A company is an organism. It lives and grows. Introducing new strategy into the organism can rejuvenate and strengthen the entire system. It can also choke the system at different points, preventing the organism from thriving. I’ll spare you the sickness and death metaphors. I’m sure you get the idea.
There are 7 Choke Points of Strategy Implementation. When you first read the list you’ll think, “that’s pretty obvious.” Good. If you know they’re out there you have a fighting chance to avoid them. However, unless you specifically address these points when developing your strategy it’s very likely you’ll create the choke points before you get to implementation stage. Yes, you create the problems, just like you create the conditions for success.
In the end, as in the beginning, it all has to do with people.
If your Corporate Strategy is not being effectively implemented it’s because your people either…
- Don’t know it.
- Don’t understand it.
- Don’t agree with it.
- Don’t feel attached to it.
- Don’t have a process to improve it.
- Don’t have a framework to bring it down to a tactical level.
- Don’t have benchmarks to navigate it.
At the onset of your strategic development process, when the executive team is working on its Strategic Mandate and before the (hopefully) expanded development team begins generating insights and ideas, list the 7 Choke Points of Strategy Implementation on the whiteboard. Consider your top line tactics to avoid the choke points. Along with your key objectives, these are your development guideposts. Don’t forget about them. Refer to them at each stage. Before you melt the wax and press your seal on the final document, go back one more time to make sure the 7 Choke Points won’t end up squeezing the life out of your strategy. Sorry, that was one last metaphor I couldn’t resist.
A great strategy unimplemented is as useless as having no strategy. Get this part right.
Choke Point 1: Don’t know it.
How many times have you heard stories of CEO’s, incognito, asking employees what makes their company different and getting wildly different responses, none of which were correct? That hurts. It’s happened in my consulting gigs working with the C-Suite of billion dollar organizations where executives could not articulate the corporate strategy or agree on its fundamentals. That really hurts. I actually had one senior executive approach me to apologize after I revealed the misalignment on their team. He was embarrassed. He was pissed off. He was also inspired to rethink how the team and the company can work together. He now runs that corporation, by the way.
Not knowing the strategy is a symptom of two endemic problems – little or no employee engagement through the process of developing strategy, and weak communication. It usually happens in companies where the CEO or a groupthink management team insist on formulating corporate strategy in isolation. Let’s be honest. We’ve all seen it or have ourselves been guilty of thinking alone in our box. It doesn’t work well. Even when the strategy looks brilliant, it’s not worth the napkin it’s written on if it fails to be executed by the people responsible for making it happen.
You can’t share every detail with your employees. Some elements of the strategy and the information that supports it should remain secret. New product development, new markets, new technology, new acquisition. These are closely guarded until the right time so as not to alert competitors. Your employees get that. Although, within those secrets are critical strategic issues that everyone in your organization has to know about and help address.
The very basics of your strategy, the fundamentals that drive your business, must be well communicated to everyone in your company so that your people are informed and enabled to contribute their part, however big or small that might be.
Choke Point 2: Don’t understand it.
Strategy isn’t best communicated by only a memo. Even if it is extremely well written, which it never is, there are too many nuances that don’t make it onto paper. You also can’t rely solely on executives to pass it along to managers who explain it to supervisors who have a staff meeting and later get the full-timers to explain it to the part-timers when they show up for a shift. Playing broken telephone was a riot when we were kids and probably pretty funny when we were experimental teenagers. As business leaders, not so much.
One of the most important jobs of the development team, in addition to formulating the strategy, is the creation of a plan to communicate the strategy throughout the organization. More specifically, to decide who needs to know what, when, and how they should be told. Think of the work that goes into a marketing plan. Segmenting customer groups, treating high value customers differently, multi-channel messaging. Same thing goes for communicating corporate strategy to your employees. Different areas need different information. Certain departments and people have to be brought on board sooner than others. It may not be efficient or even possible to gather employees in the field for a work session. Find other ways to reach and engage those people. Like any great marketing program, communicating strategy requires a combination of outbound efforts integrated with feedback mechanisms and reinforcement messaging.
It’s not just about a comprehensive communications plan, of course. The way you speak about the strategy has to make sense to your audience. If they don’t understand it in a language that they’re used to hearing, they won’t get it. For example, that young MBA you hired may be all excited about his new “strategic imperatives” but dude on the production line wants to hear where he should spend more of his time and why that’s going to make his life better.
This is where a good corporate communications person is vital. Even if your company doesn’t have that role, you surely have marketing resources who can put their expertise to good use.
Choke Point 3: Don’t agree with it.
You believe you have a well articulated strategy; communicated in a way that everyone knows what it is and totally understands what you’re saying. But they don’t agree with it.
No matter what you do, not everyone will agree with your strategy.
That’s okay. As long as you did your pre-launch homework.
Before you officially launched your strategy did you check that everyone on your development team agrees with it? What about your board? Your advisors? Key employees? Close suppliers? Trusted customers? Just because a few people don’t agree with the strategy doesn’t make it wrong, even at the pre-launch stage. In fact, you might find many people won’t agree with it. Despite what the industry was doing, and what analysts were saying at the time, IBM transformed itself from a hardware company into a services company and never looked back. It took time and Herculean strength to make that shift. When a radio station switches format overnight, most stakeholders think the strategy, or more specifically, the person who decided on that strategy, is crazy. Sometimes that’s true; but when you take an underperforming business based on a short-sighted strategy and transform it into a money-making enterprise with long-term potential, you’ll be lauded as a genius.
The benefit of hearing from people who don’t agree with the strategy before you launch is that it acts as an early warning system. Drill down. Ask specific questions about their reasons for disagreeing. Listen to their answers. Perhaps more importantly, listen carefully to how you answer their questions. Can you respond quickly, clearly and convincingly? Can you support the strategy with evidence? Use these points to identify and address potential gaps in either your strategy or your communication.
If you’re coming up short, have the team return to the insights you used to formulate the strategy and examine their validity. Can the insights be trusted? Did you interpret them correctly? If any decisions are based on weak insights, put your heads together to conceive of quick, efficient ways to gather and test new insights that strengthen the foundation of your strategic decisions. Time and money are big factors so you have to balance the risk of delaying launch against the risk of implementation failure.
Choke Point 4: Don’t feel attached to it.
While general agreement from your employees is important, you need more than their heads to ensure successful implementation… you need their hearts. People work harder when they are emotionally attached to their work.
Involve as many people in the strategic development process as possible and as early as possible. This is how you create corporate-wide ownership of the strategy. Development team members have people and departments that report to them. In essence, each member is representing a larger group of employees with insights, opinions, experience and expertise that you can use throughout the development of your strategy. Leverage those relationships! Development team members should leave work sessions with homework for their teams. Researching, testing, calibrating. These are best done by groups outside of the development team and frees up team members’ time for quality thinking.
Find the Sparks in your company; the opinion leaders who command attention from co-workers. Get them on side early. No matter what their position on the totem pole, Sparks can either spread the fires of discontentment or rev up your engine. Take the time to help them understand the underlying reasons for your strategic direction. Give Sparks the basis to believe and they will influence others to believe. Keep in close contact. Demonstrate your appreciation of their unique role and you will have harnessed a powerful force to build support of your strategy.
Getting your people passionately supportive of strategy isn’t easy. It takes a consistent and persistent effort, best delivered through multiple touch-points. For simplicity sake, this can fall under three categories:
Big Messages: Communications from the core development team that lay the foundation for the corporate strategy, keep employees aware of overall progress, ignites enthusiasm and stimulates feedback.
- Corporate wide
- High level
- Key Stages
- In process
- Post launch
Focused Messages: Communications from managers that translate Big Messages for departments and staff.
- Department and/or topic specific
- In depth, as appropriate
Engagement: Involve people outside of the core strategy development team to provide input or support the team’s work.
- Feedback Mechanisms
- Big Messages: Collect feedback through online surveys so the core team can quickly assess and utilize the input.
- Focused Messages: Feedback should flow up through managers who are better equipped to address specific issues.
Choke Point 5: Don’t have a process to improve it.
Your strategy is not perfect. If you involved the right people in its development and did your homework you’ve dramatically upped the odds in your favour. The foundation of your strategy – your Purpose and Core Values – may never change. Just don’t carve anything else in stone. Instead, establish a process to improve the strategy throughout implementation and beyond.
Basically speaking, only two major forces will push your strategy around.
One, your world changes. This change might be an external disruption. A competitor surprises the market, and you, by launching a remarkably better product, service or business model. A new technology changes the game. Terrorists convert commercial airliners into tactical weapons. It can also be an internal disruption. Deadly bacteria is found in your meat processing plants. Raw sewage from the city’s largest ever concert backs up and turns your entire inventory into garbage. Your key executives were on that unfortunate plane. All of this has happened and thrown affected companies into a spin cycle. Some recovered and some did not. As much as you can be prepared, you simply can’t be prepared for anything.
The other force is less dramatic but quite insidious. The good news is that you can turn it into a huge plus. Employees far removed from your boardroom will see things right away that can slow or even derail the implementation of your strategy. Rather than having them complain or shrug off the failure of management to understand their street-level challenges, give employees a mechanism to identify issues, generate potential solutions and share their insights with managers who have the authority and mindset to take appropriate action. While your strategy works on paper it will definitely need tweaking as it moves through implementation. That’s called Learning and Adapting.
The following chart depicts a proven high level process used for collaborative problem solving but is equally applicable for Learning and Adapting. Just fill in the operational procedures to get you from one stage to the next.
The beauty of a such a process is that once properly deployed, it always exists as an open channel for improvement and innovation. It helps makes companies great by creating a perpetual and proprietary pool of new thinking and the means to act on it. It also helps smooth the rough spots of your strategy to accelerate it through implementation.
Choke Point 6: Don’t have a framework to bring it down to a tactical level.
Great strategy on paper can easily fail in the field if it isn’t translated into tactics. Managers and employees need to know how the new strategy changes what they do on a day-to-day basis. How does it affect reporting, customer service procedures, production? Does it require new metrics, new marketing plans, a new greeting on the voice mail system? How much time are these changes going to take, who is responsible and how does everyone know they’re doing the right things?
Since your strategy development team includes some of the people who understand what will be required at the tactical level, you should be fine. They won’t have all of the answers but enough to identify potential hurdles and solutions. To avoid dragging your development team, and other executives, into the minutiae, give some thought to setting parameters for tactical implementation that will help guide managers and employees as they translate the final plan into their reality.
Any way you look at it, strategy means change. How much change is dependant upon two attributes of your strategy:
- How different it is; and
- How new it is.
How different; as in “how different is this strategy for your industry?” If there is no precedent it means there is no one available within the industry to help you in the execution. You’re going to borrow from other industries as well as making it up as you go along. Exciting stuff.
How new; as in “how new is the strategy for your company?” You’ll draw on capabilities and skill sets you might have never utilized before. It could mean new processes and ways of working together. Very revitalizing.
Change always has both benefits and risks. As long as you’re cognizant of the potential risks, you can find ways to mitigate or overcome them before they turn into problems. A simple way of looking at it is by charting your strategy against the degree of change it demands. On the extremes, the risk is always highest. Too little change and you risk giving your competitors an opportunity to catch up. Too much change and you might run into debilitating resistance from employees, board members, even suppliers. I’m not suggesting you find a cozy spot in the middle. You do what’s best for your company. As long as you know what to expect you’ll gain the insights to deal with it, in advance.
As part of your strategic implementation plan, package up guidelines, metrics, expectations and examples for your managers to work more effectively with their teams. Empower your people to be creative by inviting them to build on the strategic foundation you’ve built. Establish channels for ideas to flow top down and bottom up. Their tactical input will fortify the strategic framework to deliver better results today and position your company for continued long-term success.
Choke Point 7: Don’t have benchmarks to navigate it.
You obviously have metrics that you’ll use to assess the performance of your strategy. Right? Right. Before you can measure performance of your strategy you have to implement your strategy. Have you incorporated those metrics into your plan?
Implementing strategy takes time and resources. You can track both dimensions to measure progress, costs and highlight issues that need to be addressed quickly. You‘ll also use these metrics to evaluate internal processes, helping your organization become better, smarter and faster. Two benefits for the price of one. It’s a great deal.
Details bog down strategy development but are essential to bringing that strategy to life. That’s why during development of your strategy it’s advantageous to spin off a small team of three people to formulate the implementation plan and benchmarks. This gives them an opportunity to focus on the internal issues of implementation that get missed by the core strategy development team.
The objective is to create a set of measures that…
- include milestones to help everyone, from the top down, pinpoint their progress against expectations;
- features simple triggers that direct employees and management to take appropriate action in a timely manner; and
- is followed up by a learning module to improve and permanently embed better processes in the organization.
A valuable metric that begins during implementation, and extends weeks or months beyond it, is Adoption. It’s difficult to measure Adoption based on hard numbers alone, but if you have included feedback mechanisms through the strategy development phase, you can continue to use those channels to tap into your employees. Asking the right questions of the right people at the right time will reveal crucial insights that directly impact the successful implementation of your strategy.
To keep it simple and quick for executives, Adoption is best measured as positive or negative. Either it’s working or it’s not. The grey areas in between are for managers to address and correct, or recommend solutions that require executive decision-making. There are three dimensions to track – Days off schedule, percentage off performance and whether feedback is mostly positive or mostly negative. The first two are quantifiable. The third, Feedback, means someone is interpreting survey and anecdotal data to apply a value. It’s not scientific. It’s not meant to be. Do you really want to spend resources generating a mathematical quotient when you have a strategy to implement? This is a proactive measure designed to spotlight issues so management can quickly get things back on the rails.
Each dimension for measuring Adoption has its own trigger. For example, executives might not consider the schedule an issue until its three days late. Performance – such as sales, delivery times, cost containment, or whatever you choose to measure based on your industry, company and business model – may draw your attention if its 0.5% off target. Feedback can be a combination of questions asked through surveys featuring a scorecard approach, some open-ended questions to understand why there might be an issue, as well as proactive communications between managers and their staff. Each week, in the boardroom, you want to look at a stripped down Adoption report:
When everything is positive, you move onto other discussions. When something is negative, deal with it. The combination of positives and negatives will help to zero in on possible Choke Points or strategic development issues.
By asking you get insights. When you get insights you can address problems. Provide benchmarks and you’re giving your people tools to measure their own progress and indicators for you to help successfully navigate the implementation of your strategy.
Creating The Conditions for Successful Implementation of Strategy
- Engage as many people in the organization as possible to contribute to strategy development, even when its just compiling information.
- Communicate the direction and reasoning of your strategy in a way that makes sense to each audience.
- Listen to what’s being said and learn from others in your organization who are responsible for bringing the strategy to life.
- Help to bring the strategy closer to the minds and hearts of your people by developing a multi-channel, two-way communications program.
- Provide a simple method to share thinking up and down the organization.
- Establish a framework that empowers managers and employees translate the strategy into their workday.
- Measure what you do, how you do it and be proactive.