If strategy is to be translated into tangible results, leaders must clarify their intentions, communicate better and, above all, keep things simple, says leadership consultant Andrew Griffiths
Winston Churchill once declared: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” Organisations don’t get results if they fail to execute, so what makes strategy happen and how does it change the way your business works?
I am continually surprised at how leaders behave in strategy execution simulations. The senior team prevaricates, procrastinates and over-develops; middle managers seem totally dependent on their senior leaders, lack confidence and act like rabbits in the headlights. And the workers? Well, they do what they always do; get on with things and, in the absence of a strategy, just make it all up. If any of this sounds familiar, you are not alone.
A middle manager from a global steel company summed up the situation like this: “We are all in this together. The top of the organisation doesn’t have all the answers… now we must work out the way forward.”
In these uncertain times, what leaders want is less dependency on them for having the answers to everything. Executives seek more proactivity in their people going out and finding solutions, and having the courage to ask if expectations are unclear. Attitudes can be negotiated and answers generated over time with this collaboration, which may be liberating for those who feel lost without direction. We know strategy execution requires leadership, teamwork and trust at all levels in an organisation, so where are the gaps?
Choosing your strategy
First, it is vital to understand that the levers to execute strategy are decisions and choices; these are intentional, informed and integrated options that drive performance. When Hannibal created his plan of action to defeat the Romans, he chose elephants to make the journey across the Alps. He did his situational analysis and executed his plan to gain victory using surprise and innovation. Employees must be clear about your ‘intent’ as senior leaders, understand which direction you want them to go in and what the decisions and choices are that drive your business. Are they reflected in your current work priorities?
Second, think about how you, as leaders, communicate the agreed course of action. I have seen several methods of articulating plans – from flimsy brochures to goal setting and mission statement posters. Empty words don’t inspire or motivate. Strategy is too important to leave to impersonal communication.
Instead, I encourage the use of ‘sticky stories’ or ‘killer facts’ to bring a strategy to life or just to explain what it is you do. For example, a seismic company created a visual story describing surveying the ocean bed like moving the world’s largest man-made object across an area the size of Wales in a single survey. This helped paint a picture from which they developed a storyline to communicate their strategy and unique capabilities to employees, clients and stakeholders. If your story grabs the attention and is memorable, it has more chance of sticking. Do you have a strategy story to tell?
Finally, as things become more complex we need to simplify. Leaders must make their language more easily understood, ask questions and constantly check assumptions and understanding. Spending time with your team and conveying strategic intent is a sound investment.
A collaborative culture makes communications easier, builds trust and avoids silo thinking. One UK power company regularly creates café events where different departments share the understanding of their strategy in 15-minute time slots. Departments rotate and challenge or question each strategy, providing valuable feedback to the top team. The greater the shared learning, the better teams and individuals are able to deliver and sustain value.
I encourage leaders to create their own ‘dashboard’ with questions to assess how they are doing. Here are five success factors to weigh up: How does the agreed strategy translate into priorities in my work? How can I bring the strategy to life for my team? How much time do I spend translating strategy and checking the team is aligned with the intent? Do I spend enough time looking at my results? Have a plan B, C, D and… F – in other words, remain flexible. And if at all possible, keep it simple.