As the digital era becomes entrenched, while many companies are focused on mere survival, a few vanguard companies thrive. These companies are vanguard because they understand the importance of coherence in vision and objectives throughout all layers of their organization, from the executive ranks to operations. Everyone in their boat understands their role and how they contribute to strategic priorities, such that the entire organization is rowing in the same direction.
For many, this is not the case; still operating in stovepipes, each group, and individuals even within groups, have very different understandings of where their organization is going, their role within it, and how the organization’s priorities are supposed to shape their contributions. We refer to this conflict among organizational tribes as organizational debt. Organizational debt accumulates the costs of unresolved organizational constraints in areas such as strategic planning, budget allocations, cumbersome procurement processes, organisational structures, complex processes and compensation schemes, how customers and partners are engaged, and so on.
The challenge for a leader is in how to create a shared understanding of where their organization currently resides, as well as co-creating the place they would like it to exist in the future with their own people, as well as with those in their organization’s ecosystem. This shared understanding or “context” is defined as:
“the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.”
Yeah, but what does that even mean?
A children’s soccer team has context; their shared context includes the team they play for, the rules of the game, and the objective – to score on the other teams’ net. They understand they must do this while ensuring the other team does not score on their net. It is surprising that children at such a young age can understand and collaborate on a shared context toward common goals. Yet, adults in many organizations cannot recreate this foundational capability for their collective long-term resilience and sustainability as an entity.
Without context, you have no way to understand why you are going to a particular place, nor any coherent way to respond to bumps in the path to getting there. This applies equally to our work life interactions as it does in our personal lives. It is why we believe shared context matters in all things. A lack of context leads to gaps in understanding. Gaps in our understanding of strategic direction are most often manifest very late in the execution cycle when it is far too late to make needed adjustments.
HBR on Strategy & Execution
In HBRs “Why Strategy Execution Unravels—and What to Do About It”, authors Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes, and Charles Sull shared these startling findings:
• Only 9% of managers say they can rely on colleagues in other functions and units all the time, and just half say they can rely on them most of the time. When managers cannot rely on colleagues in other functions and units, they compensate with a host of dysfunctional behaviors that undermine execution: They duplicate effort, let promises to customers slip, delay their deliverables, or pass up attractive opportunities.
• Not only are strategic objectives poorly understood, but they often seem unrelated to one another and disconnected from the overall strategy. Just over half of all top team members say they have a clear sense of how major priorities and initiatives fit together. It’s pretty dire when half the C-suite cannot connect the dots between strategic priorities, but matters are even worse elsewhere. Fewer than one-third of senior executives’ direct reports clearly understand the connections between corporate priorities, and the share plummets to 16% for frontline supervisors and team leaders.
• Past performance is two or three times more likely than a track record of collaboration to be rewarded with a promotion.
• In large, complex organizations, execution lives and dies with a group we call “distributed leaders,” which includes not only middle managers who run critical businesses and functions but also technical and domain experts who occupy key spots in the informal networks that get things done. The vast majority of these leaders try to do the right thing. Eight out of 10 in our sample say they are committed to doing their best to execute the strategy, even when they would like more clarity on what the strategy is .
The last one caught our attention – distributed leaders; we have an additional though to add to that – distributed decision-making.
Decision-making needs to occur as close as possible to where the information resides to inform it
HBR also recently published a collection of twenty-five additional articles on the gaps between strategy and execution, and how to overcome them.
While the list of articles on strategy and execution gaps is seemingly endless, most only touch on single aspects of why the strategy to execution gap exists and how to resolve that aspect. While each one, in and of their own right, has valuable insights, all fail to offer a coherent broad-based approach to addressing the real gap, the lack of shared context.
The consequences of a lack of shared context across organizations is both significant and systemic.
Shared context is not only the connecting tissue that holds children’s soccer teams together, it is the tissue that holds organizations large and small together, so their short-term successes can lead to their long-term sustainability
Strategy + Context Enables Execution
As a top-level executive, you need to recognize that not only does context matter, but that one of your main roles is to be the curator of your organization’s, branch, and division’s strategic contexts. In the digital era, vanguard leaders transform from directing, managing, and supervising, to co-creating shared context. At Shopify, the title of their senior executive in this role is the “VP of Getting Sh*t Done.”
Instead of a single role, wouldn’t it better to have an entire organization of people that get sh*t done together towards common objectives? Moreover, would it not be even better if everyone were capable of creating shared context within his or her own team and with other teams inside and outside your organization?
This article series introduces AdaptiveOrg’s approach and tools for creating an army of people that get things done based on core Agile principles woven into setting strategic context that adapts to what is discovered along the way.
Shared strategic context enables seamless transitions between strategy and execution, and back to rethinking strategy when necessary. As you will discover in the remaining articles in the series, it’s about choreographing a set of experiments. But these are not the experiments of a mad scientist; each experiment is purpose-defined to test out specific parts of your theory of how to create a shared future, enabling everyone to stay focused on your north-star, while still being able to adjust to the terrain in front of them.