What's Holding us back from Connecting with Strategy?
This article was first published on Medium on 28 October 2021
My recent blog post, The 7 Types of ‘Not Actually Strategy’ Strategy, makes the point that in most organisations strategy is done poorly, if at all. So, how have we ended up with these faux strategies that are not connected to employees, key decisions or organisational activity? This blog post explores four root causes, which inhibit leaders’ ability to engage properly with strategy development and execution, and offers a call to action to those in leadership positions to change their own mindset and behaviours first.
Short Term Activity vs. Long Term Strategic Advantage
Instead of thinking strategically or planning for the longer term, it is my experience that senior leaders are often driven by short-term pressures to deliver tangible results and demonstrate immediate signs of progress, whether that is to their immediate boss, the Board or shareholders. A senior executive once said openly to me, he didn’t care if what he delivered was of any benefit or not, so long as he delivered something within the timeframe he believed was acceptable. He didn’t think he’d get his end of year bonus or next promotion by thinking long-term. This wasn’t a bad or unintelligent person in front of me. He was as committed to his organisation’s mission as all the other men and women he worked with. Yet the pressure he felt to launch into activity and do something, “anything” as he said, was overwhelming.
You might expect it to be different in government, where you don’t have shareholder pressure, but the reality is it’s exactly the same. Ministers and civil servants constantly rotate roles and typically have around 2 or 3 years to make their impact before they move on. Although the vast majority are committed to doing the right thing (admittedly some are driven by power and ego, if not by money), they are subject to the same short-term systems and behavioural norms. As one former colleague said to me, “Medium and long-term thinking isn’t fashionable around here”.
Several months ago, I was discussing this issue with an innovation consultancy who agreed that getting leadership to focus on strategy is hard and admitted it wasn’t something they pushed with the companies who engage their services. When I asked why they didn’t push this more, they answered; “Because they don’t want to hear it. It doesn’t sell.” No matter how much money and effort you spend on innovation sprints, accelerators, tools and consultants, if you don’t have a strategy, what purpose does any of it serve? I can tell you for free that it is just activity; expensive and often wasteful activity.
Simon Sinek’s latest book, The Infinite Game, is a must read for any leader facing this behaviour and mindset battle between the pressure for short-term results and the desire to achieve long-term benefits. Sinek tells us there are two types of game in this world: finite games, with a defined end-point and a clear winner and loser, and infinite games, with no defined end-point and no clear winner - instead you are playing to stay in the game. He explains that we don’t get to choose what type of game we’re playing, but we do get to choose how we play it. Business is an infinite game, but if we play it with a finite mindset, we’ll find ourselves out of the game before too long. Playing with a finite mindset often leads to disconnect from an organisation’s mission and values.
A common trait of organisations where short term thinking prevails is a culture where learning, reflection and iteration are all undervalued. I understand this only too well. Around 2 years ago, when I was Head of Innovation in the UK Government, I had an abrupt wake up call when a series of events made me realise I wasn’t providing the strategic direction and support my team needed. Despite their own seniority and considerable experience, without clear strategic direction from me, team members were running off in different, sometimes counter-productive directions. We weren’t getting closer to our vision and some of our actions unintentionally undermined our impact.
The first thing is that to have a strategy, you need to strategize. And this means time - quiet time for thinking, consulting with others and reflecting. My diary, and that of any senior executive I’ve coached, was always rammed with meetings. You can’t do strategic thinking in half an hour at the end of a packed day. You simply can’t open your mind to alternative futures, opportunities and approaches when the pace is relentless. The strategic thinking was the bit I really needed to do, yet I spent all my time in meetings of, frankly, limited value. But our culture, like many workplace cultures, associated being busy with importance and self-worth. I needed to step up and step out of the chaos, but the culture was such that the idea of taking the time to do this and saying no to some of the demands on my time did not feel acceptable. My job was to provide strategic direction, but I didn’t think I had permission to give myself the headspace to do that. What does that say about the state of our corporate cultures?
For me, the impact of not taking time out to do the thinking and provide the clarity that was so desperately needed felt even less acceptable. So I made the decision then to block out one day a week: for thinking, for reflection, for writing, for learning, for perspective, for strategizing. Every week I’d be pushed to accommodate other people’s short-term demands and it was hard not to succumb. It made me realise how conditioned I was to think I had to be off-the-scale busy to think I was doing anything meaningful. But intellectually, I knew this was bullshit and I fiercely protected that time.
Call to Action: Give yourself the physical and mental space to strategize and have the courage to resist unhelpful cultural norms and expectations.
Adopting an infinite mindset in a world consumed by the finite can absolutely cost a leader their job... Bowing to the pressure of the finite players around us is the easy and expedient choice. This is why it takes courage to adopt an infinite mindset. The Courage to Lead is a willingness to take risks for the good of an unknown future. Simon Sinek, The Infinite Game.
Siloed Organisational Structures and Culture
Outdated organisational structures dominated by silos reinforce short termism and are a key cause of ineffective strategy. Inherently parochial, siloed organisational structures encourage an inward focus rather than organisational cohesion. Departmental Heads are rewarded for delivering (often short-term) siloed outcomes, sometimes at any cost. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that when one part of the organisation’s interests bump up against another part, our siloed leaderships go into battle to represent their interests. This is a systemic failing in the way our organisations are set up, not necessarily a failing of the leadership.
Other than the CEO, there tends not to be a sense of shared ownership for the future direction of an organisation and very few have a holistic view of the totality of the organisation’s efforts, needs and challenges. But a leader’s job is to look beyond their organisational silo. They must understand, and must help others who work for them understand, what the organisation’s objectives are and how their part of the business connects to and contributes to that.
Call to Action: Act as the catalyst in (re)connecting your teams to the organisation’s vision or mission and support them to think beyond the confines of the silo.
Encourage your teams to deepen understanding of other parts of the organisation and develop empathy for their challenges. Walk the walk as much as you talk the talk and be mindful of the unintended impact of your own behaviours and decisions. Breaking free from the constraints imposed by organisational silos will support more creative and inclusive thinking about how org-level goals may be achieved, and ultimately improve performance.
An Unclear Vision or Sense of Purpose
To look beyond the silos, there must first be a clear and unifying vision - trying to figure out how to get somewhere is impossible if you don’t know where you’re going in the first place. A clear vision and a strong sense of purpose provide the context for strategic decisions, but without it, we have nothing to anchor us, no North Star to align ourselves and our teams to.
Some teams or companies never have a clear vision, possibly because they’ve been stood up to deliver a specific short term outcome or because they have been seduced by a specific idea or technology, without understanding the real value that creates. But I think, more often than not, that most teams and companies start out with a clear sense of purpose yet over time that clarity erodes.
Established organisations, which may once have had the clearest sense of purpose, can just as easily find themselves lost, yet are often complacent and don’t realise until it’s too late. This tends to happen when an organisation focuses on how it does something rather than why. Ironically, the more companies focus on short-term outcomes, the more likely they are to disconnect from their purpose and forget the vision, reinforcing the cycle of short-term decision-making.
There are times when aligning strategic decisions to the organisation’s long-term vision or purpose may result in unfavourable short-term consequences - having a strong sense of purpose provides the context and gives us the courage to do this. There is a powerful example of this in Sinek’s book about CVS, the American health and pharmacy retailer. A mission-aligned strategic decision by CVS in 2014 to stop selling tobacco-related products was met with hostility by Wall Street in the short term and its stock price fell. But in the long-term, CVS’ decision resulted in a total reduction in the number of cigarettes sold in the US AND an increase in CVS’ stock price. CVS’ conviction in their sense of purpose and their courage to see through a strategic decision that had negative short term consequences for the business, paid off in every sense.
Call to Action: (Re)affirm your team or company vision and connect your strategy to it.
Make sure your vision is inspiring, easily understood and relatable and that the connection between the vision and the strategic decisions you are making are crystal clear to everyone in the company.
Discomfort with Uncertainty
All the leadership training I had ever received and certainly the examples I had been set by others, taught me an outdated view of strategy - strategy as a plan to be executed with minimal deviation. In a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous), strategy is more important than ever, but the concept of strategy as a plan is misplaced - even the best laid plans will need to adapt and evolve, if not change completely. Instead of planning to the nth degree, our energy would be better spent building agility into how we conceive and implement strategy in the first place. Doing this often requires us to learn new skills and adopt a different mindset.
Moving away from the concept of strategy as a plan and developing an adaptive and iterative approach to strategy requires a significant mindset shift. It requires us to acknowledge that in a VUCA world, we can make data-informed decisions about what the future holds and how we might best respond to that, but there is no certainty, either in that future state or in the effectiveness of our response.
This makes us feel vulnerable and uncomfortable. Despite intellectually knowing that the sand is constantly shifting, our need for stability and certainty means we sometimes seek to create false assurances. As uncomfortable as it may feel in the short term, acknowledging our own vulnerability and managing the uncertainty is a far more effective approach in the long term. More than this, it enables us to spot and respond to unexpected and emerging opportunities - opportunities which we may well miss if we are head down executing our outdated strategy.
As with prioritising long term strategic thinking over short term gain, moving away from planning and towards adaptive strategy is likely to feel counter-cultural and you will face pressures to conform to the status quo.
Call to Action: Proactively seek out the skills and support (practical and emotional) you need to develop an adaptive approach to strategy and get started. You may find this in a training course, a book, a coach, a mentor, a colleague or, more likely, a combination of all of them. Seek out allies in key positions of influence in your organisation, who will be able to evangelise and have your back.
All four of my Calls to Action have two things in common: the courage to challenge the status quo and a commitment to making things (including oneself) better. Therefore, the first change that must occur is within ourselves - changing our own behaviours, acknowledging our own discomfort with uncertainty, accepting the perceived short term risks to be the first to swim against cultural norms. You cannot expect to single-handedly change the culture of your company, but change has to start somewhere and that change must start with you. I believe strongly that leadership is a privilege, a position you have earned and a position you need to continue to earn. If you are in the privileged position of being in a leadership role at any level in an organisation, you have influence. No matter how small your remit, you have the ability to change the mindset and culture in your area. It may take years for the seeds that you sow to flourish, but they will.
So, start small and focus your efforts on where you have a remit, have courage to buck unhelpful organisational norms and expectations and find a coach, mentor, colleague or friend to support you when it gets hard. Because it will get hard. But if not you, if not us, then who?