Strategy is a pattern in a stream of decisions.
— Henry Mintzberg
If your organization is like most, your strategy isn’t working as well as you’d like. In this article I’ll pinpoint two surprising reasons why:
- The way we frame strategy sets us up to fail. (If effective implementation is our intended destination, we’re using the wrong map to find it.)
- This flawed framing leads us to ignore a core competence upon which every strategy depends. (So, in our quest for effective implementation, we’re not only disoriented – we’re ill-equipped.)
But all is not lost. In this article I’ll share a more elegant and actionable way of putting strategy to work. What’s more, I’ll show how this new approach provides a clearer way to connect your management, leadership, team, and organizational development directly to the success of your strategy.
WHY STRATEGY MATTERS
Strategy is at once the most important activity – and the most defining characteristic – of any organization. What distinguishes Holiday Inn from Ritz Carlton isn’t their logo, their buildings, their locations, their décor, or the cost of a stay – it’s their strategies. Those other characteristics – the more obvious differences – are products of the strategic choices they’ve made. Whether you’re a business, a not-for-profit, or a government agency, your strategy sets you apart from other organizations in your field.
Roger Martin, a distinguished expert on strategy, and the world’s top management thinker according to Thinkers50, says, “Great strategy is critical to the success of every organization.” This explains the amount of attention the subject gets. There’s a steady stream of books, articles, courses, and consultants, all dedicated to strategy.
But something’s not right. Despite all this attention and advice, research shows few strategies work as intended. It’s been estimated that 67% of strategies fail due to poor implementation. One survey found that while 80% of leaders think they’re good at crafting strategy, far less – only 44% – felt they were good at implementation. Worse still, only 2% felt they would achieve most or all of their strategic objectives. Ouch.
Given all the focus and fanfare, why all the fumbling and failure? There are two related reasons:
- A faulty frame: the popular mental model used to create strategy leads to a flawed approach to implementation.
- A strategic blindspot: to make matters worse, because we’re looking at strategy through the wrong lens we overlook a pivotal competence for making it work.
YOUR STRATEGY IS A SET OF CHOICES
“Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs;
it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.”
‑— Michael Porter
At its core, your strategy is a set of choices about what you will do, and what you won’t do, in the pursuit of your primary aspiration – the difference you choose to make in the world and the unique way you decide to make that difference. “Strategy,” says Roger Martin, “imagines a desirable future and makes a set of choices with the best chance of bringing it about.” Michael Porter, one of the most influential and widely recognized experts on strategy, puts it this way: “Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.” It is these choices that separate Holiday Inn from Ritz Carlton, Jeep Wrangler from Range Rover, and In-n-Out from McDonalds.
So here’s the big question: Who makes these choices?
The popular answer to this question is a primary reason so many strategies falter.
THE POPULAR (BUT FLAWED) FRAME
Trying to achieve a goal with the wrong mental model is like trying to find a location using the wrong map.
“All models are wrong,” observed George Box. “Some models are useful.” The goal is to find a mental model – a way of framing an activity – that leads to effective action. Trying to achieve a goal with the wrong mental model is like trying to find a location using the wrong map.
This explains why most strategies flounder. The popular mental model we employ to make sense of strategy – and therefore the way we go about it – sets us up to fail. As Roger Martin puts it in his HBR article, The Execution Trap, we’re misguided by our metaphor.
The nearly ubiquitous way of thinking about strategy is to treat it as something separate from implementation, as if they’re two distinct activities performed by two different groups of people. Senior management comes up with a strategy; it is then handed off to others who are responsible for executing that strategy. There are choice-makers and there are choice-implementers. The generals design the strategy; the troops fight the battle. In this way, we tend to compare strategy and execution with the brain and the body, Martin says. The head formulates; the body executes. The brain tells the hand what to do and the hand does it.
In a similar way, we expect top managers to make the strategic choices and the rank and file to execute them. “Most businesspeople think of strategy as the purview of senior managers,” says Martin, “who, often aided by outside consultants, formulate it and then hand off its execution to the rest of the organization.”
The Problems this Mental Model Creates
This widespread mental model for strategy – senior executives formulate and the rest of the organization implements – results in at least three counterproductive consequences:
Disengagement: This command and control approach – “We’ll do all the thinking and the choosing and you just do what you’re told” – is the antithesis of engagement. It’s more like 18th century European warfare in which the troops just lined up obediently and advanced when ordered. When there is a dividing line between the choice makers and choice implementers, the implementers tend to fall in line and compliantly execute. “They get paid the big bucks to make the big decisions. I’m just going to keep my head down and do what I’m told. If it doesn’t work, it’s not my fault. I’m just following orders.” As Roger Martin puts it, “employees quickly learn the rules of the game and become mechanically obedient. Then they become disillusioned and disconnected.”
Blindness: As Peter Senge, the author of The Fifth Discipline, points out, our mental models – “deeply held internal images of how the world works” – act as filters that determine what we see – and what we don’t. They limit us, he says, to “familiar ways of thinking and acting.” Approaching a problem with a flawed frame can blind you to other ways of approaching a problem. This is the problem with the way we think about strategy. The mindless acceptance of the traditional view creates tunnel vision that blinds us to more useful ways of making it work.
The Blame Game: The “senior management formulates strategy and everyone else executes it” view of strategy not only sets you up for failure, it makes it difficult to extract any learning from the failure. Why? It’s always someone else’s fault.
If the strategy succeeds, the executives who designed it are hailed as heroes. If it doesn’t, the blame-game begins. Management blames the employees who they see as responsible for implementation: “It’s hard to find competent help. Why can’t these slackers treat the organization with the same level of commitment we do?” Employees, of course, blame management. “They have no idea how things really work around here.” As Roger Martin explains, “The employees feel even more disconnected from the company and more convinced, as Dilbert would say, that they are working for idiots. Senior management blames the frontline employees, frontline employees blame management, and eventually, everyone becomes belligerent.”
And even in the rare circumstances in which the strategy itself is found to be faulty, management can always blame the consultants. “That strategy was hopeless. It’s time to find a new consulting firm.” Consultants, of course, point the finger at senior management: “They wouldn’t know a brilliant strategy from a hole in the ground.”
A BETTER MENTAL MODEL
To improve how strategy works, we need to shift not just what we’re doing to implement strategy, but how we’re framing it in the first place. Rather than struggling to find new and improved ways to bridge the gap between strategy and execution, Roger Martin suggests a simpler approach – get rid of it. How? By recognizing there is no gap. It’s just an illusion created by a flawed metaphor. We can erase the gap between strategy and implementation by changing the underlying mental model we’re using to create it.
“The essence of great strategy is making choices – clear, tough choices,” says Martin, “like what businesses to be in and which not to be in, where to play in the business you choose, how you will win where you play, what capabilities and competencies you will turn into core strengths, and how your internal systems will turn those choices and capabilities into consistently excellent performance in the marketplace.” But when it comes to who makes those choices, Martin provides an answer that is more elegant, engaging, and actionable than the popular frame. He suggests viewing strategy as a cascade of conversations and choices:
To fix our problem with strategy failure, we need to stop thinking in terms of the brain-to-body metaphor. Instead, we should conceive of the corporation as a white-water river in which choices cascade from the top to the bottom. Each set of rapids is a point in the corporation where choices could be made, with each upstream choice affecting the choice immediately downstream.
Framing strategy as a “strategic choice cascade” turns everyone in the organization into a strategic choice-maker.
How does it work?
Rather than being made exclusively at the top and then handed down to be implemented by everyone below, strategic choices flow, in an orchestrated way, from the top to the bottom of the organization.
Choices made at the top set up the choices to be made at the next level down, and those choices set up the choices for the level below them. This process is repeated until everyone is engaged in the process.
“Those at the top of the company make the broader, more abstract choices involving larger, long-term investments,” says Martin, “whereas the employees toward the bottom make more concrete, day-to-day decisions that directly influence customer service and satisfaction.” This coordinated flow of strategic decisions integrates thinking and action at every level of the enterprise.
The process is structured in a consistent way. A manager helps people downstream make their strategic choices, Martin suggests, by following a basic process:
- Explain the upstream choice and the rationale for it.
- Identify the next downstream choice or choices.
“Here are the choices we’ve made. Let me explain the logic behind these choices and how they connect with the overall strategy, and then I’ll outline some of the choices you and your team will need to make.”
- Help people in making their downstream choices when necessary.
- Commit to revisiting, exploring, and modifying their choices based on feedback from people downstream.
“I can help you as you grapple with your decisions if you like, and once you’ve made your choices, I’ll check back to see if you have any feedback based on what you learn as you put your choices into practice.”
This simple process helps people make their own strategic choices at their level of the organization, but their choices are grounded in, informed by, and connected to, the upstream choices.
In The Execution Trap, Roger Martin provides an example of how a cascade works:
Let’s say the CEO decides that the company will invest heavily in the U.S. retail banking business. Given that decision, the president of that business unit might then ask, “How will we seek to win in U.S. retail banking?” Her choice is still quite broad and abstract, but it is explicitly bound by the choice made above her. She decides that the company will win in the retail banking business through superior customer service. From there, yet more choices follow throughout the organization. The EVP of branch operations might ask, “What service capabilities must we develop to deliver consistently superior customer service?” If the answer includes ease of interaction for the customer at the branch, the branch manager might ask, “What does that mean for the hiring and training of CSRs and the scheduling of their shifts?” And the rep on a given desk has to ask, “What does all that mean for this customer, right here, right now?”
It can be a very long cascade from the top to the bottom in a large corporation. In the bank example, there would probably be both a regional and an area manager between the EVP and the branch manager. As the cascade grows, its structure and operating principles become more critical. For the decision-making process to work most effectively, each choice must be integrated seamlessly with the others. In this model, employees are encouraged to make thoughtful choices within the context of the decisions made above them. The approach rests on the belief that empowering employees to make choices in their sphere will produce better results, happier customers, and more-satisfied employees.”
The cascade flows all the way down. Decisions being made by a bank teller dealing with a customer are directly associated – via the stream of conversations – with the strategic decisions made at the top of the cascade by the CEO and top executives. There is no gap between strategy and implementation. It’s just a continuous flow of conversations and choices informing the thoughts and actions of everyone at the bank. In a cascade, everyone is making strategic decisions.
FEEDBACK LOOPS: THE BACKBONE OF STRATEGY
The cascade down the organization connects all the conversation and choices in a streamlined way. But that is still not enough to make your strategy work. Another vital part of the process, and the most difficult to get right, is the upstream flow of information – the feedback loops.
For a strategy to really work, you need robust, open, reliable, rigorous feedback flowing up the organization. Providing both strength and agility, feedback loops are the backbone of any strategy. If something isn’t working, if a problem crops up, if new information emerges during implementation, or if someone has a better idea for how to achieve an objective, you need that information to flow back up the chain of command quickly and clearly.
Why Feedback Loops Fail
The very people responsible for building a strategy that works – managers –
are often a primary reason it doesn’t.
Vibrant feedback loops create a self-correcting strategy that can adapt to shifting circumstances, new information, or better ideas. They turn the strategy into an ongoing process of learning because information is flowing up and across the organization – not just down it.
But there’s a major problem. Nothing enfeebles feedback loops more than the presence of authority. Let that sink in. Managers – the very people responsible for creating an effective strategy – are often a primary reason it doesn’t work.
Just the presence of an authority figure in a conversation or meeting will make it harder for people to share their concerns, critical information, or constructive feedback. If you add dismissive, arrogant, abrasive, or even ambiguous behavior to the mix, you amplify the problem. So, unless managers at every level of your organization learn to carry their authority in a way that reinforces these feedback loops, their mere presence, and often their behavior, will have the opposite effect. (We’ll delve deeper into this problem, and more importantly what you can do about it, shortly.)
WHY THE CASCADE FRAME IS BETTER
Roger Martin’s lifelong goal is to make strategy simple, fun, and effective, and treating it as a cascade of conversations and choices serves this purpose. Approaching strategy this way provides several advantages:
- It’s more actionable. It’s easier to put to work because it’s clear what role everyone plays in this simple, well-structured process.
- It’s more engaging. Rather than just a few people making strategic choices and everyone else just waiting for orders – like baby birds waiting for their mom to bring them a worm – everyone in the organization is engaged in the strategy in a clear, shared, orchestrated process. Better still, everyone can see how the choices they make bring more precision and practicality to the choices made above them.
- It shifts the focus of management. They’re spending more time engaging downstream because they’re focused on helping the next level down be more effective and influential.
- It’s more cohesive. Strategy, when treated as a fluid cascade of conversations and choices, connects and coordinates action across the enterprise.
- It’s more agile. “You have to be fast on your feet and adaptive,” said Charles de Gaulle, “or else a strategy is useless.” The conversations, choices, and feedback loops create a robust system of continuous organizational learning.
- It’s more realistic. Every person at every level has always made choices in the workplace. Treating strategy as a cascade just makes the process more explicit and rigorous.
- It’s more fun. The psychologist William Glasser suggested that human beings have an innate need for fun, and this need is associated with learning. In a choice cascade, everyone is engaged in dialogue and learning in the service of strategy, and this learning leads to more engagement, more effectiveness, and more fun.
A STRATEGIC FOCUS ON DEVELOPMENT
There is one more advantage to this frame that deserves special attention. Treating strategy as a cascade of conversations and choices shifts how you evaluate and improve the effectiveness of your organization in three ways:
- It provides a practical framework for prioritizing how you invest your development resources: “What will most improve our strategy cascade?”
- It makes it easier to explain the logic and value of your investment choices: “Here is how this investment will improve our strategy cascade.”
- It underscores the role of development professionals as vital strategic partners: “Our role is to help the organization continuously improve the strategic cascade.”
A FOUNDATIONAL COMPETENCE
Making choices is hard work.
Viewing strategy as a cascade not only sharpens your focus on the organizational competencies you need to strengthen, such as decision-making, collaboration across boundaries, and influencing without authority, it also calls attention to a foundational variable on which all these other competencies depend: the conversational capacity of the organization.
What is Conversational Capacity?
What is conversational capacity? Conversational capacity refers to the ability to engage in constructive, learning-focused dialogue about difficult subjects, in challenging circumstances, and across tough boundaries. It’s more than just a nice-to-have capability. The tougher the problems you’re trying to solve, the deeper the change you’re trying to orchestrate, the bolder the strategy you’re trying to implement, and the greater the differences in personality, cultural background, tenure, position power, or perspective in your team or organization, the more important a variable conversational capacity will become in your performance.
You can measure the conversational capacity of an individual or a team by the ability to converse in the “sweet spot” under pressure. The sweet spot is that place in a conversation or meeting where candor and courage are balanced with curiosity and humility. This is a good place to work. Candor and courage are high, so you’re being honest, open, forthright, and direct. But, curious and humble, you’re also open-minded, intellectually nimble, and eager to learn. When you’re in the sweet spot, you have the ability to raise your hand and speak up, and the ability to listen and learn – even in high-pressure circumstances that aren’t making it easy.
6 Reasons Conversational Capacity is Vital to Strategy
An organization filled with people who can work together in the sweet spot when it counts is going to have a far more effective strategy cascade. Here are six reasons why:
- A Strategic Mindset: Someone with high conversational capacity engages with others with a clear purpose. Their mind is set on crafting conversations that expand and improve thinking – their own and that of others – in the service of making the smartest choices possible. If strategy is a cascade of conversations and choices, therefore, conversational capacity is a pivotal competence.
- Effective Communication in a Hierarchy: Conversational capacity, remember, refers to the ability to engage in learning-focused dialogue about difficult subjects, in challenging circumstances, and across tough boundaries. And in any organization, one of the most challenging boundary systems across which people need to work is the hierarchy. The ability to work in the sweet spot is critical to the clear flow of information up, down, and across the enterprise.
- Discipline: Right when you need your team to engage with one another in a balanced way, it’s going to be difficult to maintain the balance. Conversing in the sweet spot might be easy enough when you’re dealing with a casual, routine issue. But when the issue is important – and you’re working with smart, passionate people who don’t see the problem the same way – the ability to balance candor and curiosity often starts to drop. Implementing strategy, which involves tough trade-offs and difficult choices, will create just these situations. So whether you’re sticking with a more traditional approach to strategy, or implementing a choice cascade, you need the discipline to engage in the sweet spot under pressure.
- Performance: You don’t just need discipline – you need the ability to apply that discipline in a way that drives performance. How? By using it to improve meetings, decision-making, collaboration across boundaries, influence without authority, and other essential activities in the process.
- Alignment: Empowered by shared norms for how to engage with one another up, down, and across the enterprise, your organization is aligned strategically and behaviorally. You’re aligned not just by a common process, but also by a shared approach to the conversations taking place within that process.
- Agility: “Because strategy is dynamic,” observes Harvard Business School’s Joan Magretta, “organizations must be flexible.” Rita McGrath, at Columbia Business School, agrees. Her research shows that highly successful organizations were good at “pursuing strategies with a long-term perspective on where they wanted to go, but also with the recognition that whatever they were doing today wasn’t going to drive their future growth.” More agile, they were able to make smart, short-term adjustments to better meet their long-term strategic objectives. “Innovation used to be over there, and strategy was over here, but now they are inseparable,” says McGrath. The world changes quickly, so in addition to creating a strong strategic cascade we must build our organization’s capacity for adaptive learning or we may find ourselves rolling forward with an outdated strategy that is perfectly suited to a world that no longer exists.
A paramount responsibility of managers at every level of your organization – from the CEO to line supervisors – is to build the capacity of their team or organization to participate effectively in the strategy process.
If your culture is conflict avoidant – where people are nice, pleasant, and agreeable, but not as candid as they need to be – strengthening the candor muscles of your organization will ensure your cascade functions well. If you have a culture that is high on candor – being open and direct is a strength – but it’s not always expressed in a productive way, strengthening the curiosity muscles of the organization will help improve your strategy.
More likely, your organization faces a mix of both challenges – places where candor is too low, and other places where curiosity is lacking – and helping everyone learn to engage in more balanced conversations will help boost performance.
No matter your situation, it’s important to recognize that it’s impossible to roll out an effective strategy if the conversational capacity of your organization is too low. A strategy being implemented by an organization with low conversational capacity isn’t a strategy – it’s a Charlie Foxtrot. It’s often said that culture eats strategy for lunch. I’d rephrase that in a more specific way: low conversational capacity eats strategy for lunch.
But when it comes to capacity building, there’s a problem that most organizations do a poor job of solving: Nothing lowers conversational capacity more predictably than the presence of authority. Let that sink in. This means, paradoxically, that one of the biggest barriers to effective strategy is the people responsible for orchestrating it. This explains the point I made earlier: nothing restricts the feedback loops more than the presence of management. So the very people responsible for creating an effective cascade of conversations and choices are often one of the primary reasons it doesn’t work.
Solving the Problem
The best way to solve this problem is to approach it from two directions: from the bottom up, and from the top down.
You need people, no matter their status or station, who can speak up with candor and courage even when other people, or the situation, isn’t making it easy. This is hard work. Anyone who has paddled a raft or kayak upstream – struggling against the current – knows how much more effort it takes compared to paddling downstream with the current. The same holds true in our organizations – raising a problem or concern with someone up the cascade takes more strength and discipline.
So you need more than people willing to speak up; you need people who can do so with mental and social dexterity, people able to provoke more learning than defensiveness, more head-nodding than eye-rolling, more focusing on the problem and less killing of the messenger; people who can walk into a challenging, high-pressure situation and handle it in a competent and constructive way. You need people with a high level of Do-It-Yourself Psychological Safety (DIY-PS). Such people are invaluable. They help create an organization that can learn.
In addition to people who can influence without authority, you also need people in positions of authority – from line supervisors up to the CEO – who know how to carry their authority in a way that improves, rather than impedes, the cascade. Managers can’t just stand around tapping their toes and looking at their watches, passively waiting for people below them to speak up – they need the ability to actively encourage it. Lacking this competence, they’ll hinder the ability of the people below them to bring their A-game to the enterprise – a direct breach of their duty as a manager. And the greater the position of authority, the higher the conversational capacity needed to wield it effectively.
STRATEGY AS PRACTICE
This discipline – the ability, under pressure, to balance candor and courage with curiosity and humility – is not a simple gimmick. It’s a conversational martial art, and earning our black belt – the ability to remain balanced in the toughest of circumstances – requires practice.
The danger in framing it as a martial art is that it may tempt some people to think, “Great. I can use it against my colleagues.” But in this martial art, your opponent isn’t other people, the situation, or the issue, it’s your ego, and the defensive emotional reactions that protect it. When it comes to conversing in the sweet spot, ego is the enemy of effectiveness.
Here’s the good news. If conversational capacity is a martial art, your strategy provides the perfect dojo. Every point in the process provides a place for practice:
- The conversations and choices being made at every level of the organization
- The conversations taking place between each level as the choices are handed down and the next level choices are identified.
- The conversations taking place as feedback flows back up the cascade.
- There are also conversations and choices laterally – between various functions and groups – and even outside the organization, with suppliers, customers, and partners.
Implementing a cascade of conversations and choices that integrates action across the enterprise not only creates a more effective strategy and a sharper developmental focus; it also turns your strategy into a developmental activity. And therein lies the elegance of it all: conversational capacity helps you create a more effective strategy, and your strategy provides an ideal way to build your conversational capacity.
Sources and additional readings:
- Roger Martin, The Execution Trap
- Roger Martin, Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works
- Joan Magretta, What Management Is
- Rita McGrath, On the End of Competitive Advantage
- Craig Weber, Conversational Capacity and Psychological Safety
- Craig Weber, Adaptive Engagement and Conversational Capacity
- Craig Weber, Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams that Perform when the Pressure is On
Graphics by Bethany Weber
This article was originally published on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-build-strategy-driven-organization-craig-weber/