The Pervasive Problem of Converting Strategy into Real Payback: Where are You Spinning Your Wheels?

go kart

I recall teaching my young drivers how to drive a standard shift vehicle.  Many of you have been there and can probably relate – matching the engine’s churning to the car’s needs is not easy.  Frequently when people are learning, they end up creating lots more power than the car can use and exaggerated clutch slipping to get things rolling.  

Using this metaphor in a business sense, when we move forward to implement new strategies for firms, our mid-senior leaders can feel like the clutch.  The senior team has had time to organically build the vision out with dialogue, team building and process.  Meanwhile, the rest of the firm  has been doing what it does, completing work in the processes and systems that you have put in place.  There then comes the minute when we “announce our new direction” and rather than every one shifting, things just stay the same, i.e. the clutch slips and the friction is felt by those who are charged with helping the team make the change.

From your side, it’s hard to understand – you’ve done the pre-read, had a great facilitator and completed the flip charts.  You came back from the offsite all fired up, and you’ve set aside agenda time for the next several staff meetings to make sure that the strategic direction changes and decision making happen.

And then the real world kicks in.  Customers demand, suppliers have issues and a new round of debt needs to be raised.  Before you know it, six months have slipped by and your hard work has not yet made it to implementation.

I’ve been asked by several firms who are realizing that the magic that was developed in the boardroom is not translating to the P&L to develop projects for deep strategic integration.  We read much today of the need to “transform” our firms, yet so many of the leaders I have a chance to connect with are frustrated with the lack of actionable approaches to “install” their new strategy.

If this is you, please grab a cup of coffee and let’s have a chat.

The strategy of implementation is a “thing”

The finest and most beautifully formed strategic approach is without value if not acted on by the front line.  And here is the surprising thing: even your best team members are predisposed to resist the new direction.  Many great firms miss the fact that there needs to be an equally robust plan for the integration and implementation of the new strategy.  At the front line level, new strategy can feel completely detached from the day to day work if the new vision has not been built on the big “why.”  It needs to be placed in context and decomposed into the short list of “new” actions that need to happen on a daily basis.  One of the reasons that ERP integration is so very painful is that there is a hard and irreversible switch over to very demanding new systems, that in many cases get pushed out without context and bears no resemblance to what “we need to do.”   

The solution to this is to invest in a real integration strategy in parallel with the new direction you’ve worked out at the offsite.  This needs to be built collaboratively with those who are going to be the front line “doers” of the new work.  You cannot “dry lab” this work from your office; you need to do the real work of seeing and talking with those who actually hold the key to success of your new plan.

I built the STRIDE framework to help with this collaborative journey (more here and here).  The main takeaway is that your new strategic direction is highly likely to be changed and improved in the crucible of the “Reality” phase of stride.  Attempting to skip this phase is futile; you will need to come back, and it is very painful to do retrospectively in emotionally charged meetings.

The work of strategy integration does not delegate well

It’s a core truth: once the act of creation is done, you’ll want to go back to your other responsibilities.  It’s human nature, and I see it all the time with my clients.  Said clearly, you need to stay with this until it’s deeply established, and then become the chief reinforcement officer.

Now for the good news – there are good structures to help you and your team with this.  In short, we treat this like the key enterprise work it is and form a “mini” board of directors.  Using these principles, we can get the work done, keep you and the senior leadership team hands on, while giving the whole group the bandwidth to keep up their day job  (for more on this, see posts here and here).

The unseen hand of “Status Quo” is more powerful than you think

We humans have a major part of our brain function set up to learn new things, build the patterns into our minds, and then refine them to art.  This highly evolved system builds us into tightly interconnected processing groups that can create a very consistent and repeatable activity.  The good news is this is what makes our firm resilient and consistent value delivery engines.

The hard news in all this is that we are unbelievably tenacious at holding onto those patterns as well.  The act of lifting and shifting to the new paths required by the new strategy is very hard for us, and requires work at not only the level of learning and cognition, but reinforcement through repetition and reward.  Setting up transitions with all these learning modes in mind will keep the more established pathways at bay and allow the new behaviors to settle in.  We know from research the key to building this bridge is to set the stage, then go through the journey of being a novice to establishing the new pattern (see these for insight into the four steps of conscious competence).

Think of trying to improve your golf swing or a tennis backhand.  The proper new stroke is going to be very hard to keep up after that lesson unless you put a real training regimen under it.

Building a new high-performance structures is table stakes in today’s fast moving firms.  If you develop the capabilities to release old patterns, develop new ones and lock them in, you have developed a real sustainable advantage.  The new normal is making a learning organization an action organization.

As you do this work, having consistent terminology, process structure and project tools will multiply the impact of your investment.  If you’d like to talk more about how to do this in your own firm, drop me a line at, give me a call at 847-651-1014 or click here to set up a no strings attached, 20-minute phone call.


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