Strategy and the People Trap (and how not to fall in it)
As part of our work in developing strategy with organisations, we see a lot of strategies! We see some great ones; some pretty terrible ones; some which are so high-level that you can do anything and still be ‘on strategy’; and some with so much detail and granularity, all opportunity for innovation is dead before execution even started; and of course, everything in between. There’s a lot to say about the quality of strategies and the decision-making processes that have led the leadership team to arrive at the final product. But that’s not the bit which fascinates me most – that is reserved for the ‘people bit’.
When I look at a strategy, I (unsurprisingly) look at it through a psychology lens. The best strategy in the world becomes useless pretty quickly when not enough effort has gone into aligning people’s behaviour with the strategy. And this is where execution often goes wrong.
The very best strategies have the execution plan baked into them. This is a key (and often missed) element of the development process. But baking execution into a strategy is not what I want to dive into today: I want to talk about what happens after the strategy is developed. There are certain traps that I see organisations fall into when it comes to rolling out strategy which consistently sets the organisations up to fail. The good news however, is if you are currently in the middle of your execution process, and you’re not seeing the impact you want, there is still hope.
The best time to start making changes is now. And here are 3 top tips for how you can make changes which will have a big impact:
- Cascade the strategy to everyone in the organisation
A great way to think about strategy is that it is the smallest possible set of choices and decisions which will guide all other choices and decisions. I love this approach to thinking about strategy because it not only defines what a good strategy should look like, it also provides insight into what needs to happen during execution. Almost every person in every organisation makes choices every day about where they put their effort, how they treat customers, what information they share, the list goes on, so ensuring that they are set up for success – to make these decisions in line with the strategy – is critical. As part of any strategy launch, each leader needs to sit down with their team and bring the strategy to life in a way which makes sense to the team: strategy needs to be contextualised. What are the specific implications for each team? What behaviours will need focus? Why is this so important, and how will progress be measured? Getting people involved, empowering them, and setting them up for success is an ongoing process. And cascading strategy in a way which resonates with each team is a fundamental part of that.
- Don’t stop communicating once the strategy is launched.
Most organisations understand the importance of communicating the ‘why’ behind a strategic change. Some even understand that communication is a two-way street, and that the communication needs to be focused on really appealing to people’s hearts – as well as their minds – in the process. But what I see happening all too rarely, is communication about the strategy once the strategy has been launched. It almost seems as though once the strategy development process is completed, and the day of the launch has arrived, the leadership team enjoys a big sigh of relief and gets ‘back to work’. This however, is not how it works. Once the strategy development process is completed, the real work is just beginning. And communication is a big part of that. Communication around things like: quick wins, milestone wins, decisions made in line with strategy, areas which need focus, progress, stories about new behaviour and its impact, innovation in line with the new strategic goals, recruitment in line with strategy – are all things relating to strategy execution which cannot stop. Communication needs to be ongoing throughout the entire strategy execution period.
- Make change visible
There is a small opportunity window after a strategy launches during which the organisation ‘looks up’ and assesses whether or not anything is really going to change. And mostly, the assessment isn’t about words. To say it’s important for a leadership team to signal change is an understatement. If, once the strategy is presented, everything looks and feels the same as it did before the strategy was presented, a collective shrug of the shoulders will likely occur, and people will get back to their day-to-day work as it always was. Noticeable changes in leadership behaviour – in what is rewarded and recognised, in resource allocation, or in any other visible signs that things are now different – will need to happen quickly and consistently to make people believe. Getting leaders and influencers within the organisation to work together, and to strategically signal change throughout the organisation, is an absolute key to success.
Whether you are about to develop a new strategy, or you are in the middle of execution, ignore the ‘people factor’ at your peril. There is so much you can do to impact behaviour and set everybody in the organisation up for execution success! Feel free to reach out to me anytime to discuss this further. Good luck!