Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Carrying Strategy from the C-Suite to the Reception Desk

The challenge organizational leadership faces is carrying strategy from the board room to the receptionist's desk. That is, extending strategy mindshare throughout the organization, not just among those at the top of organizational chart.

In my last post I promised to provide more detail on the "how-to" of developing a broader context on organizational strategy among the "doers," as well as measuring strategic mindset.

Let's review the traditional strategic planning methodology paradigm:
  1. A strategy document transcribed from flip-chart plastered walls is reviewed by top leadership.
  2. Top leadership sets goals and objectives for middle management that it believes are aligned with the strategy.
  3. Middle management establishes performance metrics for the line-level that align with the objectives.
  4. Top leadership and management regularly monitor and evaluate performance against the metrics, then adjust as necessary.
Traditional management models will say this is the "ideal," that effective strategic execution requires cascading measures starting broadly from top management down to the granular performance measures of line-level staff. Line-level performance measures tie upward in progressively broader ways to the "big picture" vision.

Sounds great. But, as I've outlined in previous posts, it's a flawed concept. It applies a management approach to a leadership function. Leadership involves influencing people, whose actions are driven by values, attitudes, and organizational culture -- mindset. The cascading measures approach is a process-focused approach measuring actions taken, not the values, emotional connection and shared understanding that drive the actions.

Without strategic mindset, doers will only do what is measured in an execution plan. They won't think "out of the box" to intuitively take aligned actions that are not part of -- and may even be superior to -- the plan.

Ultimately, taking strategically aligned action should be natural and innate without any prerequisite objectives and performance metrics needed. Strategic execution should be like driving home from work. You know where you live. You don't need a map. You just know how to get there, no matter what direction you're coming from. This is "intuitive alignment."

Cascading measures are for operational alignment, not strategic leadership. While such metrics do align actions in the organization around strategic objectives, they don't encourage a strategic mindset. They measure outcomes, not the mindset driving the outcomes. So while actions may be taken in alignment with the performance measures, without strategic mindset, the actions taken outside of such measures may have no alignment with the strategy whatsoever.

Strategic mindset is a large bowl containing a wide array of aligned actions, both measured and unmeasured. Without it, the organization will only become effective at implementing the narrow range of measured actions, leadership's best guesses at the correct means to achieve the ends. As is now widely accepted, often the best ideas come from the line-level closest to the customer. Thus, keeping the "owner" mentality in the C-Suite deprives an organization of its full strategic capacity.

To most effectively execute strategy, drop the cascading measures approach entirely. That approach is fine for addressing processes, where the goal is to achieve incremental improvement, higher productivity and better operational efficiency. But let's not confuse process improvement with strategic execution. The most efficient operations won't overcome obsolete strategy.

So what is the strategic leadership tool that replaces cascading measures? Conversation. Strategic conversation, specifically. Strategic conversation is the most powerful tool to ensure strategic execution, not plans and metrics. It is through conversation that values are clarified and cultural norms are developed.

But first, a caveat. Don't confuse strategic conversation with "communicating the strategic objectives, goals and vision." That's the "fix" applied to the failure of the cascading measures approach used in strategic planning methodology. It is yet another false diagnosis for why a "strategic plan failed" (not attributing it to the true cause that strategic planning is a flawed concept in the first place). The diagnosis being that the plan wasn't effectively communicated.

Referring to the previous example of knowing how to get home without a map, think about how we reached a state of intuitive alignment. Over time, we developed a mental map through daily repetition, occasionally trying different routes, and learning the broader context of the area in which we live by exploring the neighborhood. And the key reason we take the time to learn and explore is because the place we are going is our home, it's where we live, a place to which we have an emotional connection.

The same process creates intuitive alignment in strategic execution: creating a mental map through repitition, trying various routes, developing a broader context by exploring the neighborhood, and having an emotional connection to the endpoint. And the last item on the list is the most critical and the reason why a process-focused approach is inadequate. No one feels an emotional connection to organizational vision statements, plans, performance metrics and checklists. Not even leadership.

Wait a minute. . . leadership has no emotional connection to a vision statement? No. It's not the statement itself, but the story, the mental image, the triumphant manifestation of the outcome that the statement attempts to describe, which inspires.

"All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the pointer will never see beyond. Even let him catch sight of the moon, and still he cannot see its beauty." - Zen Quote

Vision statements are a finger pointing to a future state of being (the moon).

A couple designing a custom home isn't excited by the blueprints, but their mental picture of what the finished home will look like, seeing themselves in it, sitting by the fireplace, swimming in the pool.

That is the essence of strategic conversation. We co-create a shared mental image of the endpoint and together we get excited about what we're building. This requires each person to become an active participant in the conversation. The shared vision comes from describing together what it's going to be like living in our new home, having a barbeque on the patio. And in an organization, the conversation needs to involve the whole family.

Taking the metaphor a little farther, the conversation continues throughout the various phases of construction. Though all are committed to the general vision, various changes to the design may occur as unidentified problems come to light after building begins. So, though the final structure won't look exactly like the original plans, because we discussed solutions together with a common understanding of what we wanted to achieve, we'll create a better end result.