1st May 2020 31
How To Translate Strategy Into Meaningful Frontline Delivery (Part 1)
Setting The Scene, The Power Of Story…
I can remember it like yesterday. It was the most important day of my life. I of course did not know this then…
I sat nervously in the luxuriously decorated reception of an iconic old-school merchant bank, mentally running over my presentation, ensuring I had the key messages firmly fixed in my mind. I’d not slept for two days; a heady mixture of excitement, adrenaline and coffee keeping me going – today was a big day for me!
I had launched my consultancy just over a year ago and was yet to make my first sale. As good as I felt about the groundwork put in place the past year, the growing sales pipeline had not yet converted, and my finances were starting to feel the strain. Alongside all this, my wife and I were blessed with the arrival of a beautiful baby girl – while being a new father was without doubt a wonderful experience – the new parental responsibility at this time was sobering.
The buzzing of my mobile phone interrupted my thoughts. When I pulled the mobile out, Jon Daniels name was flashing on the display. It was to Jon [not real name] that I was due to present this morning. As soon as I answered the phone, Jon launched into a massive change of plan…
“Hi Ian, listen something has come up and I’ll have to reschedule this morning’s meeting. What are your plans for the rest of the day? We are hosting a corporate four-ball at our (golf) club this afternoon and my team is one (person) down. Can you join us to make up the numbers? You could walk me through the salient points of the pitch over the front nine (holes).”
I was an average golfer at best – and the prospect of walking Jon through my proposal while attempting to hit a tiny ball with a very long stick terrified me…
It’s All About Execution
Sorry to pull you out of the story so abruptly! There’s no better way to illustrate the effect of a story, than by telling one.
Hands up! I confess that I love a good story. But in this case, there is an excellent reason. Story or Corporate Story – otherwise known as strategic narrative – is a crucial transformational tool that my team and I use to help senior teams visualise and bring corporate vision to life. We use strategic narrative because it acts as a powerful vehicle for in-depth collaborative exploration; it is a highly efficient way to build consensus on the way forward; and it provides a highly effective lens to land the vision on the ground.
I take the view that organisations are built for people. I also take the view that the purpose and role of corporate vision is to rally, galvanise and align a work population (and external stakeholders) behind the new direction and way – its purpose is all about execution. Moreover, the more meaningful, collaborative and inclusive the development methods used; the more effective and transformational the corporate vision will be.
Throughout this article, I will endeavour to share my practical experience of what it takes to connect corporate vision and strategy to the daily running of the business. I will also do my level best to unpack the thinking in a practical and accessible way.
But before I continue… if the ending to the opening story is of any interest, I circle back to this at the end of the thought piece.
What Is An Effective Corporate Vision?
When working with leadership teams, I often find it is valuable to get everyone on the same page quickly. One technique that I find useful, is to get the team using a commonly understood and agreed language to express the ideas and technical concepts likely to bubble-up during visualisation activities. Similarly, with this article, I should first clarify my use of the term ‘corporate vision’ and what I mean when I use the phrase ‘effective corporate vision’ in this context.
For corporate vision to qualify as being ‘effective’, it should be considered within a broader context than the too narrow, stale and ambiguous vision statements that we are all familiar with and regularly use today. My problem with these kinds of statements is that they fail to fulfil the real purpose and nature of corporate vision – which in my view is to provide clear meaningful direction and guidance – similar to how a compass and map work together.
When giving instructions, it’s not enough to just say “climb the mountain”, people need to understand which mountain to climb – why it is worth climbing – what is expected of them during the climb – who else is involved – what climbing kit and training they have available – and what’s in it for them when they reach the summit.
To be considered effective, experience has taught me that the vision should inform and explicitly connect with strategic delivery planning and the operations day-to-day. The vision should be clearly understood by all who have a role in making it happen (i.e. it must be realistically implementable) and the vision should also encapsulate the envisaged aspired future state. Framed in this context, the vision must be capable of overarching and informing all follow-on delivery activity with clear and meaningful direction and guidance provided.
Similar to a ‘north star’ the vision must provide clear direction to help people and teams successfully navigate change even in the most complex and challenging environments, keeping them on track at all times. With this definition, there is no room for abstract or ambiguity in the messaging.
A carefully constructed vision with the right characteristics (vision architecture) can also be a very flexible mechanism for change. It is literally capable of being what you want it to be and will be effective so long as; (1) you remain crystal clear what the vision is intended to achieve; (2) you are clear how you plan to use it; and (3) you are clear who will use it (i.e. clearly targeted stakeholder audiences).
Corporate vision is capable of visualising what success looks like, defining functional and technical capability and articulating organisational values and associated ways-of-working. It is also capable of meaningfully crystallising the nature of customer relationships as well as the customer experience. With its flexibility, a corporate vision can also target specific areas of an enterprise; such as a business unit, function or discrete team. When the vision is used in this way, it must consider and align with the broader organisational agenda.
A Working Definition Of Corporate Vision
The working definition of ‘corporate vision’ that I use is as follows. A corporate vision:
- Provides purpose, clarity, focus and energy to the leadership as well as providing direction, hope and belief to the wider work population;
- Provides context for alignment across the organisation – joining-up strategic performance indicators, structural capabilities, business activities, ways-of-working, decision-making, prioritisation, behaviour et al;
- Provides a behavioural framework that leadership can embed;
- Serves as a foundation for a broader strategic plan;
- Articulates differentiation and/or an organisation USP;
- Acts as a high-level roadmap, articulating what the organisation wants to become – guiding transformational initiatives by articulating strategic intent and setting a defined clear and understandable direction;
- Behaves similarly to an Ikea instruction guide, providing practical, clear and meaningful guidance and instructions;
- Provides an aspirational description of what a company would like to achieve or accomplish in the mid-term and/or long-term future;
- Serves as a clear guide for choosing current and future courses of action – designed to both inform and direct decision-making, behaviour and prioritisation; and
- Promotes supports and enables successful execution of the organisational game plan – articulating what it wants to do, how it wants to do it, where, when, who-with and who-to.
Example corporate vision traits include:
- Inspiring: motivates and engages employees and is something that employees view as desirable and useful;
- Generic: general enough to encompass all of the organisation’s interests and strategic direction;
- Challenging: not something that can be easily met and discarded, but realistically achievable;
- Concise: able to be easily evangelised, remembered and repeated;
- Clear: articulates goals and objectives in a plain understandable (accessible) way;
- Time horizon and maturity: defines a timeline and the corresponding maturity of the organisation over time;
- Future-oriented: describes where the company is going from tomorrow, this assumes that everything that is working today and applicable in the future (tomorrow) will be carried forward/continued; and
- Stable: offers a long-term perspective and is unlikely to be impacted by short-term environmental trends or changes.
Please note: the above definition is intended for guidance purposes only; it is neither definitive nor exhaustive. The most important thing to bear in mind is to have your own organisation definition readily available in your back pocket when building your vision.
The Value Of Vision-led Execution
Research published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) in 2009 resonates with my experience of the challenges and opportunities my clients regularly face when they have attempted to build their corporate vision.
“Being forward-looking, envisioning exciting possibilities and enlisting others in a shared view of the future, is the attribute that most distinguishes leaders from non-leaders. We know this because we asked followers.”
The HBR research I reference was validated through nearly 1 million responses. Below I have listed a few summary findings as well as my personal notes alongside for good measure.
“People want their leaders to be visionaries that ask the following questions. What’s new? What’s next? What’s better?”
- Side Note: Visionaries that ask these questions tend to be people-oriented leaders, as opposed to task oriented. People-oriented leaders engage, empower, energise, excite and rally (I ran out of e-words!) their people behind a meaningful cause – and compelling story of the future.
“People want a shared vision of the future that reflects the aspirations, dreams and reality of the wider population (not just the personally imposed views of the very few).”
- Side Note: People can feel a sense of powerlessness or isolation and react with fear, hatred or injustice to change occurring around them. In order to engage and galvanise people to the cause, the vision needs to articulate a promise of change that people can relate to. In small measure at least, people need to be able to recognise their own working reality within the image that is being shared.
“Leaders struggle to communicate an image of the future that engages, connects with and draws others in – that speaks to what others see and feel in a meaningful way.”
- Side Note: Too many leaders’ images of the future rely on inaccessible language that is made up of corporate jargon and words that confuse, frustrate and turn people off. The future needs to be crystallised in a plain understandable way – through the articulation of clear meaningful outcomes that everyone can easily visualise and work towards.
This research really connected with what I have personally observed. When I canvass for feedback during change initiatives, common themes of similar nature surfaced repetitively. I found that people wanted to understand:
- What the vision would achieve;
- How their leadership got to the vision;
- Why the vision initiative was important; and
- How and where they fitted in the vision.
They wanted to connect with the vision on a personal level – to see a reflection of themselves within the vision. They also wanted to walk beside the leadership while the goals and vision were being shaped. Without exception, the only visions that I have seen take hold and deliver meaningful results are visions that were shared visions – and these can only be created when the broader population are listened-to very, very carefully.
For further information on vision-led design, click here…
Vision-led Design In Action (Slideshow)
But as you probably know, a corporate vision in itself does not create value. For the vision to drive real transformational value, it needs to be capable of connecting strategic intent to frontline delivery.
Click here for Part 2 of the series, where I explain how you model strategic intent with execution in mind.
To Be Continued…
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