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Strategy Execution Priority 1: Improve Organizational Alignment

By David Gordon |

In the last publication we introduced our Strategy Execution Management (SEM) methodology. We highlighted that leading executives have turned their attention to new ways of implementing effective execution and that organizations with a formal strategy execution process reported that they were roughly 2-3 times more likely to outperform peers.

As a quick reminder, to successfully execute your business strategy we identified three keys:

1. Align and engage organizational units and employees to the organization's core foundation, strategy, and corresponding initiatives;
2. Create new forms of accountability that allow employees freedom to operate and contribute but always within the context of the strategic initiatives;
3. Improve adaptability to quickly respond to performance gaps, eliminate commitment escalation to failed courses of action, and quickly make course corrections as needed.

In this edition we are going to delve into the first of the three components - Organizational Alignment.

Priority 1. Improving Organizational Alignment

Creating and improving organizational alignment takes more than software or a few quick emails, and the better you can align your resources, the more effective keys 2, 3 and your overall execution will be.

Successful organizational alignment occurs when an organization finds congruence between its rational elements (strategies, goals, processes, systems) and its cultural elements (artifacts, legends, rituals, heroes, mental models, symbols, values) and connects them in such a way as to navigate efficiently towards its higher vision.

Graphic courtesy of Vanguard Consulting.

As a child you probably played this game: A group stood in a line and a child at one end would begin by whispering a phrase to the child next to him or her. That child then whispered what he or she heard into the ear of the next child, and so on down the line. The first and last in line then stated what he or she heard out loud and likely everyone had a good laugh - shocked at how very different the statements were!

Unfortunately, the same ineffective communication problem occurs while attempting to implement strategic initiatives in many organizations and in these cases the outcome is usually not funny to anybody but your competitors.

Okay, so let's get to it. Here's the STRATEGYLink methodology to prevent the above scenario from happening and increase organizational alignment.

Step 1: Start REAL communications early.
Once your senior management team agrees on the new initiatives designed to move the organization towards its vision, begin sharing open, simple communications surrounding the initiatives and encourage this open communication through the entire organization. If you choose to hold back or whitewash communications with PR speak, the rumour mill will take on a life of its own and begin to shape the culture for you. And it wont likely be aligned to your organization's higher vision. Don't try to tone down the message of how 'bad' the current state really is. Simply say it as it is. Your employees likely intuitively already know that execution is weak. Be honest about any wrinkles in the organization's present situation and the urgent need to improve performance.

As a leader you must communicate directly with as many employees as possible and create hundreds of cascading conversations about the need for improved focus. Don't forget to continually demonstrate your own personal alignment to the organization's strategic initiatives. Ultimately you should be able to walk down the hall and ask any employee what the organization's vision, strategy, and key initiatives are. If you are doing your job, a vibrant true sense of urgency to improve the organization, survive and win will resonate from every office.

Step 2: Squelch complacency.
Some employees and managers will see the need for change as "over in that other department, but not here," or that "we are doing fine as is and don't need to change how things work." Many past initiatives and changes have likely failed or had limited successes so why get worked up about this one? Naturally it is those past failures we are trying not to repeat through improved alignment.

Step 3: Identify false urgency and turn it into true urgency.
False urgency can be more difficult to identify than complacency. False urgency often leads to anxiety, anger, and generally busyness of activity without the corresponding results necessary to achieve the organizational goals. It can manifest in meeting after meeting with no time to get high priority work done, forming more committees to solve problems, and getting bogged down in day to day low value added tasks that seem to take priority over headway towards the new organizational initiatives.

The sooner false urgency is uprooted, the sooner a TRUE sense of urgency can arise in your organizational culture. Once true urgency is the prevalent force, you will find employees naturally beginning to align with, and drive, organizational initiatives.

Step 4: Engage!
With honest communications underway, complacency and false urgency identified and under attack, you are now ready to begin to motivate employees and focus on alignment to the strategic objectives.

Learned from Mr. John Kotter, the best strategy we have found that the way to undertake effective engagement is to use a heart/head combination approach. Managers must appeal to employees in more than the common sense, rational way. Yes, some elements of logic and rational explanation are still needed, but humans are motivated largely through the heart. Personal stories of triumph or failure, direct discussion rather than hiding behind a desk or podium, and sharing the message that we are in this together and we need you, the employee, on board to be successful can be extremely powerful and engaging. Management needs to further build employee confidence that they can, and will, make a difference in the success of these initiatives.

Past failures, bad breaks, and personal weaknesses need to be addressed openly, accepted, and then moved past in order to further build confidence in your staff.

Step 5: Solidify alignment.
With a sense of urgency vibrating through the organization and employee engagement high, it's time to tie organizational initiatives to personal employee goals. Tying personal goals to larger initiatives creates individual accountability to organizational success. Most organizations use such tactics for sales staff, but with some tweaking the methodology and a cost effective monitoring system, it can be applied throughout the organization. Nothing motivates and hones attention quite like it. We will discuss accountability in depth in our next edition.

Do NOT confuse this undertaking with performance management and farm these duties out to your HR team. As a default all things people related seem to get pushed to HR. Do NOT do this. HR is valuable but true alignment needs to be initiated from the top. Senior management must show leadership; then individual managers who understand their department's culture best will align and demonstrate a personal sense of urgency to achieve the strategic initiatives. These managers know how to deliver messages most effectively and can best hold employees accountable to individual goals. HR is often viewed as an outsider to the unique cultural cohorts that form.

Step 6: Sustain momentum.
Finally, it is vitally important to sustain the momentum obtained. Do not drop back and leave employee goals for the end of year review. Holding one-on-one, off site meetings every 6-8 weeks to track progress and discuss concerns will help keep a high sense of urgency and focus. The STRATEGYLink methodology utilizes an effective tool that allows both employees and managers to pre-score goal progress and organizational alignment prior to the meetings which we have found encourages an open, honest discussion. These pre-scored, one-on-one meetings help to maintain top down alignment and further increase management's downward visibility. The meetings also allow for quick modifications to course direction to be communicated, understood, and ultimately implemented.

Up next - key 2 - how to create new forms of accountability that allow employees freedom to operate and contribute but always within the context of the strategic initiatives.

Kotter, John. A Sense of Urgency. Harvard Business Press. September 2008.

Kaplan, Robert S and Norton, David P. The Execution Premium. Harvard Business Press. 2008.

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