By Reed Deshler
Remember the game of telephone? One person would think of a phrase and whisper it the person next to her. That person would whisper it to the next person, and so on down the line. By the time the last person in line revealed what he’d heard, the phrase often had morphed into something completely unrelated to the initial idea.
A similar thing can happen in companies when it comes to strategy implementation. At the executive level, the message may be crystal clear. But by the time it makes its way through the various branches and levels of the organization, the original intent and focus often are lost. This results in misalignments when strategic decisions need to be made downstream.
Maintaining strategic focus throughout the organization is one of the toughest challenges leaders face. In addition to the loss of clarity that occurs as directives and priorities make their way through the organization, intent can be clouded by shifts and changes in the marketplace. When a message reaches decision makers down the line, their best-informed tactical choices may very easily miss the mark—and stall out your strategy.
Missteps of strategy implementation
Leaders make five common mistakes that can lead to a loss of integrity of strategic messages as they cascade through the organization:
Not involving lower-level leaders in strategic planning. Third- and fourth-level leaders often bring in-the-trenches perspectives to the table that aren’t obvious to top executives. Leveraging their input (a process some refer to as “policy deployment”) can help leaders make strategic decisions that are better suited to actual market and operational conditions.
Also, being involved in the strategic decision-making process ensures that mid-level leaders truly understand strategic intent. It empowers them to be what my firm calls “Alignment Leaders” within the organization.
Not matching metrics with behavior. Are your metrics and KPIs really driving strategy? If not, consider how you can leverage and realign your tactics and, if necessary, your reward systems to create a show-and-tell effect to help keep employees on track. This requires mid-level managers to both communicate clearly what is required and to effectively use metrics and behavioral indicators as motivational levers to guide behavior.
Communicating exclusively with data and logic. Of course, it’s important to use data and logic in communication, but don’t neglect the power of storytelling. Stories engage people’s attention and imaginations and allow them to vicariously experience the messages in a visceral way that facilitates learning and remembering.
Leaders can cite stories that illustrate what success looks like and how it is achieved. Stories don’t have to be epic or long. Even short descriptions or anecdotes of how change was successfully accomplished in the past, who was involved, and how their actions aligned with the vision can help communicate how you expect change to happen.
Maintaining strict organizational boundaries. Successful strategy implementation requires teamwork between an organization’s levels, functions, divisions, and departments. Breaking down barriers between these various parts creates checks and balances and facilitates the kind of interactive problem solving and innovation that’s often needed to stay aligned with strategy. It helps ensure that the parts of an organization don’t start working at odds with each other.
As leaders across levels and functions collaborate with each other, they also often come up with strategic solutions that can be used elsewhere in the organization. Cross sharing of this sort can give a company an extremely powerful edge in implementing strategy successfully.
Staying in the ivory tower. Lack of alignment doesn’t always flow from top to bottom. Sometimes, the strategy itself can be misaligned out of the box, when it doesn’t take into account the day-to-day reality of the organization and/or the market.
As a leader, it pays to spend some time getting to know how things really work at all levels of the organization. A strategy is only a hope until and unless it is embraced and implemented on the front lines. Having that connection to the daily life of all employees is invaluable both to creating viable strategies and to achieving buy-in from everyone in the organization.
In the game of telephone, players experience incremental errors that add up to a big miscommunication in the absence of guiding factors that keep the message on track. The same thing happens in organizations—but in business, it’s no laughing matter.
It is a leader’s responsibility to keep the lines clear so that you get the results you envision. To do this, you must proactively take the necessary steps to maintain the alignment of strategy and implementation.
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