Post by: Barry Massoudi
It happens in some of the greatest U.S. corporations. The failure to fully implement strategies that have been so carefully crafted and designed at a great commitment of time and money.
There’s a high level of enthusiasm in designing and building a strategy, a mission statement, or a vision of the future. Executives gain great satisfaction in taking time to attend off-sites to discuss key issues facing their business. These events not only can increase their understanding of the environment in which they operate, but also help create alignment around how they would like to characterize their response to the environmental challenges. The executive team usually leaves workshops tired but satisfied that they have made much progress and that they are now more onboard with what needs to be done.
Yet, a short time later, some leaders back pedal on those aspirations and goals and water down what needs to be achieved when facing their teams. They simmer down their language and tone down, or forego, strong statements about strategy, leaving their subordinates to figure things out for themselves. Some subordinates are literally handed the strategy document and told to go get it done! These executives are highly capable with strong communication and interpersonal skills. Why do they fail at implementation?
The reasoning behind this failure is complex and goes beyond the rational arguments – build action plans and implement scorecards. The answer lies in the nature of implementation and the role of leadership. Managers would benefit from following these seven golden rules of implementation.
1. Assign high credibility individuals to design your strategy
The success of implementation is predestined by the quality of individuals who have been involved in designing the strategy. Individuals involved must be respected and trusted for their credibility, from a technical or business perspective. Involvement and validation of other key formal and informal leaders enhances the credibility of the plan.
Successful implementation of the strategy is contingent on the trust between managers and their subordinates have developed, ensuring that their efforts will be worthwhile. Lack of buy-in to the strategy, resulting from lack of socialization and feelings from influential individuals that their voice has not been heard in developing the strategy, results in lack of buy-in and commitment to implementation.
Successful implementation requires gaining the emotional buy-in of the employees and bringing diverse factions and interests in line. To influence their subordinates, leadership members must understand the strategy within the leadership and find commonality of meaning. They must be able to explain the strategy and its nuances with one voice. Using sessions to allow for hard questioning of the key concepts of strategy by the leadership is time well spent. Implementation involves risk because it requires channeling of resources away from their normal course of action.
2. Involve employees in developing implementation plans
Designing the strategy by itself has no value if it is not fully implemented. Set-up a team to operationalize the strategy and develop implementation plans: key measures of performance, activity plans, milestones, etc. This can then be rolled out to the employees aand discussed. Once the plans are unveiled employee resistance will significantly increase, since the plans mean doing things differently. The concepts are still acceptable but plans require prioritization of work for people who are already busy with activities. Accepting the plans also means ceding power to someone else.
Risk averse managers want to avoid having to deal with uncertainties inherent in implementation. Implementation creates conflict that some managers want to avoid. Some managers don’t know how to persuade their people to act. Involving subordinates in building the implementation plans help the employees take ownership of implementation.
3. Define key measures of performance
Development of cascading measures will help individuals understand their impact on success of the organization. Measures of performance must be prioritized since not all measures are equally important.
Measures must be aligned with the objectives. Building key measures of performance must consider the impact of measurement of any elements of the business against others.
4. Align rewards with achievement of goals
Employees must be evaluated based on measures that will have the greatest impact on the success of the strategy. Our company has been involved with implementation of performance measurement systems tied to business results at a number of client organizations. It’s important to tie both the individual and team results to the rewards, so individuals balance their individual achievements with their team achievements. It’s therefore important to have a balance of measures. Using weights, organization can place greater emphasis on those KPIs that play a more important role at the given time.
5. Communicate what, as well as why
After communicating the strategy, employees are wondering what does this mean to me? What should I do differently to implement this? Why should I trust this stuff? Do I trust the presenter? Allowing the credible individuals who have been involved in developing the strategy to also present the strategy will help enhance the credibility factor. Implementation involves translating conceptual ideas and statements of intent into actionable steps. Individual members of the organization must understand their roles, what has changed, what needs to be done, and what it all means to them. Implementation brings to the forefront tradeoffs between priorities and commitment of resources to activities that will deliver the desired outcomes for the organization. Implementation will undoubtedly create some winners and losers. Successful implementation requires powers of persuasion. Unlike the rational activities of designing a strategy, implementation requires alignment of various ideologies and belief systems. Implementation is change at the personal level and requires individuals to think and do things differently. Implementation may mean extra work for people who are already quite busy with activity. Implementing involves learning and understanding what will be different and acting, individually and proactively, to make the strategy a reality. Managers need understanding of the underlying issues and challenges facing the organization. Creating clear direction and alignment within the management team on what needs to be done is essential. Common understanding of underlying assumptions used in strategy formulation is necessary for understanding the challenges that need to be anticipated.
The typical middle manager is responsible for enforcing corporate policies, achieving top down driven business objectives in terms of costs, capital expenditures, and even revenue targets. Middle managers are rewarded on measures that they cannot completely control and they don’t always select all their subordinates, so, the life of middle managers is a balancing act between keeping those who report to them focused on tasks at hand, pleasing their superiors, and responding to the demands of family and social life. The average manager’s agenda is series of compromises and reliance on personal relationships. When corporate priorities change, it tends to throw a carefully crafted balance out of sync, creating a strong demand to restore equilibrium at great personal expense in terms of time, commitment, and energy, usually with little added short term benefits.
6. Pilot projects to demonstrate success
Pilots allow the stakeholders to better understand the impact of implementing a solution. Business process changes are generally easier to pilot than technology pilots that require resources to build the technology solution and then test it. With technology pilots, it’s better to start a minimally viable product to get to results faster with less investment in resource to see if the designed solution can be implemented.
7. Create a sense of urgency by setting the bar high
A sense of urgency is imperative in implementation, so that initiatives don’t stretch into the infinitum. With a sense of urgency, individuals are more likely to achieve their deliverables timely, knowing that there are deadlines they must meet. Regular meetings and updates help the sense of accountability and ownership.
In conclusion, managers must be aware that it’s how they act and what they do that determines the fate of their implementation, not what they say in their communications.