How to Make Strategy Stick
For my Pinchot class on Sustainability and Strategy, my students nominated the topic of making strategy stick as their discussion topic. Please join them in offering questions, comments and contributions to this list of approaches for how to make strategy stick.
Have a good strategy.
While some consultants and advisors start with having a good story about the strategy, no amount of wordsmithery will transform a bad strategy into a good one. So start with the basics. Develop strategies that are clear, that focus on action in overcoming a challenge, that can be measured, and that can be translated so individuals can see how their work contributes to the execution of strategy and its accompanying goals. Assumptions are deadly. The last thing you want is a great story about a bad strategy that then requires considerable effort to dislodge if the company lives long enough to come up with a good strategy.
Transform strategies into plans.
Whether created top-down or co-created through a networked organization, a plan that breaks down strategy into achievable activities proves essential to strategies that stick. Part of that plan should be to recast existing work so that it can be more clearly viewed in light of the strategy. Even more telling is work that stops because it is no longer relevant to the strategy. The worse thing for strategy is confusion.
Consider how confused U.S. military strategy appears to people in the U.S. armed forces, to foreign allies or to America’s enemy’s when a branch of the armed forces decides a weapons system is no longer strategically relevant but Congress continues to fund the program in order to keep jobs in their districts. If a strategy becomes a tool of politics rather than a tool of execution, then it may end up sticking in the wrong ways and drive negative, rather than positive behavior.
Plans also need to include measurements that demonstrate how well they are being executed, part of which includes gathering data that demonstrates movement toward strategy achievement.
Align and integrate.
If individuals can’t connect their work to strategy the strategy is irrelevant, and they might also feel their work has become irrelevant. If, after examining the work being done on behalf of the organization and its strategy, alignment doesn’t exist, then phase out that work.
If employees perceive their value as being delivered only by customers, or only locally through direct management, meaning they can’t find any way to attach value to their work within the context of the greater organization, then not only should the work be examined in light of the strategy, but the strategy should be examined to see if there are strategies in place that remain relevant but haven’t been captured adequately during internal assessments. That kind of closed-loop examination can be a powerful tool. When people see that their work has influenced strategy, they are going to remember the relationship, tell their story to peers and new hires, much more so than if they are taught the strategy as a disconnected story that corporate just expects them to embrace.
Don’t abandon strategy too early.
Long haul strategies that transform industries and nations take time to unfold, and patience to execute. They are all too rare in a world where leaders insist on too narrowly adopting adaptation as a means to their ends, ends that are often more about a strategy of survival than transformation and leadership. Just because the strategy isn’t meeting the dates set by the plan, it doesn’t mean the strategy is bad, just that the plan, like all plans, speculated on a future over which there was little visibility, many uncertainties, and if the strategy is entirely new, no experience. Learn, adjust and work through the difficult moments. It is OK to abandon strategy, just as it is OK to change a company’s values or mission, but all of those changes should reflect the needs of a drastically changed situation, either immediate or perceived in the future, not just some bumps along the road. Navigating through or over obstacles provides deep and meaningful stories for those who experience the test, and an emotional connection to the strategy that can be taught.
Use strategy as a decision making tool.
Any part of the organization that makes a decision that appears to be “strategic” should bounce that idea through the strategy. If the decision aligns with and furthers the strategy, then it should be easy to find in the plan, and the plan should reflect that the strategic action was executed, and links should be available to see how that decision is playing out (good or bad – strategy isn’t always right, so organizations need to think of any action as a learning opportunity). This can also be thought as “acting strategically” from an organizational standpoint – purposeful and meaningful within the the strategic framework.
Keep the strategy updated.
If strategic decisions are made, or directions abandoned, and the strategy, as documented, remains static, then the momentum for stickiness is lost. Strategy devolves into something that people might hear about rather than something central to the organization’s way of operating.
When change occurs, and change includes progress, reflect that change in the strategy. If something fundamental shifts, like the abandonment of a strategy, that should not just be acted upon, but reflected in the strategy, along with the rationale so that current and future staff can understand the how and why of the decision.
Employ Just-In-Time Learning.
One often cited technique for making strategy stick is education. Education is a tool, but generic education around an organization’s strategy is more often than not delivered just-in-case rather than just-in-time. Strategic awareness delivered this way might not be top of mind when needed. If organizations encourage the use of strategy as a decision making tool, and if people don’t feel like they have a firm grasp, there should be on-line tools, communities and other assets available to provide concise context and relevance to the decision at hand. These tools will likely deliver better strategic decisions, and more meaningful awareness of the strategy, than continued background noise that people can’t or won’t hear because it isn’t immediately relevant.
Remember strategy isn’t always about change.
Finally, remember that strategy isn’t always about change. Sometimes strategic dialog and reflection results in an affirmation of current course of action. All of the literature about communicating strategy as change means little in this situations. Re-examining communications, alignment and non-aligned work remain necessary tasks, but a working strategy should be nourished, not disrupted by unnecessary actions that make people start doubting direction for no real purpose other than a leader or manager implementing something they read in a book or heard while attending a seminar on how to communicate strategy better. If your strategy is already working, let it work, don’t over work it.
A note to start-ups
Start-ups are in the unique position of not having a strategy until they begin work. Strategy articulated in pitch decks remains abstract and theoretical until it starts to transform into action, at which point, it may be quickly require adjustments, regardless of the experience of the management team. Even the most experienced management team hasn’t done the work at hand before, because the new business is a new context. Conviction about vision and humbleness about uncertainty, and a willingness to learn, should not be perceived as mutually exclusive.
Enter the arrogance of the funders, who may insist that bad strategy remain in place because that is the vision they invested in. That is not stickiness, that is foolishness.
The stickiness of strategy in a start-up relies on the ability of the founders to constantly adjust until they find something that works, step back, if just for a moment, to capture that “formula” and ensure that it resonates with their early employees (and if not, consider that the hiring criteria for the theory may not match the required hiring criteria for the real business that has evolved) and that it can be effectively used for making decisions.
All of the stuff about communicating strategy, and thinking about strategy as change doesn’t apply to the start-up because in a good start-up, the business and the strategy are one. There has been no time to drift into experiments, to acquire other firms for dubious strategic reasons, or to have powerfully charismatic, or politically motivated leaders, either inspire change, or achieve it through threats. For the start-up, all those difficulties of strategy lie in their future. Perhaps for the only time in the history of any business, the start-up is a strategic singularity.
For the start-up, the strategy and the business are one.
(For those readers concerned with editorial issues, that phrase “For the start-up, the strategy and the business are one” is reiterated for emphasis, not just as meaningless repetition).