Infrastructures for Strategic Navigation
When you think about infrastructures in companies, what first comes to mind is physical stuff, like buildings, machines and phone lines. But a healthy, functional infrastructure also includes things like communication lines, work structures and power structures. The quality and design of this second category of infrastructures will make or break the strategy.
For starters, these infrastructures must provide everyone in the company with a shared view of where you are headed together, it must provide easy access to any information they may need to help make the strategy happen, as well as the freedom and authority to take whatever action they see is needed. Without this, it is impossible to navigate the complexity and unpredictability of today’s business realities.
Sadly, most companies fail spectacularly in this area. The mainstream approach to strategy deployment goes something like this. Management compiles a view of the market and concludes what is needed. They document this in a large number of slides, then present it in meetings with the bulk of management. In most companies, a shorter version is then presented by each manager to his direct reports. This way goals are cascaded down the chain of command. And that’s it! Now it is up to everyone to deliver!
But will this approach really reach that place in the human heart that ignites the needed intelligence and resolve of people all around the company? Will it help people pull themselves out of a stressful workday and focus on a long-term strategic horizon? Will they find meaning in this bigger picture? Will they be able to identify their own best contribution to the strategy? And take the lead to make it happen?
Well, you can guess what our answer is!
So, what does a healthy infrastructure for Strategic Navigation look like? What does it take to have everyone on board, co-navigating the company in a sustained effort until the strategy materialises on the ground? Below are five of the key ingredients you need:
Step 1 – Translate Board Room Language
Design a presentation that can cut through into people’s minds without putting them to sleep! This is something entirely different from preparing a presentation for the board. Top management must make a serious effort at making the strategy come alive as an ‘Inspiring story about the future’. They must boil it down to a couple of easy to understand goals and a vision everyone can relate to. It must be based on solid, easy to understand, facts that make sense of the business realities that the company faces. A story that everyone can relate to, that invites people to reflect and take a stand. Let’s listen in at a typical coffee-break-conversation on the morning after the presentation of a well-crafted Strategic Reasoning.
“This strategy show was different. Not a ‘bend-over-here-it-comes-again-event’.”
One of the design engineers, with four ballpoints in his breast pocket, lifted his bottom, pointing it in the direction of the speaker and made a gesture, with cookie in hand, underlining the not-so-nice meaning of his message.
“Behave yourself, Nilsson.” Carolyn from purchasing smiled at her colleague. “But I agree. This was the first time I didn’t fall asleep during a strategy presentation. Big boss actually sounded like a human being. ”
“Was that because they were talking to us the way one would talk to children, Carolyn?” asked Nilsson.
“No, it was not about adjusting the message in the patriarchal sense. This time it was about adjusting it to the time available, using summaries, great examples and generalisations. They had cleared away their own specialist language, using plain language that works for all of us. To me, this shows some respect for the fact that all of us are specialised, and all of us have to take that into account to get our message across.”
Step 2 – Strategy Presented by the CEO
The ideal set-up is around fifty to sixty people, five to six natural work teams. The CEO, or someone else from the top management team, must deliver the presentation in person. This work cannot be delegated in the chain of command. A crisp presentation of 30-40 minutes, no longer. The CEO will not take questions at this stage.
“You’re right, I loved the way he explained what impacts our E-bit,” said Nilsson. “They’ve really put some work into getting us inside the business. But what do you mean by generalisations?”
“We really don’t need the details to understand. When you go a few steps up and make it more general, it immediately becomes easier to digest.”
“Yeah, if you can back up your generalisations with facts, that is.”
A machine operator from the workshop settled down at the table with a mug of coffee. “Hi Tom, do you believe in that strategy stuff?” asked Nilsson.
“Yeah, I do. They did a good job at yesterday’s gathering.”
“A bit sweeping, maybe?”
“Well, I think they have to be, or we would’ve been in there for a week. But the stuff they said about production was spot on. The yield in our processes is too low. And now I also understand the consequences of going from 96% to 98%. It makes the difference between red and black numbers on the bottom line.”
“I agree, I think the importance of reaching those numbers is a lot clearer now.”
Step 3 – Break-Out Sessions
A facilitator should guide the process. Break out in groups of about ten. Everyone has a paper copy of the Strategic Reasoning they just listened to. Discussions structured by questions. During the break-out, the CEO and a facilitator mingle with the groups to answer questions and help them get the job done. Someone in each team is appointed to take down notes and speak for the team when everyone reassembles.
“What impressed me more than anything was how they managed such a large group,” said Tom.
“We must have been over fifty,” said Carolyn. “But the break-outs made it possible.”
“It took a while before we got over our shyness in our group,” said Tom. “Then somebody started to talk about you guys, Carolyn. We had a long chat about why you buy so much crap.”
Carolyn laughed. “I bet you were talking about our perks too, Tom.”
“No, but then Emma our facilitator came in and advised us to focus on getting clear about the strategy.”
Carolyn laughed again. “They’re training us. We were a bit confused before we actually started answering the questions.”
“We got stuck on how to measure,” said Nilsson. “We’re engineers, you know! But we gave them a good match and I think they might change our goals a bit now.”
”We started to talk wages,” said Tom. “A couple of us wanted to confront management, but our union representative pointed out that we have other forums to discuss that.”
Step 4 – Two Way Dialogue with the CEO
“You know, Billy from shipping said to me that I was management’s patsy, when I said I liked what management has done this year,” said Nilsson. “I got angry. I really want us to succeed. It’s my own job at stake after all, and my income, and I happen to think we make important products.”
“You’re not a patsy Nilsson,” said Tom. “I know you have opinions about just about everything that happens in the company. You were the one that asked the sharpest questions. Your question about the Chinese laying their hands on our intellectual property really made the CEO work hard.”
“Billy also had a good question,” said Nilsson.
“The one about strategic mistakes, firing people and then hiring again two months later?” said Carolyn.
“ Yeah, that one – and how about the CEO admitting that the lay-off was a strategic mistake? Very honest, methinks. Very unusual that we could talk about management’s mistakes in the open like that.”
“Obviously management make mistakes like all of us. There was a feeling of being on the same team when we left the room. And I think that was because of the candidness in our discussions.”
“ Yeah, and I think the way our facilitator Emma guided our discussions made it all possible. She made sure we could all speak our minds!”
It takes a lot of training to facilitate a strategic dialogue. How do you avoid runaway discussions? How do you work through a dialogue with so many people without losing track of time? How do you avoid being disrespectful to people due to lack of time? How do you make sure the ‘elephant in the room’ is talked about? How do you handle aggression if that shows up? Or shyness, misplaced respect and fear of speaking in front of large groups? But when a strategic dialogue is well-managed, it helps people reflect and take the strategy on at a more personal level.
Step 5 – From Understanding to Action.
When the strategy has come alive for everyone, the time has come to set up team goals and action plans. This is not so easy in the beginning. Team leaders must be well trained and prepared. Teams need simple standardised procedures and toolkits that help them get clear on what their own best contribution to the strategy might be.
“How did the second break-out work for you guys?” asked Tom.
“Most of the time it was okay,” said Carolyn. “We struggled a bit to find a goal, but the real challenge was finding ways to measure.”
“Well, did you?” asked Tom. “I wasn’t part of your seminar.”
“With a little help from Emma. We’re going to establish a coordinator role between the design workshop, us and our customer. It’s a long-term action plan. We’re going to measure our progress and how we take each step along the way.”
“About time, if you ask me,” said Nilsson. “Well done.”
“What did your team take on?”
“We have a big backlog of incomplete technical specifications. We’re going to work through our backlog before the next six month strategic dialogue. How about you Tom, what did you pick?”
“We’re going to make sure everybody is trained to man every station on our part of the line.”
“Does that really connect to our strategy?”
“Whenever somebody’s on sick-leave, we man our stations with people who’re not properly trained. Yield goes down.”
To sustain these ambitions the teams must, of course, also meet on a regular basis. They should be supported by a robust toolkit. Bi-annually you should organise a follow up gathering of all teams. Every team should get a chance to present whatever progress they have made, the strategic dialogue should be upgraded and re-vitalised and next steps discussed and decided.
Some questions to reflect upon if you are seriously considering upgrading your infrastructure in this direction:
- What do you think can be gained if you run such a strategic dialogue twice a year?
- Are you, and your middle and first line managers, ready to leave behind the traditional approach of letting managers do most of the ‘thinking and deciding’?
- And finally – are you willing to invest time and money to build and sustain the needed infrastructure?
To participate in the discussion on this series of articles – join us at Integ Partner’s LinkedIn.
If you believe you have ‘sleeping assets’ in this area, you may want to read the other articles in this series:
- Speed, Trust and Infrastructure
- Infrastructures for Strategic Navigation
- Infrastructures for Frontline Teams
- Infrastructures for Complex Workflows
- Infrastructures for Dynamic Leadership
- Infrastructure for Self-Organisation