Getting a strategy on paper is often the easy job. Getting a company of people to act on it is a much tougher job. The toughest job of all, however, may be sustaining that strategy once it’s been launched.
There’s a huge temptation to abandon the new, uncomfortable, and unknown associated with executing change for well-established, comfortable, and known strategic actions. People say that, if you speak five languages and hit your thumb with a hammer, you will swear in your native language. The obvious point is that under stress or duress, we go back to what we know best.
We’ve found that the probability of sustained execution of strategy goes up significantly when you use five key insights and best practices.
- “From victim to advocate” mentality.The feelings of people along this spectrum begin with victimization and proceed through abdication, tolerance, exploration, intrigue, hope, and confidence, until people reach a state of advocacy. We’ve watched people go through this spectrum and have seen how it drives sustained execution. To move people from victim to advocate requires immersion in the struggle, envisioning new and better ways to do things, and being vested in seeing it through. This takes courage! Leaders need to answer this question: “What conditions do I have to create to move people from being detached and critical of this strategy to being willing to actually advocate for it when no one is watching?”It’s a matter of allowing people to pressure-test the intellectual strength of the strategy and develop an emotional connection.Execution results = intellectual confidence X emotional connection of peopleThe intellectual confidence comes from asking critical questions, and the emotional connection of ownership develops when you’re a member of the team that is solving these questions.
- “Feet to the fire,” or public accountability. Change leaders must create a public forum where leaders simply can’t show up unless they can showcase the changes, practices, habits, and behaviors that show the early wins of the new strategy. Most people often deliver on the new actions because they’re more worried about not having something to say than how well they’re effectively focusing on the future of the business! The fear of public embarrassment is a powerful motivator to push the strategic change levers after the launch. Putting public strategic change events on the calendar, similar to strategy review sessions, enhances a discipline of sustaining execution practices.
- Examples, examples, examples. When you’ve laid out a strategy for major change, people need to know “what it will look like if we are doing what we say we want to do.” The more we can make the examples real, the more people will understand how the change could translate into what they could do – and especially do differently! Offer a combination of examples so people know what the strategy “looks like” in full swing. Give examples of great wins, as well as things that didn’t quite measure up but where lessons were learned and the failure represented the ingredients of future success.
- Change the behaviors.It’s not easy to change behavior. Studies show that 90% of people who have serious heart issues don’t change their lifestyles to maintain their health after two years. If people can choose at a 90% level not to change enough to save their lives, how can we get people in business to change their business behaviors?Behavior change happens most successfully by speaking to people’s feelings, not their intellect. Cognitive scientist Howard Gardner tells us that to make people change behaviors, the change story must be:
- Easy to identify with,
- Emotionally resonant, and
- Evocative of positive experiences.
Healthcare workers who deal with the heart patients we mentioned find that the key to changing behavior is motivating them not with the fear of death, but with the joy of living.
- New standards that become personal contracts.We are seeing more companies sustain change by instituting new standards for everyone to follow. This includes behavioral ground rules and new operational standards that become non-negotiable and are shared by all.When people adopt new standards, they make actual commitments to each other. In the best organizations, they become operational, with behavioral contracts between people who don’t want to let each other down. In his new book, War (Twelve, 2010), Sebastian Junger tells countless stories of soldiers – young men who come from totally different backgrounds, who don’t like each others’ hairstyles, who back at home would be on opposite sides of a street fight – but who would give up their lives for the others in armed combat.It’s that fundamental issue – the personal contract – that links co-ownership of survival or success. Within an organization, this translates into two units that hold each other to a behavioral standard – not because they’re trying to outdo them but because they want the performance of the whole company to work. Each team makes decisions based on what is best for the group.So, yes, sustaining a strategy isn’t easy, but it’s possible with these five elements. However, if you’re missing even one of these, sustainment will very likely be as elusive for you as it is for most companies.