Leading to Get Strategy in Play
Getting the simple and demanding things right
A white paper by purpleworks
Why are so many good strategies poorly executed? What makes talented leaders (who passionately believe in the strategy) unable to get their people to buy in? At the heart of the matter is the gap between a strategy on paper and the strategy alive and acted on by your people and experienced by your customers.
This paper challenges you to think differently and suggests powerful ways to get your strategy in play.
- Strategy is the set of choices that a business makes about how it will compete and separate itself out from other players.
- The strategy should explicitly address the point of difference that makes the business distinctive. It’s about competing to be different to gain a competitive advantage in the market, build value and grow.
- To put a strategy together requires a holistic view and coherent thinking about the business as a whole, taking into account a 360 degree view of its external environment, current reality and the way the business works. It’s what we call “the big picture”.
What do we mean by “Getting strategy in play”?
Getting strategy in play is a leadership job. It’s about putting the strategy into the
hands of every employee, having them go for it and sustaining it.
Leaders must set the direction of the business and create the conditions to get people on board. And then bridge the gap between the strategy – as a theoretical concept - and having people live it day-to-day. In reality, strategy is only relevant and building value - when it is active.
Developing the strategy requires a thorough process that culminates in the executive team or leadership team reaching a point where there is a shared understanding of the strategy –an understanding that can be articulated by each team member, in a confident and consistent way.
Then comes the difficult part of bringing the strategy to life and keeping it alive and well. This relies on continuously working on the approach to the vital elements of getting the strategy in play.
This is a dynamic approach to working on a joined up, interconnected system of elements, each of which is vital to making things work and each of which needs to be variously addressed by the leadership team. This is not a linear or sequential process.
Depending on the specific circumstances of the business, the emphasis on each ‘element’ will be different and change as progress is made and the business grows. Changing the mix will affect how well the strategy is kept in play.
Although the core strategy will likely remain constant for long periods, the ways it is ‘repeatedly’ put in play will shift and this will require different emphasis on the elements. Some level of constant and consistent action (not dissimilar to keeping plates spinning) is essential on each.
Here we consider the role and importance of each of the elements, how they need to be led and the pitfalls to be avoided. How well these elements are ‘orchestrated’ and ‘conducted’ will determine the degree of success in getting the strategy in play.
The 7 elements are simple and demanding. Often, businesses underinvest in them, misunderstand them, or overlook some elements completely. When this happens, leaders face delays in getting the strategy in play or, ultimately, never deliver the potential that the strategy promises – the majority of strategy implementations fail.
1. Agree the Current Reality
The leadership team reviews, assesses and agrees the Current Reality of the business. This can be done at any time – particularly when the strategy is being reviewed/developed, a new CEO has joined, faster growth is needed, or, ahead of an acquisition or merger…
- What differentiates the business and what is its position in the market? How clear is the direction of travel? What are the goals?
- Who are the key customers and sectors? Why do they buy from the business?
- Who are the major competitors? How does the business compete today?
- What is prioritised and why? What is measured and why?
- Take a “Past, Present & Future” snapshot – what are the major trends? What is changing for the business?
- How is the business structured and organised to compete? What makes up the cost base?
- How does the business actually work – what are its main activities? What is the value chain?
- Who are the major stakeholders? What is the status of these relationships? What’s at stake?
- What is the maturity and approach to leading of the Executive team?
- What is the prevailing culture? Who are the people working in the business? (Demographics/skills, knowledge and experience/preferences)
Although it’s basic and simple, once all of these questions have been answered, conduct a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) to bring the big picture together in a straightforward and powerful way.
After the leadership team agree and accept the Current Reality, they are better able to look at the business as one, joined up enterprise in the context of its prevailing state. This becomes the backdrop to formulating and understanding the strategy.
You have to know where you are, to get to where you want to get to.
- Moving too quickly into business planning, without truly understanding the full context of the business.
- Being blindsided or having tunnel vision about the truth of the Current Reality. Sometimes executives fail to recognize a competitive threat to the business or fail to see the reality of dysfunction or underlying inefficiency in their business.
- Making assumptions about the Current Reality, without checking or discussing things as a team
2. Leaders form a shared understanding of the strategy
This is about the leadership team getting clarity on what the strategy is (and isn’t) and its implications.
The team needs to answer the following questions in a common and consistent way:
What’s the Prize?
(Why are we going for it and what does it mean?)
What choices are we making to be unique?
(How are we separating ourselves out other players? How are we positioning ourselves as distinctive in our market?)
What’s at stake?
(What are we prepared to risk and what will happen if we did nothing?)
What do we need our people to do differently?
(What are the priority activities and expected behaviours? Do we need more, less or different people?)
What do we need to do to enable and equip our people to deliver?
(What skills and knowledge do our people need and what resources and tools do they have?)
It’s important to check that the leadership team members each reach a shared and consistent understanding of the answers – answers that they are confident to articulate and discuss with their management teams. This will usually require several conversations around the differences between their individual responses.
Articulating the strategy
The next step is to write down the essence of the strategy in a few words. The strategy needs to describe the choices that the business is making to compete in the market and how the business will be distinctive, to create an advantage.
This will increase the level of the leaders alignment and consistency around it. This is the beginning and certainly not “job done”!
Achieving a shared and consistent understanding can have a transforming effect on the leadership team’s performance. When minds meet, they don’t just exchange facts: they transform, reshape and engage in new trains of thought, binding the team together.
Equipped with this shared understanding, the leadership team are prepared to move on to explore and discuss the options to get the strategy into the hands of their people.
It comes down to this:
What are we trying to accomplish? What is the prize and how are we going to win it?
- Not going deeply enough, resulting in individual leaders holding on to different meanings
- Failing to write the strategy down (it’s surprising how many companies have this situation!) Conversely, referring to a 70-slide PowerPoint presentation or lengthy spreadsheet filled with numbers as “The Strategy”
- Referring to targets (e.g. increase sales by 10%) as the strategy
- Underinvesting in articulating what people need to do differently
- Politics or dysfunction amongst the leaders gets in the way of a meeting of minds and shared understanding.
3. Create the conditions for buy-in
People activate strategies. They do this best when the right conditions are in place within the business they work for. Leaders need their people to be both aligned and engaged. Both require people to make their own choice and adapt what and how they will do things accordingly.
They choose to bring their energy, commitment, passion, skills, knowledge and experience and put them to use in the business they work for. This is often referred to as ‘engagement’.
Engagement on its own does not create value and does not help get strategy in play - unless there is alignment to the direction of the business.
People also choose whether they want to follow the direction, plans and priorities of a business and action their efforts ‘in line’ with this. This is often referred to as ‘alignment’ and from the business perspective, this always needs to come first.
It’s possible to be aligned but not engaged (e.g. in a dull, regimented administrative business), or, engaged but not aligned (in a field that inspires passion such as music or sport). A successful business needs both.
Because people need to make personal choices on whether to buy in or not, it’s not something that leaders can simply tell their people to do. But leaders have the power to create the conditions that support and encourage alignment and engagement to occur.
People have a set of basic requirements (conditions) for getting involved and fully committed to pretty much anything – these relate very closely to the basic stages of how the mind works in learning. The closer we can re-create these conditions in the workplace, the more likely that the right people will choose to buy in and bring their unique skills and experience to bear on delivering the strategy.
- The Big Picture – The extent to which people are given the opportunity to understand the overall purpose, direction and goals of the business, how things work and are joined up. And what that means for them, so that they can choose the level of commitment the want to make or not
- The Right Information – the availability and ease of access to the right information that people need to do what is expected of them - to do their job!
- The Day-to-Day way of working – the nature of the ways that people collaborate and relate to customers, each other and managers. The degree to which there is openness and collaboration.
- Decision taking – the way in which this happens, how people are involved, the role of managers, and the speed with which it happens. Decision-making should follow naturally from recognizing what needs to be done (not issued as orders).
- Putting things into action – The extent to which people are encouraged to try things out, learn from mistakes and take responsibility for their actions.
- Measuring outcomes – the appropriateness and clarity of the measures used, the visibility and frequency of updates and people’s understanding of how to impact them. Recognising good performance and confronting poor performance.
Making time for the leadership team to discuss these conditions, and then acting on the outcome is a powerful approach to improving the way the business is set up and help people to buy-in. This needs to be continuously and progressively addressed.
How to get more of your
people, doing more of the things required to action the strategy, more of the time.
- Focusing on employee engagement and overlooking the importance of building alignment to the strategy. The business needs both.
- Making engagement an HR initiative and basing it on an employee survey.
- Referring to targets (e.g. increase sales by 10%) as the strategy
- Investing in communicating the strategy, but forgetting the reality of employees’ day-to-day experiences (touch points with the business).
4. Communicating the Strategy
With the strategy articulated, the leadership team must lead on communicating it to everyone across the business. And they need to take a strategic and modern approach to how this is done. The days of expecting top-down transmission of information and ‘orders to work’ are over!
The business may have a small number of people, hundreds, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people. It may be possible to get everyone in one place at one time or it may need to involve everyone across multiple divisions/sub-brands, sites, countries and cultures over as short a time as possible.
Whatever the scale of the business, the best starting point is to stand in the shoes of the people. Think about the way they experience the business through the many touch points or moments of truth they have each day and how these influence the way they understand the strategy.
The next step is about creating a ‘big picture’ of the business situation and strategy. One that can, literally, be seen. This is a powerful and fast way of involving people and orientating them to where their contribution fits in.
Imagine putting together a large jigsaw puzzle without the picture on the lid of the box. The picture shows what needs to be assembled and helps make sense of where the pieces fit – without it, most people would lose interest and give up!
In business, people may have a few, or even all of the pieces. But, without the big picture, they are in the dark when it comes to making sense of the strategy.
So, the way the strategy is put across must give people context and meaning that is relevant to what’s involved and what they need to do (differently).
The most effective approach
The challenge is to design the most effective approach to help people ‘get it’ faster, acquire new skills and adapt their behaviour to deliver the strategy. This requires a strategic communications plan that takes into account 3 dimensions:
- Content – the information that needs to be put across
- Interaction – the ways in which people will be able to access & interact with content
- Behaviours – the leadership/management behaviours required to support understanding.
The plan needs to be owned by the CEO and leadership team and include milestones and ongoing checkpoints for evaluating progress. This is not one for delegating, it’s central to the success of the strategy.
The information, messages and ideas to be communicated to people – it must be in context, short, clear and relevant. It should include the purpose, direction, priorities, goals, objectives and measures of performance. And also a framework for the ‘news’ e.g. progress, points for action, people and policy.
The need is to keep content to a minimum, join it up with coherent lines of reasoning and then give people enough opportunities to access it in ways that suit them.
The most common pitfall is to ‘pump’ too much content into the business – relevance is lost and people’s capacity to absorb information exceeded. The result is that people get confused, overwhelmed or miss the point of what the leaders are trying to get across.
Here lies huge potential for differentiation.
Make the strategy experiential for people – demanding! The game has changed and the approach to making things interactive has moved beyond guesswork and clever ideas. It’s become a source of differentiation that speeds up the changes and adaptation needed to get the strategy in play.
This is about creating and designing the best opportunities for people to access and understand the ‘content’. It involves careful choice of the format (e.g. written word, visual, audio, physical design etc.), channels (e.g. intranet, email, social media, physical environment, webcast, team meeting etc.) and opportunities to access (e.g. mobile device, desktop, printed material, conversations etc.)
People learn in different ways and they have different preferences for how they like to access their content. It’s important to make the best use of the available media, apply a modern understanding of how the mind works (e.g. applying an understanding of multiple intelligences) and provide simple tools for people to work with (e.g. creating situations to listen to people, in the context of conversations about the strategy).
Each business has its own social organisation with unique culture and norms.
Primarily, the focus is on the behaviour of leaders, how others observe them and the experience it creates for everyone. Observed behaviour directly shapes people’s decisions on what matters, what’s expected, what needs to be prioritized and how they themselves need to behave.
The leadership team needs to discuss and agree how they are going to behave and the things they want to change and avoid in their behaviour. Then they must set their expectations of the behaviour of the leaders and managers involved in getting the strategy in play.
Ultimately, the way leaders go about things has a huge effect on what gets delivered.
Learning takes hold and “sticks” in the human mind much more effectively if it is repeated, rather than a one off. This is vital. It’s not about rote learning, but about circling an issue and coming at it from multiple and fresh ways. People need to have different experiences of what it means and do this repeatedly.
Great leaders know that their role is to repeat, reinforce and go deeper into conversations with people on the strategy over time.
- Failing to tell a simple and compelling story that inspires and encourages people to take part
- Drowning people in information, too many competing messages or creating endless lists of things to be done
- A one-off strategy “launch” in the style of a “show & tell” by management
- Not understanding how people take information in, what they need and the process of choosing to buy in
5. Check for understanding
A good test for whether the strategy has been effectively understood is whether it makes it easier for people to make decisions on the right things to do (and not do) to action the strategy.
Einstein’s words shed light on how to measure (or perhaps not) this largely intangible matter. Because getting strategy in play is driven by human activities - intangible measures are needed, as well as tangible metrics.
Some leaders experience discomfort with this approach, preferring to anchor measurement in the realm of survey data, analytics and quantitative analysis, even if the reports are abstract and, arguably, meaningless.
Whatever approach is taken, the leadership team needs to know what the understanding is at the grass roots. They need an effective way to gain insight to the grass roots and avoid making assumptions that things are OK when people are, instead, pulling in different directions, feeling confused, disengaged or holding onto past priorities (in which they have a vested interest to maintain).
Better insight can be achieved by holding structured team-based discussions across the business, framed around “What does the strategy mean for your team?” This involves using simple materials covering the strategy, a common set of questions for discussion (e.g. What are we doing differently and why? What have we stopped doing? What new things have been learned?). What’s needed is a simple format that can be run by the team manager, with a way to capture peoples’ thoughts and conclusions.
The outcome is a more intangible/approximate way of assessing progress, based on a team review, rather than a set of data points. Feedback should be collated and passed to the leadership team on a regular basis. They need to prioritise conversations on the feedback in order to get a real sense of the extent to which there is buy in, or not, across the business.
Scheduling regular, structured check-ins for the leadership team gives the team space to assess and learn as new information comes to hand about how the strategy is playing out: what’s working with execution and what’s not, what needs fast-tracking or adjusting?
Customers, technology and the market continue to evolve and the strategy needs to be adapted to this in a dynamic way. All of this requires ongoing executive inquiry and active adjustment over time. And this change of behaviour usually requires a shift in mindset.
Ultimately, the leadership team needs to see evidence that more of their people, are doing more of the things required to deliver the strategy, more of the time
Not everything that counts
can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts.
- Announcing the strategy to all employees and thinking the job is done.
- Assuming that everyone has “got it” because the executive team has.
- Issuing a survey to all employees asking them: “Do you understand the strategy?”
- Focusing on detailed, statistical engagement surveys at the expense of a humanistic check-in on where people are at.
6. “Wire” for execution
As well as understanding the direction and plans of the business, it is also very important that people understand how the business works – what makes it tick and where the cash comes from and goes to.
This can be achieved by using a simple business model canvas and by creating a basic ‘wiring diagram’ for how money flows in, around and out of the business. If these are presented in a simple, stylised way they will be very helpful in completing people’s ‘big picture’ of the strategy in play (animated, digital models are fun and very effective).
The strategy needs to be wired into how the business works.
The annual business planning cycle is an important vehicle through which to do this and generally involves three levels of business planning:
- Taking a specific slice of the business (industry, functional, sector or other)
This planning will require the business to action the following issues consistently with the strategy, for example:
- Announcing a new strategy, but the existing funding and resource plans stay aligned to the old order.
- Long delays in freeing up key people and resources from day jobs and so failing to create momentum on the priorities that need to be advanced for the strategy to get in play
- Creating measures that people don’t understand or believe they can impact
- Falling down on project management – not being disciplined with project execution.
7. Equip to deliver
To get the strategy in play, people need to have the right capabilities, tools and resources to play their part in delivering the strategy.
The leadership team needs to direct the approach to equipping the business to deliver. The most powerful way to do this is, is through a Manager-led approach. This involves equipping managers with the most effective, highest quality tools and approaches to work with their people on the getting the strategy in play – management is back in vogue!
In the past, management development has ranged from, ‘just get on with it’ (OK for the naturals) to being sent off on expensive, time intensive, business school courses and, for a few, individual coaching. Budget constraints often mean that many managers miss out completely or they are faced with off-the-shelf courses or the ‘business textbook’ route. This is fine for those who learn this way but, for most, there isn’t the time or inclination.
Now, the emphasis is on more experiential learning from real-life on-the-job challenges that take less time, are more effective, work the team and get the job done. There is a new generation of developers exploiting the use of design principles, practical neuroscience, technology and sophisticated software to build powerful, easy-to-use management tools. Management learning and getting the strategy in play go hand in hand
The power of equipping managers with the tools to get the strategy across is that, once in the hands of a groundswell of managers, consistent action is rapidly multiplied and scaled across the whole business.
- Assuming that managers already have the skills and capability to lead the strategy into play with their people.
- Allowing consultants to lead the strategy deployment, rather than managers.
- Failing to invest in developing strategic and well-designed tools and approaches to help managers lead their teams.
The leadership team must address each one of the 7 vital elements to get the strategy in play, but not as a linear process of ticking them off, one at a time. A dynamic load balancing of activity is required. While the statement of strategy is likely to remain fixed for a period, each of the vital elements will be simultaneously “in play” and evolving to support it. The leadership team holds the levers that ‘change the mix’, allowing them to actively respond to new learning on what’s working (or not) and what’s shifting in the business.
The leaders most likely to be successful in getting the strategy in play will adopt the mindset that aligning and engaging people to the strategy is a strategic issue that needs to be managed and owned by the leadership team. This means developing a strategic plan for buy in and applying high levels of executive focus and time to it
The leadership team cannot reach every employee personally. They need to connect to the main body of employees through managers across the business. It follows that managers need to be equipped with the highest quality tools and approaches to work with their people - in a way that creates a consistent experience and understanding for people across the business.
At the heart of all this is understanding and articulating what the strategy requires people to do differently – the expected behaviours, new activities, different capabilities and new ways of working. This also requires leaders to address their own behaviours and understand the impact they have on the business.
As leaders expecting different outcomes, they must be prepared to explore uncharted territory, learn much more, experiment and, in the end, work it out for themselves.
Don’t expect different outcomes from doing the same things.