3 Practices to Make Room for Strategic Improvisation℠October 20, 2020
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Strategic planning is a process by which an organization constructs its future. Once the plan is constructed, either it is executed or it isn’t depending on how the organization can communicate its vision and create ownership among those who will carry out the initiatives. Some organizations do it well. The great majority struggle. They struggle many times because the plan is created and only communicated to a small group on the executive team. Or the plan sounds good but lacks specific, measurable goals. The combination of lack of clarity, purpose and communication means that engagement among those who will be a part of making the plan happen is low. And when engagement is low, ownership and outcomes suffer.
Strategic Improvisation is different from a traditional strategic planning process. Strategic Improvisation is about making the strategic plan a living, breathing driver for your organization. It’s about marshaling the talent within your organization, giving everyone guidelines through a clearly expressed culture, set of values and top-level goals, and then letting people work in networks and teams to make those goals happen. It’s about leveraging technology to ensure communication is constant and your organization is aligned. It’s about keeping the customer’s needs relevant and competitive developments always in the forefront of the organization’s consciousness.
Ensuring you have the right environment for this requires you to honestly examine your organizational culture. Strategic Improvisation is the process by which the leadership sets broad, top level goals, clearly communicates them and then sets teams and individuals free through delegation and de-centralization. This creates an environment that is flexible, agile and has a real sense of ownership. Broad guidelines from leadership set an end-point and make some top-level ‘decision rights’ clear, turning the teams and individuals loose to pursue the goals in ways they choose. Teams become directly involved in both the process and the outcome. And what good leaders instinctively know is that with ownership comes personal responsibility and accountability, two of the most important drivers you can have.
For strategic improvising to work you must have the people in place who are willing to work within this structure. Many people are not ready for either the responsibility or the freedom. If this is the case in your organization, then it is up to you to decide how to adapt and adjust in order to ensure Strategic Improvisation has the right environment in which to flourish.
The most important thing to remember about preparing the organization for the journey towards accountability, transparency and execution is the culture must already exist or must be ready for change. Expectations should be clear and resources should be in place for everyone to be able to accomplish their objectives. Without the ability to dedicate the proper human and dollar capital to your plan, your team is hamstrung before you begin. How do you mold your culture? How do you change perceptions? How do you ensure that everyone is aligned and pulling in the same direction? It begins with the leadership team modeling the behavior. The leadership team holds both the organization and themselves accountable for making specific and measurable goals.
There are seven areas that organizations need to address to ensure plans stay on track and goals are executed. We call these the Seven C’s of Strategic Improvisation. Examining these key elements allows you to understand what kind of environment currently exists and prepares you to take necessary steps to move your leadership and teams in a more pro-active direction. Using the creative power of all your people and aligning the talents and energies of the organization by clearly demonstrating how each person’s work impacts the goals and mission of the organization creates an environment that makes strategic execution a reality.
Courage – Model the behavior you want
Leadership at the top must be committed to the change, not only holding themselves accountable but their team and their team’s teams. Using tools such as dashboards, measurements and Key Performance Indicators, leadership should reinforce strategic goals on a daily basis, keeping them front of mind for all and encouraging progress towards accountability and achievement..
Leadership must be willing to hire, fire, allocate dollars, shift priorities, move the right people into the right seats, move the wrong people out of the wrong seats. They must be relentless in the pursuit of the right environment that will reinforce the organizational goals, even when it is difficult and especially when it challenges the status quo.
Leadership must have the courage to let go and let Strategic Improvisation happen. For those who come from a command and control, top-down management structure or rigid hierarchy, this can be extremely difficult. Set goals that force the top teams to let go. Require that departmental and individual goals are directly attached to the top level strategies and then…let go.
Culture – Create a culture that supports your goals and your human capital
Assess the current culture and whether or not it is able to support the organizational goals. If the culture is hierarchical and permission-based, a more open, less structured approach will be a hard transition. Examining your culture and taking steps to help people move closer to the culture you need will help achieve results. Will everyone feel comfortable with more freedom and additional accountability? Will accountability be seen as punitive rather than a way to identify what needs focus in order to effect positive change? If the culture is not best positioned to support the goals, what needs to change to shift to a bias toward action and a results oriented strategy? What’s missing? What needs nurturing? Once you answer these questions, you can formulate a plan to deal with the potential changes you need to make to have a culture that is ready for Strategic Improvisation.
Commitment – Leadership commits to clear, measurable goals
KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), CSFs (Critical Success Factors), OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) – there are many names organizations use to focus on measurable outcomes. Whatever your organization chooses to call them, leadership creates a series of measurable, top-level goals that are clear, meaningful and relatable to all in the organization. Depending on the size of the organization, anything more than four goals could risk removing focus and clarity for others. It is leadership’s job to pick goals that move the organization towards vision attainment. Then it’s leadership’s job to hold themselves and the organization accountable for those goals
From these clear, measurable goals, the rest of the organization must develop both departmental and cross-functional goals and explain how these fit into the overall, organizational goals. Department/functional heads are also encouraged to develop goals that push their department/cross functional teams to their visions. This helps align and focus the organization with common purpose at the same time it creates relevance throughout the organization.
Communicate – Ceaselessly communicate the goals, transparently, clearly and consistently
One of the ways to pro-actively ensure communication is happening is by employing appropriate technology tools to transmit and track progress towards goals. When activities are visible and transparent throughout the organization, everyone stays focused and on task. Ensure there are many methods on the corporate, departmental and individual level to reinforce the messages.
The organization needs to demonstrate that everyone plays a part in the achievement of strategic goals in order to keep people engaged, contributing and feeling part of the mission. Everyone needs to be mobilized to feel relevant and part of the solution. Ensure that not only top level goals are relevant but that everyone has a chance to agree to the goals they will accomplish that will roll up into the larger objectives.
Finally, in your communications don’t forget to emphasize that accountability is not about punishment. Ensure that everyone knows accountability allows people to focus on the areas in the organization that need improvement marshaling the efforts of the available talent. Use your communication platform to be positive, not only for individual expectations but also once goals are achieved and you celebrate the appropriate milestones. Communication is really the bedrock of the entire system of achieveing the Seven C’s.
Collaborate – Work together across teams, departments and disciplines
Ensure teams work together to achieve cross-departmental goals. Structure the organization to collaborate and generate ideas for leap-frogging the marketplace, understanding the customer pain points and their subsequent solutions.
Use collaboration to keep the competition under constant watch for developments that could jeopardize the organization’s competitive advantage and shift the marketplace to your disadvantage. When collaborative teams can keep tabs on the marketplace, the competition and how your organization fits in, they are better able to work toward the next best version of your product or service. Sharing information is critical to solid collaboration. Taking time to regularly meet to discuss new developments, new ideas or changes to customer preferences is one of the most effective ways to leverage collaboration.
And finally, reinforce collaborative culture by example through leadership modeling the behavior at the top level of the organization.
Capacity – Ensure you have high talent and investment where you need them most
Assessment of the current talent pool, leadership pool and followership pool. Do you have the capacity both in human and capital terms, as well as the time it will take to make the necessary moves and position the organization properly? Are you willing to make the investment necessary? Are you willing to hire the talent you may not have? Are you willing to spend where you might not have previously? To say that having the right talent in the right places is critical is an understatement. Without the human component , you won’t be able to realize your vision. Put a plan in place to ensure you move and recruit people and resources to where the strategy requires.
Celebrate – Make a big deal out of completed goals
Once goals are achieved, use all the technology and traditional tools available to communicate they have been achieved.
Ensure those involved are recognized and that the organization knows what happened, who was involved and what they did to make the success. This not only helps people feel recognized, it helps other teams see what kinds of behaviors and actions create success.
Ensure the culture is a part of the success and vice-versa. Review what happened; what went right, what went wrong and what could be even better for the future.
Strategic Improvisation is the new strategic planning for today’s leadership. It allows organizations to adapt to a less hierarchical, more networked, knowledge-based environment where teams work in much more independent ways as a result of technology tools and shifting organizational cultures. It takes a proven process – planning for the future so it doesn’t take you by surprise – and adds the elements of flexibility and agility in order to properly respond to sudden shifts in the competitive and customer-centric ecosystems of our world.
Strategic Improvisation may be a shift in thinking for some organizations. But the benefts are clear. Some of the most basic human tendencies to connect, be relevant, communicate and contribute go a long way towards achieving overall goals and organizational success.