Why Your Strategy Activation Fails and 5 Questions To Be More Successful

Xplane Strategy

This column is by Cynthia Owens, Senior Consultant, XPLANE

Most companies fail at strategy activation. Why? Well, despite a whole lot of talking, most leaders never clearly articulate what people are trying to accomplish or what motivates employees to come to work. There is little to no connection to the people who need to enact the strategy. The resonance is lost.

It’s not for lack of trying. Most corporations have tools like vision and mission statements, values, a North Star, purpose, principles, and ways of working.

But all of that has become such a confusing clutter of navigational tools that employees, and even department heads, aren’t sure where the company is headed. Functional teams are in silos headed in different directions, focused on different priorities, so they can’t execute on strategy.

For employees, every couple of months there seems to be a new message designed to lead and inspire them. After a while, it becomes white noise, and employees quit paying attention.

Vision, purpose, mission, North Star, or principles–whatever an organization calls these navigational tools–are vital to uniting employees, so they can articulate what you are trying to accomplish and align to move in the same direction.

These tools aren’t marketing messages. To be valuable, each navigation tool has to answer a specific question, so people know where the organization is headed.

Ask the right questions
Navigation requires answers to just five questions:

  1. What do we or should we do that is unique?
  2. Where are we going?
  3. Why do we do what we do?
  4. Who are we?
  5. When do we want to arrive?
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Be clear
Companies can have one piece of navigation, or three to four, as long as the answers to the five questions are clear and aligned.

Everyone in the organization needs to see clearly what the company does that is unique, where the company is headed, why the work is important, what principles guide decisions and behaviors, and what is the timeframe. Then strategy and priorities will begin to make sense.

Be consistent
Priorities may change, but vision, purpose, and values don’t change from year to year. Shifting direction every few months is like the pilot announcing midflight that you are headed to New Delhi instead of New York.

Consistency helps people feel confident about where they are going and helps them make the right decisions to get there. Consistency helps teams align so that employees are headed in the same direction and focused on the same things.

Be authentic
Some companies spend a lot of money and resources word-smithing a vision or mission statement into a work or art. But if employees know it’s little more than an internal marketing message, it will fail. If they don’t believe the message or don’t see executives supporting it, they will become cynical.

Make it authentic and real, and employees will invest more in making sure the company gets there.  People support what they help create; make co-creation a part of the process to bring true authenticity to the tools.

Lose the labels
It doesn’t matter what you call each piece or navigation; what matters is creating an easy way for people to understand, so they can activate your strategy.

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In some companies, purpose has replaced vision; other companies incorporate their purpose into the vision; and some have only a mission. Those labels become confusing; it’s the answers to the five questions that are important.

Sharpen your scissors
Simply adding another message will only make things worse. Look at existing navigational tools and test them against the five questions. Figure out what question each piece answers, and then eliminate any pieces that don’t provide the answers and contribute to clarity. Use only enough tools to be clear and no more.

Understand that strategy is the “how”
It’s appealing to try to squeeze strategy into a mission statement or confuse the navigational tools with strategy questions. Any “how” question is part of your strategy.

  • How do we get there?
  • How to we work together?
  • How do we know what to do?
  • How do we reach out goals?
  • How do we know if we succeed?

These are important questions, but only after there are clear answers to the five navigational questions.

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