Strategic improvisation! What’s that?!
I’ve heard of strategic planning.
I’ve heard of business planning.
But, what is strategic improvisation?
Effective Strategic Planning is Changing
Past practice has dictated most strategic plans flow down through the organization. The plans are created at the top, shared with perhaps one level below the executive team, and then expected to trickle to the rest of the organization thru divisional and departmental goals that are communicated briefly and non-repetitively.
This model might have been effective 45 years ago when the environment was fairly stable and predictable, organizations were extremely hierarchical and management styles were centralized and controlling. Today, one of the reasons many organizations struggle with executing their strategic plans is because they are employing a dated planning process from a decades-old management style. Today, the speed of development, innovation, and time to market has increased exponentially. Many organizations operate in real or virtual teams and networks within a knowledge-based environment. These factors mean survivability and success require a culture that values engagement, involvement, and creativity; the very things that are discouraged in a hierarchical strategic planning framework.
So what process changes are necessary to ensure strategy deployment throughout the organization in an agile and effective manner?
The leadership needs to set some high-level, measurable goals that together with the values and culture, provide the ‘guard rails’ that keep teams, departments, and business units aligned with leadership. These guard rails give teams a wider set of parameters in which to operate, encouraging experimentation, creativity, and, ultimately ownership, to take hold. Individuals and teams are able to craft their own goals to continue to improve their outcomes and innovations at their level. The result is broad organizational goals, aligning the organization, together with specific lower-level goals that allow everyone to see their relevance to the strategic plan.
The critical element in making this kind of strategic execution work is the level to which organizations communicate not only the specifics of the plan but their values and culture. In partnership with the high-level goals, clearly communicated values and culture allow more autonomy and greater risk-taking on the part of individuals and teams.
Removing this rigid, top-down cascade of planning hierarchy in favor of a more hands-off, team approach is what we call Strategic Improvisation℠. It’s strategic because it is aligned with the measurable goals from the top leadership. It is improvisation because it allows departments, teams, business units, or individuals to achieve those goals within a broader set of boundaries. People are allowed and encouraged to create their own solutions, which contribute to engagement and accountability. They can also create their specific goals meaningful to them and their business ecosystems.
Not a Symphony Orchestra but a Jazz Ensemble
One of the best analogies for these two types of structures is if you think of a symphony orchestra versus a jazz ensemble. In an orchestra, the individual musicians rely almost entirely on the composer (for the music) and the conductor (for the guidance). There is no spontaneity. Everyone plays their part. A beautiful symphony is beautiful because it is highly controlled, regulated, and rehearsed. No one who plays in the orchestra expects individual decision making because that’s not the way it’s structured.
Contrast that with a jazz ensemble. They choose a tune. Each member of the ensemble knows the melody which serves as the guideline for their performance. Each member also knows that s/he has the opportunity to take that melody to an individual place when they improvise. Members are encouraged to be creative, within boundaries, as long as they bring it back to the ensemble’s melody when they’re done. They also know in order for each member to accompany them when they are improvising, they need to be communicating the tempo, the tone, and the timing. They remain accountable to the group at the same time they are able to express themselves individually.
Creating a Strategic Improvisation℠ Culture
If you are in a hierarchical culture, what do you have to do to move to Strategic Improvisation℠? We work with a framework we call The Seven C’s. These are:
- Commitment to Clear, Measurable Goals
- Culture to Support Those Goals
- Capacity in the Organization
- Courage to Model the Behavior
- Communication throughout all levels of the organization
- Collaboration within and across teams
- Celebration of milestones and goals
Each ‘C’ directly impacts the organization and its ability to be flexible, aligned, and strategic. Each takes conscious work to change and adapt but the results are tangible and organizations can go from strategic planning to strategic execution.