Simplify Strategy in Order to Implement Strategy

“No organization, team, or individual mission has ever failed for lack of a good strategy. They fail for lack of execution.”

Moving people from knowing to doing is a critical and tough task. As facilitators, it is our role to not only bring a group to consensus about their desired future, but to to do it in a way that allows them to paint their own vivid picture of the new, desired reality they want to create. That picture should be so clear that they could each describe it in a few words and with a passion and an excitement that only comes from owning the plan.

In a 1993 article entitled “Implementing a Diversity Strategy”, I noted that the only way to “take strategic direction formulated at the top and translate it into reality is to have broad participation down and throughout the organization”. In other words, you have to bring the people along with you.

But, let’s face it, most strategic plans are long, wordy, convoluted, and housed in an attractive binder that sits on a shelf, never to be disturbed again. How can you get people excited and motivated to implement a plan they never see, and can scarcely understand? There must be a better way.

Recently, we have been inviting our clients to recast their strategies into a format that is simple, vivid, and easy to retain. It involves developing a central strategic theme and supporting it with three or four actionable strategies. The outcome is a plan that can be rolled out in a campaign for all employees to digest, embrace, and execute. It is captured as a diagram or a “stool” model that has a central theme (the seat) and three or four focus areas (the legs).A regional energy company was able to distill it’s people strategy down to a simple theme of “Creating the Most Trusted Leadership in the Industry” (presented thematically as “Most Trusted”). This theme was supported by three legs: Leadership Challenge (equipping leaders to be trustworthy), Employee Involvement (asking, then doing, what employees recommend for improving worklife), and Diversity Management (creating effective diversity managers who reinforce trust daily).

The process of creating this construct relies heavily on masterful facilitation. It begins with a review of existing strategy work and involves a systematic rethinking of the principles, concepts and language that reflect the real intent of the plan. An example of a strategic planning outline that results in such a plan follows.

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  1. Laying the Foundation
    Either the facilitator, or another thought leader lays out for the group those things which have proven to be essential to success in the subject area. In the case of diversity management, that includes such elements as: context, being outcome driven, recognizing that this is a change initiative, influencing and shaping perceptions, and defining the journey to diversity maturity.
  2. History as a Teacher
    We invite the participants to share experiences about their personal and collective journey that led them to the current place and state. If this is an organization, department, or team, we focus on how and why it was started, how it evolved to its current state, key activities and turning points, and how they describe their current state (e.g. some major wins, plateaued, not sure what’s next, etc.).
  3. Validating the Theme
    Prior to the session (in the pre-work), we ask participants to take a stab at defining the theme of their work. We then take them through a process to refine, recast, and restate the theme in simpler language by asking: 
    • Is it compelling enough to sustain the effort?
    • Does it evoke a head level or a gut level reaction?
    • What would make it more compelling?
    • Can this group decide on a new theme or will they need to help facilitate a process to get the leaders to decide?The principle of this step is “if you really understand something, you should be able to state it in a few words”.
  4. Capturing assumptions and required behaviors
    The key question here is ” what do you need to do to embed this theme?” and “what could get in the way?” By now, the group is giving much more focused responses that can be easily distilled.
  5. Strategies and tactics
    Now, we develop the legs of the stool. These are three or four areas of focus that come out of the previous discussion. We take special care to make sure that all the ideas about embedding the theme are included and logically fit into one of the legs.
  6. Mapping current activities
    Finally, so that any previous work on strategy is not lost, we lead the group in mapping all the elements of the current plan into one of the legs. We also develop an “outcome” matrix that describes what each group or area of focus must do to contribute to the success of the journey.

The result of this work is a diagram that represents the essence of the organization’s strategy. It defines who must be involved in implementing the strategy and what each group should do to make it happen. Since it is based on principles and outcomes (not prescriptive behaviors), it has the impact of unleashing the creativity of people in the larger organization. And, it keeps all new initiatives from being seen as “yet another new thing to do”. Instead, they are rightfully seen as additional equipment to help implement one of the existing strategic legs.

The most important element of this work is the ability to present it to every level of the organization and have each level see it and endorse it as something they can and will support.