Nine Pitfalls of Strategy Activation

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Strategy activation is basic physics. A simple lever is a good metaphor for how organizations experience a change in strategy. On the left side of the lever sits the organization in its current state. When we have a new strategy, we’re committing to moving the organization, lifting it up to a future state in which the strategy is adopted and integrated into daily work. How heavy is that lift? How far are we trying to lift? These are both questions of magnitude that can be underestimated. On the right hand side of the lever is the effort we must put in to achieve that lift. That’s strategy activation: the effort of lifting. When you think about your activation plan, do the physics work? If not, you have three options: reduce the load, reduce the distance, or increase the effort. Reducing the load can mean piloting the strategy in just one part of the organization. Reducing the distance might mean reframing the expectation of how much can change at once. If you can’t compromise on either of those, seriously consider increasing the amount of effort you’re putting into strategy activation.


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Strategy is often devoted to figuring out what to do. If you are working with management consultants, you may have a 95-page PowerPoint full of what to do. You may have spent six months and hundreds of thousands of dollars figuring out the what. You’ve finally narrowed it down to a simple strategy statement of your objective, scope, and advantage. You are so excited to tell people about the what—but wait! Activation often stumbles early when stakeholders are closed to hearing the what because they aren’t convinced of the why and the why now. Go back to the beginning and start with the why.



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In art school you learn to look for the negative space. That means finding the shape of the thing that is not there, so you can better define what is there. Often, strategy only speaks of what to do. It’s not usually clear about what not to do. If you’ve ever been part of a great strategy development effort, you were able to say “no” to many possible alternate paths. The act of saying “no” made it more clear about what you were saying “yes” to. But that same clarity sometimes doesn’t make it into the organization. Strategy gets watered down when everyone can point to the same statement and use it to justify continuing down the same path. We have to talk about the negative space: What will we not do, what is not a priority, what is changing, and what is not changing?



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The activation curve is a powerful tool in understanding strategy activation. Every stakeholder travels along this curve from initial awareness of a strategy to being fully on board with the strategy. This can happen quickly, or it may take months or years. Many organizations will have a strong launch, with lots of communications and focus, only to see momentum fizzle out as another priority becomes the hot topic. There’s a reason why it’s an activation curve and not activation stairs. Until you reach the top, the progress you make is not guaranteed. Without continuous momentum, it’s easy to slide right back down to the start. A good rule of thumb is to plan activation efforts for every notch up the curve, reasonably spaced to build momentum and maintain focus. This is preferable to a “big bang” approach of trying to leap from the bottom to the top in a big burst of activity. It is virtually impossible for any single intervention to move people up more than two notches at a time.

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Consider the organization as a system in balance. When changing one part of the system, we sometimes fail to anticipate how other parts will need to shift to reinforce the change. Sometimes even when the awareness and understanding phase of activation has been very successful, adoption can fail because people don’t translate the theory of the strategy to what they do practically every day. Once strategy is understood, people need the opportunity to redesign their own work to support it. This can be disruptive to processes, systems, incentives, and priorities. Embrace and encourage those ripple effects as a sign that the organization is rebalancing to a new normal.


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Most organizations are optimized to share information through the classic management cascade, from the CEO down through the functional leaders, to team leaders. The truth is the names on the organizational chart aren’t always the best guide for who will influence behavioral change. Research has shown that it’s easier than we think to identify the informal influencers, and the simple question “Who do you trust?” is the best predictor of true influence. Look at the stakeholders who are critical to strategy execution and who they trust. A simpler stakeholder network will emerge with a direct path to activation with more effective results.

 
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What are the barriers to adopting your new strategy? We have asked dozens of strategy development teams this question using a deck of 35 cards, each with a different potential barrier. The teams put on their empathy hats and identify what they think the top five barriers for their stakeholders will be. Then we ask the stakeholders who will be executing the strategy the same question. When we show the strategy development team the results, they are stunned. Every time we have done this exercise, we have learned the development team’s assumptions were wrong. Strategy activation is really the art of barrier dismantling. And when you’re working on the wrong barriers, you’re wasting time and resources.
 

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Sometimes strategy fails to activate because it is lost in the chaos of many other strategies. We’ve heard clients call it everything from “change fatigue” to “strategy overload” to “organizational ADHD.” We call it navigational clutter, and it’s endemic in the global business world. A recent Harvard study showed that "when asked about obstacles to understanding the strategy, middle managers are four times more likely to cite a large number of corporate priorities and strategic initiatives than to mention a lack of clarity in communication." The antidote to navigational clutter is radical pruning of the strategy tree. If your strategy activation is at risk of failing because it’s getting lost in the noise, it may be time for a spring-cleaning for your organizational house.
 

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A recent Harvard Business Review study looked at the possible causes of failure to execute strategy. The study showed that strategy execution breaks down not because of lack of alignment between strategies and team/individual performance measures, and not because of lack of coordination within teams, but because of trust across teams. "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." Thirty percent cite failure to coordinate across units as the single greatest challenge to executing their company’s strategy. Activation is effective when it shows the big picture of how strategies connect across the organization. Many organizations don’t have a systems view of how their strategies connect and mutually support each other. We call this a strategy ecosystem, and building it is the single best tool for strategic alignment across silos.

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