7th May 2020 21
How To Translate Strategy Into Meaningful Frontline Delivery (Part 3)
Bridging The Chasm Between Strategy & Execution…
The corporate vision approach that I describe in this article has been developed since 2002. During this time, I have cherry-picked, blended and road-tested thought leadership from a wide range of experts in the fields of strategy, innovation, change, psychology (including sports psychology), anthropology, sociology and philosophy. The many theoretical nuggets of wisdom were put through a ‘can it be practically applied’ test, with only the successful concepts that I could apply in the real world adopted.
With all the thought leadership that I have drawn-on over the years, I think there is real value in name-checking a particular book written by Morgan, Levitt and Malek called ‘Executing Your Strategy: How To Break It Down & Get It Done’. The thinking within this book published by Harvard Business School Press in 2008, provided an immensely helpful lens that helped frame and join-up my practitioner ideas and concepts into this uniquely fresh approach. Some of the concepts from the book are referenced in the following section – in particular, the ‘Stanford Execution Framework’.
For brevity reasons, I have sketched a selection of concepts that, in my experience, are required to successfully ‘bridge the chasm’ between strategy and execution:
Connecting Strategic Intent To Meaningful Delivery
Michael Porter previously stated; “the essence of strategy is in the activities – choosing to perform activities differently or to perform different activities than rivals. Otherwise, a strategy is nothing more than a marketing slogan that will not withstand competition.” Similarly, Dr Lawrence Hrebriniak, a highly respected professor on strategy and strategy implementation at the Wharton Business School likewise stated; “execution is a process. It is not the result of a single decision or action. It is the result of a series of integrated decisions or actions over time.” In this context of strategy execution; activities, integrated decisions and actions are all delivered through projects. When translating vision and strategy into meaningful implementation, we need to make the explicit connection between ‘strategic intent’ and ‘project delivery’ (see Fig. 1).
The language of strategy formulation covers high-level concepts such as organisation purpose, vision, mission, intent and identity. It connects this collective who, what, and why with the corporate culture and appropriate structure, and with the goals and metrics that will be used to measure strategic success.
The language of the project portfolio covers the specifics of getting things done – who, how, when, and with which resources. It links the strategic project investments with on-going operations and supports the transfer of new capabilities to the frontline.
Connecting Vision To Action
In the human brain there is a clever piece of kit called the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum has the very important job of linking the two brain hemispheres to align a person’s actions with their visions and intentions. Similar to the ‘Corpus Callosum’, a strategic narrative connects an organisations vision and strategic intent to action.
You Need To Get People To Care First
It is my experience that you cannot execute without active engagement. ‘How’ collaboratively and inclusively you approach the development process is just as important as ‘what’ activities you choose to do. I am not suggesting that you adopt a management by committee approach – far from it. However, I do advise that a broad base of the right stakeholders are included to ensure the thinking that underpins your corporate vision is business ready – i.e. robust, clear, meaningful, precise, concise, accessible, user-friendly, useful, inspiring et al
“I don’t care how much you know, until I know how much you care.”
From extensive experience helping people and teams navigate change, one of the biggest lessons that I have learned is that you first need to get your people to care if you want them to engage actively. It is my experience that even the most precise and polished strategy will not achieve its potential if the staff responsible for making it happen are disengaged… they won’t bother reading or owning the strategic messaging or guidance material they are handed. The need for meaningful engagement is one reason why storytelling is a valuable part of the corporate vision development process.
It’s Not Magic. It’s Neurology.
In a study at Princeton University, scientists found that when we listen to a well-told story, our brain responds as if we are inside the story ourselves, we also feel a powerful connection to the storyteller.
I’m sure you have all heard that storytelling is essential in business. That it’s a powerful tool that can generate a lasting impact. Why is this?
Have you ever been in an audience when someone is telling a story on stage? Maybe at a theatre or TED-style talk. Notice how it feels like there is magic in the air? It’s not magic. It’s neurology. If we were to put you in an MRI machine and tell you a story (like at the beginning of this article!), the parts of your brain that would light up are called Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. They are the data processing regions of your brain (see Fig. 2 below).
Storytelling has the power to engage, influence, teach and inspire listeners. When applied in the right way, storytelling can be a highly useful tool to develop, evangelise and execute the corporate vision.
We’ve all listened to (and suffered through) long PowerPoint presentations. Even if the presenter is animated, when we hear information being ticked off in a dry transactional way, the language processing parts in our brain get to work translating those bullet points into story form where we can find our own meaning. The problem with this, however, is that the story we come up with in our mind may not be the same one the speaker intends to convey (through data) – in the context of strategy execution this presents a significant risk. Conversely the more a speaker expresses information in story form, the closer the listener’s experience and understanding will be to what the speaker intended.
Perhaps most importantly, storytelling is central to meaning-making and sense-making. It is through the story that our minds form and examine our truths and beliefs, as well as discern how they correlate with the realities and beliefs of others. Through story, we gain new perspectives and a better understanding of the world around us. We challenge and expand our knowledge by exploring how others see and understand the world through their lens. This enhanced collective intelligence and increased team cohesion – on an organisation-wide scale – feed through to stronger, more consistent and more effective execution.
It is my experience that when we listen to a good story – rich in detail, full of metaphor, expressive of character – we tend to imagine ourselves in the same situation. Can you think of a better way to help people understand, buy-in and eventually, hopefully, own the vision as if they came up with the idea themselves?
Ultimately, storytelling is about the exchange of ideas. A corporate vision is the ultimate enterprise idea – articulating an organisation’s future state – what success looks and feels like – and in a richly meaningful way that everyone can clearly understand, identify with and believe in.
Maintaining Momentum By Walking The Talk
While eating lunch with my team in the company cafeteria, I recall watching our very animated CEO being interviewed by CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The interview was fascinating, and our CEO was both visionary and immensely engaging when sharing what our organisation was focused on. Heck, the message my CEO was evangelising was great! If I had not been part of the organisation already, I would have signed up immediately! Unfortunately, and much to my surprise and dismay, when comparing my personal (real world) work experiences and the company messaging I had been receiving, I did not recognise an awful lot of what our CEO shared with the CNBC news anchor that day – suffice to say that I found this profoundly troubling at the time.
The disconnect that I experienced above is much more common than many executives realise – it is incredibly demoralising for a workforce and a significant threat. If the corporate messaging does not congruently align with the real world – aka critical activities, projects and initiatives – successful execution is impossible
When translating strategy into meaningful execution, a fundamental question we need to ask frequently is “how do we know when we will get there?” It is no good having a great sounding corporate vision if the vision does not connect strategic intent and direction to future outcomes. To clearly understand whether ‘everyone is walking in the same direction’, I advise you to take an enterprise-wide look at what the organisation is doing, rather than saying. A good start would be to take a good look at the previous two years investment and project activity.
Clear Direction With Decision Rules
I also recall a conversation when presenting to a significant client prospect. My audience at the time was a new-in-post COO who was shaking things up and seeking a fresh approach to strategic engagement. To illustrate an important concept, I told the COO the following story…
“I was a middle manager in a large listed organisation. At this time, market analysts were hammering my CEO because they took the view that he did not have a firm grip on the company’s margin. Unsurprisingly this hammering filtered down to our fortnightly all-hands call that our CEO regularly chaired. Month-after-month we were repeatedly told that we needed to ‘execute better’. While I clearly understood and completely agreed that it was our collective role to interpret and make this instruction happen, it struck me that after a year of our CEO demanding that we ‘execute better’; he never took the time to explain in a practical or understandable way what ‘execute better’ meant to him.”
At this point in the story, the COO interrupted me by saying; “it’s not the CEO’s job to unpack the strategic direction, it’s down to his leadership team and you!”
My gentle response to this was; “if after a prolonged period the organisation still does not ‘get it’, a different more meaningful message is required for people and teams to unpack. Doing or saying the same thing over-and-over and expecting a different result does not work.” Suffice to say that my response was not received well and the presentation ended shortly after.
In the absence of clear direction, people will apply their own decision rules – which can prove fatal for corporate performance (see Fig. 4 below).
Translating Vision Into Valuable Frontline Delivery
The process of translating corporate vision into strategic initiatives, then into a portfolio of projects, is more straightforward when there are clear and meaningful terms of reference to inform and guide the design and planning process.
Alongside clear direction, companies need to be responsive and disciplined when executing the game plan. Translated, this means effectively monitoring and aligning project-based work to match the shifting change environment (both internally and externally). This is because the clean and stable logic of strategic delivery gets messy in the real world. To successfully navigate, the planned project portfolio and the actual project portfolio need to be ready to change as-and-when required.
In the heat of complex and challenging transformation delivery, companies need a well-defined, coordinated and transparent process that connects thinking to doing. With this in mind, I have listed some of the things that help ensure the corporate vision is front-and-centre to all follow-on delivery:
Key Building Blocks Of A Successful Transformation (The Focus & Priority):
- Gain leadership buy-in and consensus – without this the transformation won’t go anywhere;
- Achieve a mandate with effective governance – without this you won’t get anything done; and
- Develop clear direction (terms of reference) with aligned target operating model – without this you won’t know where you’re going; or why; or how.
Essential Transformation Elements:
- Governance – an essential element involves agreeing how decision-rights and accountabilities are communicated and assigned to the project teams and executives. An equally important aspect touches on the relationships between the organisation’s leadership, the leadership and project teams, and other stakeholders within a structure through which the objectives of the organisation are set and delivered – with performance monitored;
- Assurance – effective assurance helps us understand what’s really going on with our projects (aka meaning). Project Managers need a clear view of what’s happening on their projects so they can manage them effectively. Executives need a clear picture of what’s happening across the project portfolio, so that they can make effective decisions. Both Project Managers and Executives need to see what is really happening so they can learn quick lessons about what is working and isn’t working; and
- Reporting – ensuring communication flow, the accuracy of information and the information goes to the right people at the right time. Providing oversight of project progress, project activity accomplished and project health (ideally in a user-friendly format).
Strategy Execution Framework – the effective strategy execution requires a system-wide approach that consistently drives the company to do the right things – and do those things right. Such an approach helps identify, map out and prioritise the necessary project investments so that everyone understands what he or she must do to execute effectively.
Executives often speak of high-level strategy outcomes, rather than specific ‘Project Outputs’… moreover too often they fail to link the two. To help executives connect vision and strategy with meaningful project delivery, I apply design principles taken from the below ‘Stanford Execution Framework’ (see Fig. 5 below).
Unfortunately, for client confidentiality reasons I am unable to share client work examples of the strategy development framework on public channels. If, however you would like more information on the strategy development framework approach that I have developed, please feel free to contact me.
A Practical Approach To Governance & Delivery
To ensure the corporate vision and strategic intent is central to all design, build and embedding activity I simultaneously utilise three transformation tools. The tools provide a practical bridge between strategy and execution and include:
- Strategic Narrative – production of a corporate vision wired to engage the organisation as well as inform design, build and delivery of the journey of change. This is also a key mechanism that gains a mandated leadership consensus on the future direction (see Fig. 6 below).
- Strategy Development Framework – to connect strategic intent to project delivery explicitly. This ensures intent is front-and-centre of all design and delivery activity.
- Hi-Level Visual TOM – production of a multi-dimensional future state model of the organisation, utilising collaborative visualisation techniques with an emphasis on simplification through visual design.
Alongside the aforementioned transformation tools, there is a need to provide focused oversight to ensure decision-making aligns with the business direction and strategic imperatives/objectives. To ensure the appropriate oversight is in place with all transformation activity joined-up and aligned with strategic intent, I advise that a special ‘Linking Role’ is put in place. This role typically takes on a TOM Director or Manager title with the responsibility of providing focused support to both the Executive Sponsor and Programme Director, ensuring all design, planning and delivery is fully aligned to the vision and strategic intent. The following governance model illustrates how this approach works (see Fig. 7 below).
If by this point if I have still managed to keep your attention, you might be wondering how the opening story at the beginning of Part 1 ended – and my round of golf went…
Well it went both terribly and wonderfully! My golf was pants (rubbish), no surprise there – but I eventually won the contract.
After successful delivery of the contract, I enquired why I had been selected. Being a small SME I was by far the riskier choice on a vendor shortlist that included representation from the Big-4.
The reason for my winning was that I had been accurate and succinct when explaining the challenges – I had also painted a compelling vision of the solution that I was proposing to lead. What sealed my selection was the simple fact that I achieved this while navigating trees, ponds and bushes, hacking terribly at a tiny ball.
The ability to download complex concepts while in a challenging environment – and in a way that was clearly understood, identified-with and believed-in, was the determining factor that led to my winning the contract and delivering a successful outcome for the client.
Is this not what corporate vision is fundamentally about, the articulation of a big enterprise idea that helps you and the organisation succeed.
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