• Chris Ward

People and culture bring a strategy alive—or not!



In previous posts we have dealt with three major barriers to successfully implementing a business strategy suggested by respondents to our LinkedIn survey: Focus, Communication, and Leadership.

In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the human dimension. As many respondents pointed out, when management is firmly behind the strategy, and employees understand and buy into its value, implementation has a good chance of succeeding. When these factors are not present, the odds favour a less satisfactory outcome.


What’s in it for me?

Let’s start with the importance of keeping employees in the loop by sharing meaningful information and engaging them in conversations around the importance of the strategy and the role each plays in the organization’s longer-term success.


According to one respondent, “’Why are we doing this?’ is a question that’s frequently asked. When we can deal with this directly and bring the value to employees into the picture, there is a much greater chance of getting buy-in and support.” And, as another pointed out, transparency and accountability go hand in hand. “The strategy must be known and understood before people reasonably become accountable, and regular, clear, concise, and transparent updates must be well communicated.”


It also underscores the need to address issues with which employees deal on a daily basis and that are clearly in the organization’s best interests. “The biggest and most important thing is to make sure the business strategy addresses real and tangible [client, customer or member] needs. If the [strategy doesn’t] provide them with tangible benefits, it's time to rethink the what and why.”


Working on, not in, the business

It’s not uncommon for employees to regard the value in implementing a strategy with a large measure of skepticism. This often leads to prioritizing what’s spelled out in job descriptions over new tasks that have no apparent connection to an employee’s personal success or the organization’s future.


One sales leader noted that day-to-day tasks often get in the way of successfully implementing a business strategy. “… the biggest challenge our sales team faces is too much time spent in the business and not enough time spent on the business… strategy and consulting sessions are valued when they occur, but within a short period afterwards, dealing with emails, voicemails and sales targets takes precedence.”


Of course, the solution is not to skimp on day-to-day or routine tasks. Far from it as that could jeopardize not only present performance but future prospects, as well. It does require striking a balance between what’s necessary to keep an operation running smoothly and the projects and tasks that will help ensure a bright future.


In our experience, the following steps go a long to ensuring that strategic plans are supported and implemented in a timely fashion.


  1. Build implementation into job descriptions and compensation plans. This can make a huge difference as it elevates the work to the same level as more routine tasks and shines the spotlight squarely on important strategic work. “We had a hard time getting employees to allocate time to strategy until we made it part of the job and included it in our reward system.”

  2. Ensure that work is allocated fairly and with an eye to who is best suited to do what. Balancing workloads to ensure no employee is asked to take on more work than he or she can handle removes a huge barrier. “The problems we were having with implementation were directly related to workload. Some employees were being asked to do too much and that caused a lot of problems. Once we recognized that, we were able to make some real gains.” On occasion, we see implementation being delegated to people who are either not capable of doing what’s required or too inexperienced to make good decisions. “Some years back we delegated responsibility to employees who were underused or new. We learned the hard way that experience matters.”

  3. Encourage implementation by breaking down major projects into smaller projects and tasks. Strategies that appear overly complicated, time-consuming or expensive will often overwhelm employees and lead to some well-honed work avoidance behaviour. “The biggest issue for me is a plan that’s too complicated. There's nothing I've seen kill an otherwise great idea like over-engineering it from the get-go.” One CEO commented, “If strategy isn’t translated into practical, measurable tactics, with built-in accountability, people will ignore it and focus on their day-to-day tasks. We're very task oriented, and so the strategy has to ultimately boil down to those tasks.” The importance of simplification was mentioned by a number of respondents. “Complication is always an issue. I continually coach my teams not to ‘build the space shuttle.’ Keeping it simple is how you win. Execution depends on it!” And, of course, work should never begin on implementing a strategy that the organization simply can’t afford. “The only barrier to success I have is money. If I determine that the dollars are just not there, we will either do something else or rejig the strategy to suit our financial reality.” Fully costing a plan before works gets underway, and budgeting for extraordinary costs, is always a best practice.

In the final analysis, it’s all about culture

As anyone who has been following our posts on keys to successfully implementing a business strategy probably knows, one barrier has been conspicuous by its absence. It goes by the name of “culture” and it has the ability to support or derail any strategy.


The fact is, an organization with a supportive, collaborative, respectful, and communicative culture is in the game. While many people like to say that culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch or dinner, we find it much more helpful to think of culture and strategy as dining together, in a collegial way. More about this in a future post.

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