number of customers in three years by reaching entirely new customer groups with different needs. Frustratingly, efforts had stalled as the prevailing mindset amongst the troops was essentially “wait until someone tells us what to do.” We partnered with them to make the aspiration real and personal for people in the organization. How? For the operations team, for instance, achieving the goal meant that they would be servicing twice as many customers in just one year. We built a visceral experience for the team to see what it would take to handle that many new customers. This way, they could consider the various scenarios of dealing with such a huge increase and debate the most critical investments and process changes. Most importantly, because the group built the new plan together, they were able to move significantly faster in implementation.

  1. Build two-way communication at scale. Instead of broadcasting goals, project plans, and checklists, intentionally build two-way communication into your campaign for strategy alignment. This approach will help leaders source ideas and input from those closest to customers. But it will also help those on the ground feel that they are active members on the front lines of the push forward (because they actually are).

A telecommunications company created a retail store strategy around selling more, higher margin products such as accessories. The company told the retail managers to prioritize those sales, but revenues barely budged. The strategy didn’t catch fire until the company asked the managers to become deeply involved in determining the tactics and actions that would make a difference. Once the retail side got fully engaged, sales of accessories easily jumped 20%.

  1. Expect all leaders to be leaders of the new direction. The responsibility for revamping your organization shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of a small number of champions. The scale and pace of change for most organizations requires that all managers, from the C-suite to the middle ranks to the factory floor and retail aisle, see change leadership as their first job and have a change-ready mindset. After all, it’s usually the people closest to the work who have the best ideas about how to change it. The job of a change leader is to know how to engage their teams in co-creating the future together so that they can collaborate to solve problems in new ways. All leaders, not just a select few, have to bring a change-ready mindset to the task, so that they can maintain the motivation to bring their teams with them as they lead the charge.

Our work with thousands of leaders and organizations has revealed a core disconnect that can undermine even the best of strategies in the most focused of companies. The disconnect is both simple: Strategy creation and strategy execution are seen as two separate activities, rather than what they should be—an integrated, iterative process that generates a new reality over time for the company and for the people in it. And one of the 3 most important ways to make that process real is by more deeply engaging the people who will have to implement that strategy, and to bring them into the process, and keep them there, from the earliest days to the very end. (Check out this white paper to find out more about the other two.) Start by building engagement from the very beginning.  You’ll be well on your way to making your strategy actionable.

 

[1] Oreg, S., Vakola, M., & Armenakis, A. (2011). Change Recipients’ Reactions to Organizational Change: A 60-Year Review of Quantitative Studies. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 47(4), 461–524.

 

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