Often organisations spend a lot of time talking about strategy… Developing strategic plans… Trying to engender a culture of strategic thinking… Building ownership of the strategy amongst staff. And so on.
This makes complete sense: good strategy is critical for success. It’s our road-map into the future, towards our goals and aspirations.
And, to be honest, 60-70% of the work I’ve done in the past decade or so has been about helping clients develop new strategies — so I can’t very well pooh-pooh it!
However… There are three problems with many organisational strategies:
- A strategy is only as good as its execution.
- We often seen strategy as a something narrow, but actually, everything in our organisation is (or should be) connected to it.
- Strategy is equated with a ’strategic plan’ when it needs to be a living thing.
1. Where the rubber meets the road: implementers’ heads and hearts
Strategy comes to life in implementation. And it can be implemented best if the people tasked with doing so: (a) understand it, (b) buy into it, and (c) have the skills to make it happen.
Surprisingly often, organisations develop strategies that make sense to top management, but are completely disconnected from the people who have to implement them (field staff, sales people, design teams, etc.). This is not a recipe for success.
It’s also why working hard to get real participation and engagement in the strategy development process matters. As does proper preparation for implementation (upskilling, coaching, or whatever else line managers and other frontline staff need).
2. Walking the talk: strategy and congruence
It’s a mistake to espouse human rights while treating your staff like vassals and drones.
It’s ridiculous to talk about creating a welcoming, human environment for the customer when employees ooze resentment from every pore. (Some Home Affairs offices spring to mind.)
It’s difficult to foster collaboration and build functional teams if your rewards system encourages cut-throat competition.
Strategy isn’t just about what we do, and how we do it — it’s an expression of who we are, or who we want to become.
Alignment between your organisational culture and the heart of your strategy is an essential ingredient for success. Without this, implementation becomes an exhausting, uphill battle.
And culture isn’t the only factor. Alignment between brand and the strategy is key, but so are many other things, which include: your location; your office layout; your internal systems; communication channels (digital and others); and so on. All of these things could facilitate, or undermine, the implementation of your strategy. So, developing a new strategy involves looking at the whole organisational system, not just the ‘parts of the machine’ that will implement it. This is a step that’s surprisingly often skipped.
3. The plan versus the strategy
Some NGOs develop strategic plans because other people want them to: donors; consultants; the development industry at large.
The same is sometimes true of businesses, which may need to placate boards, shareholders, and, in times of confusion, broadcast the message, “We know what we’re doing and where we’re going!”
On the other hand, some organisations see strategic planning as a panacea: “The right strategy will give us direction, clarity and solve all our problems.” And it is true that strategic plans can be helpful.
In the final analysis though, a strategic plan is just a document: a document we intend to implement; or just a thing we make to show the board, the shareholders, or the back-donor.
Famously though, no plan survives contact with reality.
A written plan is necessary and useful for institutional memory, but your actual strategy is a mental model — a shared analysis of your context, a clear sense of who you are and what you are becoming, and a fair degree of shared direction and intention — that is held by leaders, managers, and (ideally) all staff.
This complex idea becomes a key guide for how people respond to changing circumstances and navigate the rough terrain of the real world (which is usually unpredictable and doesn’t follow 5-year plans).
It enables managers to take good, quick decisions, without endless consultation, because they have internalised the strategy and can play out the likely consequences for themselves. Building a robust, shared strategy is far better than any dusty and underused document, no matter how impressive it may look, or how attractive the layout and the catch-phrases.
This is certainly a harder thing to achieve, though far from impossible.
I’d welcome your thoughts on this post — and your ideas about other pitfalls that organisations encounter and how to deal with them. Please comment below, or on one of my social media channels.
Or, if you’d like talk about your organisation’s strategy, culture or general health, feel free to drop me a line.