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By Tracey Swanepoel
A strange and somewhat heretical thought hit me recently: what, if any, is the value of (corporate) strategy?
Most corporate strategies are predicated on the assumption of implementation: i.e. when they are implemented things will change, be different, better. Competitive advantage will be realised. The competition will be ousted.
A powerful idea, no dispute. But why then do so many corporate strategies end up as thick dossiers gathering dust, in executive offices, much like shelved scripts for movies never made?
Could it be (and this is what feels like heresy, being a “strategist” myself) that many corporate strategies are just that: blockbuster ideas, possibly even with riveting plot twists (the growth through acquisition here, the international diversification there), that simply never “get made”?
Why? Here’s one theory…
Perhaps all the time spent in strategy “bosberaads”, crunching on peppermints, and muttering to the colleague alongside that this is a “good session,” deludes leadership teams into thinking that because they have spent so much time discussing it, debating it and thinking about it – that they have actually done it.
How disconcerting when the real work, (convincing employees and colleagues to go somewhere new, different, unknown) actually awaits the moment we get back to the office and turn off the out-of-office auto reply.
Most executives admit to that gnawing sense of disquiet on returning to business as usual after the high of a great strategy session. They sense that they should do something but… What? When? How?
Voices of: “That’s not the strategic stuff – that’s operational” “I’ve told them once now they must do it” “That’s not my job- it’s boring”…..keep their conscience at bay.
And so time goes on, very little changes. The strategy is blamed. It is not clear; it is too complex; it is too simplistic. Whatever. The leadership team convene for yet another strategy session to “fine tune” it. And so it goes. No one talks about the real challenge which is not to come up with a more inspirational strategy. Rather, it is how to get employees to live the current one.
Hence my opening statement: does strategy have any value at all? Yes. But: strategy is only valuable once it is understood by the minds, believed in the hearts, and carried out by the hands of a company’s employees.
Collins and Porras (in Built to Last) go so far as to say that a mediocre strategy with a fully aligned employee contingent will guarantee more success than an inspirational one carried only by a handful of people.
Let’s distinguish for a moment between implementation and alignment: implementation is the mechanics. It is co-ordinating employees “hands” to bring about a desired result. Implementation can be commanded.
Alignment is more comprehensive. Alignment speaks of the internal: the intellectual understanding of strategic concepts; the emotional buy-in to a belief system; the motivation and will to act according to a set of parameters which may be largely intangible (values and culture).
What to do the “morning after”
So, go ahead. Have the Bosberaad. Enjoy it! But when you get back….
- Imagine your strategy as a story, well-told. Stories are concrete, memorable and impactful – they make your message stick.
- Combine the power of oral storytelling with an analogy about the compelling future that you want to create.
- Visualise this in whichever way you can.
- And then spend time working with leaders at all levels to equip them to share the story with their teams. And to hear from their teams what they dream about contributing to the strategy.
I’m not talking about a one off event, but rather real time conversations that should happen every day. Because this is how we make strategy, values and culture come alive – one conversation at a time!
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