Undermining strategy

This post is based on my research into the barriers and challenges in implementing strategies and summarises some of the key lessons.

Nobody has seen a strategy. What we see on paper or hear in meeting rooms is only an idea. To move from that idea into impact, people need to both absorb it and enabled to act. This means people are clear, in agreement with and willing to do what they need to do. It also means that people have tools and conditions that enable them to operate. In short, optimal implementation depends on aligning people and plans. Three underlining conditions may foster such alignments: giving implementers sufficient control over outcome, managers considering and consulting in the process of strategy formation and creating suitable conditions in the organisation.

Managers’ perceptions, preferences and practices shape the synergy between people and plans. Practitioners’ paradigms and assumptions may hinder implementation – they appear to be often behind what gets in the way of optimal strategy implementation. The challenge for strategy sponsors is to merry the analytical with perceptive, the hard with the soft, and be aware of the dynamic as each of those influences the other.

Practitioner paradigms and position play important role in how strategy is shaped. Where a practitioner is positioned on the organisational ladder and to what extend they were involved in defining the strategy may influence implementation. The presumption that strategy can be meaningfully divided into formulation and implementation, and assigning each to different groups of people is inadequate to foster optimal strategy implementation. The assumption that such division of labour creates an efficient process of doing strategy has been challenged in the stories practitioners shared with me. Common practices of strategy implementation based on linear and fixed paradigms seem to create all sorts of challenges in practice – both for formulators and implementers.

Strategy is certainly not a linear process, even if it always moves unidirectionally into the future. Adopting more sophisticated and nuanced approaches may facilitate practices that account for complexity of factors that together shape how strategy moves from idea to intention to implementation to impact. Ideas do not happen just at the top and neither implementation happens just at the middle and bottom of the organisational hierarchy. Such division of labour looks good in textbooks, but appears problematic in practice.

Implementation happens at all levels and not engaging any one of those can lead to undesired effect on implementation. The notion that senior managers formulate, communicate and take a back seat is wrought with a lot of difficulties for those charged with implementation (on whoever that burden happens to fall onto). This gets more complicated if channels of communication are blocked or full of noise, thus leading to a triple failure of strategy sponsors: failing to hear what is happening on the ground, failing to adapt, failing to implement optimally where it was possible.


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