I followed an interesting link on Twitter yesterday, and ended up at this article, How Strategists Lead . The whole thing is well worth a read, but I wanted to explore some points. These in particular have lodged in my brain, I think, because of how they relate to the Future Landscape work we’ve been doing. With the first phase complete, and all these amazing ideas flying around, it’s now time to settle down and look at how we make them happen. It’s clear that these concepts are good; that they will improve how we work, improve conditions and experiences for staff and customers, and potentially save us money. You’d think that would be a no-brainer, wouldn’t you?
Sadly, it’s never that simple. These are good and practical ideas, but – as a colleague quietly pointed out – they were good ideas several years ago too, when they were last raised, and they were equally good a few years before that. For one reason and another they didn’t turn into actions. Why is that?
As we all know, change is difficult. Even if the change is a brilliant, positive, obvious step, there will still be somebody somewhere whose life is made more complicated because of it for a while. This is where the blocks will happen. So if we want these changes to be real and to stick, we need to think ahead to all the ways they can cause a problem, and work out beforehand how we are going to address that. While we’re shaping strategy, we also need to have one eye on operation. And this is where it gets hard; we can get so immersed in visions and systems, and so removed from actual customer experience, that we don’t even know what we don’t know. If we are going to make these improvements stick, we need to understand what that will mean for everybody else.
Here’s where the Strategist comes in.
“… often executives, even experienced ones, get tripped up: they become so interested in the potential of new ventures, for example, that they underestimate harsh competitive realities or overlook how interrelated strategy and execution are.”
“All of this learning speaks to the role of the strategist—as a meaning maker for companies, as a voice of reason, and as an operator. The richness of these roles, and their deep interconnections, underscore the fact that strategy is much more than a detached analytical exercise. Analysis has merit, to be sure, but it will never make strategy the vibrant core that animates everything a company is and does.”
From this, I get a very clear message: we need to be setting strategic direction and changing culture in a way that supports the business rather than being some kind of marketing exercise, distracting decorative icing added at a random point in the business cycle. The strategy should be a real thing that directs what we do and how we do it, not a carefully polished collection of sound bites. Of course it can be both at once, in suitably skilled hands, but if we can only have one of those I’ll pick the first. Too often the link just doesn’t exist.
The article goes on to explore the strategist as meaning-maker. What a job title, eh? A meaning-maker takes the strategy and makes it real. Turns it into something that makes sense at any level of the organisation. Something that leaders and frontline staff alike can apply to their day. And here’s the thing – it’s the topmost rungs of the ladder where this should be happening. I could give you a hundred jargonauts (assuming they could all be persuaded to pay attention for long enough) to work on this, but it wouldn’t matter because it’s the voice at the very top that needs to relay this. These two sections of the article, for me, put this most clearly.
“Downplaying the link between a leader and a strategy, or failing to recognize it at all, is a dangerous oversight … After all, defining what an organization will be, and why and to whom that will matter, is at the heart of a leader’s role. “
“It is the leader—the strategist as meaning maker—who must make the vital choices that determine a company’s very identity, who says, “This is our purpose, not that. This is who we will be. This is why our customers and clients will prefer a world with us rather than without us.” Others, inside and outside a company, will contribute in meaningful ways, but in the end it is the leader who bears responsibility for the choices that are made and indeed for the fact that choices are made at all.”
And looking at the strategist as voice of reason:
“A leader must serve as a voice of reason when a bold strategy to reshape an industry’s forces actually reflects indifference to them. Time and again, I’ve seen division heads, group heads, and even chief executives dutifully acknowledge competitive forces, make a few high-level comments, and then quickly move on to lay out their plans—without ever squarely confronting the implications of the forces they’ve just noted. Strategic planning has become more of a “check the box” exercise than a brutally frank and open confrontation of the facts.“
We need a strategy, therefore we write a strategy. Then we run the business. In a few years time we’ll write another strategy, and then we’ll run the business some more. Are these two cycles related, connected, relevant to each other? Not nearly as often or as much as they could be.
Finally, the strategist as operator:
“Every year, early in the term, someone in class always wants to engage the group in a discussion about what’s more important: strategy or execution. In my view, this is a false dichotomy and a wrongheaded debate that the students themselves have to resolve, and I let them have a go at it.”
“When I ask executives at the end of this class, “Where does strategy end and execution begin?” there isn’t a clear answer—and that’s as it should be. What could be more desirable than a well-conceived strategy that flows without a ripple into execution? Yet I know from working with thousands of organizations just how rare it is to find a carefully honed system that really delivers. You and every leader of a company must ask yourself whether you have one—and if you don’t, take the responsibility to build it. The only way a company will deliver on its promises, in short, is if its strategists can think like operators.“
It may seem as though I’m trying to push all responsibility back up to the organisation’s leaders. That’s partly the message, but not all of it. Clearly we have enough bright and motivated people to get this work done, and I believe that many individuals across DCC act and think like strategists whatever their actual rank. But the leaders need to push the message through words and actions, this goes further than endorsing a report or approving a project, and unfortunately that’s the limit of most people’s interaction.
Having had the opportunity to discuss with senior leaders, I know that they completely get this and have no problem with saying so. I know they understand their business areas and can make those connections and make them make sense. What I think the problem is, is that not enough people in the organisation have the opportunity to see this happening. Having the Corporate Leadership Team present and offering challenge for Future Landscape groups was both a joy and a terror – but the shared experiences and the humour and approachability we encountered showed very clearly that we shouldn’t be too quick to write off our top tiers as ‘out of touch’. Maybe we just need more quality time with them.
So my cunning plan for making sure we make a difference through the Future Landscape work? Obviously I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some observations to share, and I’d be very interested in others’ views on these:
- We have to make change less frightening – make it not just possible but simple and perhaps even painless.
- People avoid disruption, so let’s provide the tools for them to test, destroy, tweak or adopt without wrecking the working structures they already have.
- Let’s start with things they can use alongside existing systems to help get the best out of what they already do – useful bolt-ons rather than huge adjustments.
- Keep the dialogue going with the leadership team, and look at ways of sharing this across the organisation.
Perfectly timed, as I completed the draft for this post this article on the same topic was brought to my attention – how policy makers (specifically Whitehall) are frequently too far removed from operation.