Hope is Not A Strategy

Executives at the helm of companies from small firms to large enterprises spend much of their time thinking about how to drive growth. But putting those thoughts into action can challenge even the most seasoned leader. Often executives focus on the “what” of strategy at the expense of the “how” — neglecting the “how” makes success a long shot.

This is where individual business units have a distinct advantage over entire enterprises: Identifying interdependencies, conflicts, resources, and deliverables is easier to manage in a more compact organization. And business units are able to move more nimbly to put a strategy into action.

To succeed, business leaders should build bridges from ideas to implementation. These bridges allow employees at different levels throughout the organization buy in to the strategy, visualize how they will contribute, and take action toward the overall strategic goal.

Executives at the top of the organization often have no way to manage implementation after they determine the strategy: mid-level managers are the ones digging in and getting their hands dirty. And if mid-level management doesn’t “get” the executives’ strategy, they can’t align different knobs and levers within the organization to achieve the goal.

Creating a common understanding of strategic goals across the organization is the essence of strategic alignment. With it, anything is possible. Without alignment, there’s bound to be a gap between what the executives envision and what the organization actually does. It’s the difference between strategy as theory and strategy as results. It is effectively “hoping” the right thing will happen.

Most employees want to help the company succeed. But often, they don’t know how. Unclear communication is often the reason: When executives hatch a new strategic plan, mid-level managers may not get it or may misinterpret the intent, and employees never get a clear message about how they can contribute.

A Specific, Top 10 Model
This management system helps strategy and objectives flow throughout the organization and create a heartbeat method that reveals whether things are moving smoothly or not.

To achieve strategic alignment, a company must create cascading strategies that reach across the organization. This only happens with careful, deliberate planning. For example, many successful operating plans use a top 10 model. Based on the vision and mission of the organization, the company leaders (the CEO and executive team) develop the top 10 goals that will move the company forward for a given time period (e.g. a quarter or a year).

The top 10 goals aren’t conceptual strategies. Rather, theses goals are a means to communicate the broad objectives of the company clearly; to be effective, a strategy requires buy-in from all members of an organization. And from 10 company goals, each department, group, office, team, and individual creates a top 10 list of deliverables. When these goals and deliverables are in alignment, as individuals complete their deliverables, the team deliverables are completed, and in turn the department deliverables, and so forth, cascading back up through the organization to the top 10 goals that comprise the strategy.

This top 10 approach fails unless it’s specific. Many books about business strategy overlook the importance of specificity — for a strategy to become reality, the goals and deliverables that support it must be concrete and measurable. Without specificity, strategy, goals, and deliverables remain open to interpretation in both implementation and outcome. “Win market share” isn’t concrete or measurable, but “Close contract with company X for $10 million” is — there’s no ambiguity about the goal or how to assess if it has been achieved.

Specificity extends beyond the what of deliverables to the who and when: Successful deliverables have a name and a deadline. Assigning a deliverable to a team is vague, but naming an individual creates an expectation of accountability. The same is true with deadlines: “Q1” is open to interpretation, whereas “by 5 p.m. on June 30th” is not.

After Clarity, Drive Alignment
Pushing a strategy vision down through the organization with specific goals and objectives ensures that everyone understands what’s expected of them and when. However, coordinating all those top 10 lists requires visibility available only to top-level executives. The CEO and other C-level officers bear responsibility for coordinating priorities between departments and divisions (that in turn drive the priorities for teams and individuals). Only by scrutinizing all the high-level goals and deliverables can top executives eliminate conflicts and redundancies that will doom a strategy to failure and identify interdependencies critical to success.

For example, an employee in one department might have a clear goal of “closing a contract with company X for $10 million by 5 p.m. on June 30.” And though that goal is clear on both what and when, it’s not achievable unless there’s a corresponding commitment from an IT team to upgrade the systems architecture in a certain way by a certain date.

Coordinating these types of interdependencies requires visibility to identify them and often an executive commitment to invest in systems, materials, or staff. Identifying these interdependencies from the outset and then negotiating the required resources (the who, what, and how) creates a foundation for transforming a strategy from idea to implementation. But without that coordination, aligning strategy is only a hope, not an achievable goal.

And hope isn’t a strategy.

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