Successful Strategy Activation: Chalking the Field for Our People


Don MacLean
Managing Director
Root Learning


The biggest economic upheaval in 80 years is settling in. Most organizations have figured out that “waiting for things to get better” is not a viable strategy. In the simplest terms, the world that many of us still live in no longer exists. Our environment has dramatically changed, and it’s not going back. Futurists project a competitive landscape tighter than ever, sales growth largely from emerging markets, and the ushering in of an age of relentless innovation.

 

Today, the problem facing leaders is how to enable their people to quickly grasp the future by conveying how the playing field has changed, how those changes will affect the future, the organization’s unique response to these radical shifts, and how each person will need to change.

In our experience, three specific questions can act as chalk marks on the playing field to guide successful Strategy Activation through your people:

  • How do we change our mindset to fit the new worldview?
  • What “rules of the road” do we need so we can operationalize a new mindset?
  • What behaviors are necessary to make our new strategy work?

As you’re bringing someone on board your team, helping others do so, or moving into a new role yourself, keep three things in mind:

A “New Worldview”

A worldview is a personal value system that reflects how you interpret your world. It’s how we see our business, our company, our organization, and ourselves – our beliefs about the way our world works and our role and value in it.

A new worldview requires all of us to challenge our
assumptions and conclusions about what works and what doesn’t. We are all susceptible to “worldview blind spots” where we are slow to see the new world order or miss it altogether.

Often, these blind spots shut down Strategy Activation by preventing people from developing a new worldview that represents an honest assessment of current reality and a crystal-clear picture for the future.

Through dialogue, data, and critical conversations, any of us can challenge our past thinking and change long-standing conclusions on how our business works. This is easier said than done. None
of us will allow others to change our conclusions for us. We are the only ones who can do this. In our experience, people will tolerate the conclusions of their leaders, but they will act on their own.
If the strategic actions that we each take are going to change, we must first change our conclusions – change our worldview. The key is getting people to think rather than telling them what to think.

So getting a head start, managing the message, and helping others deliver is a good framework for improving success for both hiring managers and new employees – and the antidote to swimming alone.

Leaders who are adept at creating an authentic new worldview with their people often orchestrate a process where people can be engaged in critical marketplace thinking, understand their business as evolving systems, and craft “what-if” scenario thinking. Strategy Activation starts by recognizing that people’s worldview may start from the marketplace and work its way back, but the key is to provide the pace and sequence of critical thinking opportunities so each of us can change our conclusions from the inside out.

The “Rules of the Road”

So given that there’s a new worldview, organizations need to plan their response, to define the “rules of the road” by which they will navigate this new world order. There is often an open struggle and near-warfare over how new strategies should be operationalized. Most commonly, this warfare is among the businesses, functions, geographies, or any organizational structure that thinks it’s their job to say how the new strategy should work. Strategic practices vary, and almost everyone has to come up with a new game plan.

Any organizational strategy can mean a slow and difficult process to change the way work is done. One clear approach is to provide leaders a way to operationalize the strategy by placing change into three buckets.

  1. Hard lines are non-negotiable ways to work together, often decided at the senior level and continuously supported. These may include new ways for R&D to work with managers to commercialize new products, or defining new ways for functions and businesses to work together to create customer solutions.
  2. Guidelines are areas where boundaries or guard rails need to be established, but there is significant room to define exactly how to operationalize the strategy. For example, businesses now must make decisions on customer mega-trends to use in new offerings, where bets for the future are made. Guidelines are key, but the decisions reside at the business level.
  3. No lines are just that – yours to define, determined at the local level. You don’t wait for someone else to go first. To paraphrase Gandhi, “You have to be the change that you expect in others.”

As you develop your “rules of the road,” ask:

  • What are we doing together that we should continue doing together, and what are we doing together that
    is better done apart?
  • How do we enlist those closest to the customer in setting the way we operationalize the strategy, and
    how do the functions support its implementation?
  • What is the appropriate balance of risk and return?
  • How much risk do we want to take to achieve the optimal level of return?

It’s All About Behaviors

If a business’s strategy is intended to take us where we’ve never been, each of us will need to do things we’ve never done. Leaders will have to lead by taking personal risks and being vulnerable. Leaders need to lead change, build teams, and make the deployment of new strategy personal. When leaders commit to doing things differently, they give others the permission and chance to do this, too.

We recently worked with a large Fortune 500 company deploying a new strategy. When we gathered feedback from the top 300 leaders, we learned that there was an extremely high level of skepticism about activating the new strategy. At first, we thought that the ideas might have been weak or something was missed. However, we found that the strategy wasn’t the problem. It was the fundamental disbelief that the senior leaders would change their behaviors to make the strategy work!

For the majority of companies, leader behaviors are even more important than the strategy. Each person, and especially senior leaders, must ask, “What have I been hindering? Where should absolute confidence and resolve be replaced with curiosity, humility, and vulnerability?”

This kind of behavior can be uncharacteristic of leaders charging up the new strategy hill. But the best strategies in the world will fail if they are not humanized. Some companies think that if we repeat the strategy 40 times, people will understand it. In reality, it’s the blend of confidence and humility that reduces fear and provides a safety net so people can take personal risks to lead change, build teams, and personalize a strategy with individual behavior changes at the leadership level.