Facilitating executive teams as they develop their business strategies is one of my favorite things to do.  I love learning about shifting dynamics in individual industries and about macro-trends that cut across all industries. I get charged up when a client connects the dots and sees a unique opportunity to create competitive advantage. I get enthused when someone identifies a single project that will help them accomplish two or three of the most important things their business needs. I just lose all my enthusiasm in an instant when they start talking to employees about strategy as a series of projects that will be executed by an elite group at head office.

Most leaders take the average employee out of the strategy equation. They make strategy execution the exclusive domain of the top brass and a few high performers (more often than not found in corporate functions). Every employee should play a role in executing a new strategy. If you’ve been excluded, you need to insert yourself back in.

Strategic projects do not equal strategy

Leaders often make the mistake of thinking of the 5, or 10, or 50 strategic projects that came out of the strategic planning process as the strategy. As an employee, you hear about these activities, pause briefly to determine which affect you, and then mostly go back to doing your job as you always did.  If you’re not involved in a strategic project, you think you’re not involved in executing the strategy.  What a waste!

What should strategy look like?

Strategy isn’t just about projects, its’ about insight; about the unique way your organization will leverage its strengths to succeed in the current and future business environment.  Those insights translate into imperatives for your organization—the things you must do to be successful.  Maybe you’re one of the many companies that is transforming itself from a product company into a service company. Perhaps you’re a service business that needs to grow by getting more lines of service into each client. Maybe you’re a manufacturing company that needs to drive out excess cost to remain competitive.

Now imagine the townhall meeting where your leaders roll out the new strategy. They herald your inspiring new vision statement, unfurl a banner with the BHAG (a Jim Collins style Big Hairy Audacious Goal), and quickly pass over the strategic imperatives (such as the example above of getting more lines of service into each client).  Even with music and hoopla, that’s done in about 18 minutes.

Then what do they do?  They spend the remainder of the half-day meeting with a  series of talking heads presenting all the projects that they have funded to make the strategy a reality.  In the service company example, perhaps they are launching a big program around cross-sell.  They are building a new ad campaign, refreshing the marketing material, and changing the incentives for the salesforce. You work in Delivery Operations and are relieved to hear that you’re off the hook for this strategy.  The marketing and sales folks have got it and you can just carry on.

Wait, what? That doesn’t make any sense. Your service company is changing strategy and they think they can do it without involving the people who deliver the service?!?  That’s nuts! But it’s also an incredibly common issue.  Strategy becomes about the project, not about the imperative. It becomes an action that a few employees need to do rather than a lens that all employees need to look through.  It becomes something with a start, a middle, and a finish, rather than something enduring.  It becomes something for the corporate folks not for the people who are in the core business.

Sure, new ads, new brochures, and compensation plans will do something to encourage a client to try a new service, but they won’t change the behavior of the majority of the clients. If you really want to get more services into each client, you need to capitalize on all the interactions the Delivery Operations people have with the client.

If you went to work every morning and asked yourself, “how can I get more clients using more services,” that would make a significant difference.  And if every Operations person did the same, now you’d be really cooking.  You’d get WAY more traction with your strategy than if you just stuck with the strategic project and sent out some new brochures.

I would guess that many organizations fritter away 50% or more of the power of their strategy by focusing solely on projects and by making 90% of employees feel like the strategy is something they don’t have to worry about.

Your part

When your organization rolls out a new strategy, make sure you can answer the following questions:

  • What can I do to help my organization execute better in the spot we’re in today? What are the non-strategic, but incredibly important priorities for our business?
  • What can I do to prepare my organization for success in the future as the industry and the customer evolve? What are the strategic imperatives and how would embracing them change what I do everyday?

If your manager can’t answer, ask someone else. It’s a great question for a townhall.  “I’m really excited to hear our new strategy. I’m not sure I see myself in the projects you’ve talked about.  How can I contribute to executing this strategy?”

Great organizations mobilize every employee to help them execute their strategy. The imperatives become mantras and each person looks for opportunities every day to make them a reality.  Inclusive strategy is powerful strategy. Inclusive strategy gets results.

Further Reading

Are you helping or hindering with strategy? A Quiz

Running a great strategic meeting

How can I be seen as more strategic