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Every Strategy Needs This

by | Essay

Every strategy needs people who are willing and capable of playing their part in its implementation. That’s why I like to say that every strategy needs a cast.

Let’s remember how a strategy is defined. A strategy consists of a sequence of activities, usually implemented over a sustained period of time, that are designed to help you reach your destination or achieve your objective.

Unfortunately, research suggests that most strategies are never fully implemented.

Why and how strategies fall short

Strategies can be complicated and complex, and there are many moments in the life of a strategy where things can go wrong.

  • In the design stages, you can select the wrong goal, objective or destination. Put another way, you can select a “prize” that turns out to be meaningless or of little value. Attaining it does little to change your current circumstances or to prepare you for future circumstances.
  • You can choose to focus on the wrong activities, or you can place those activities in the wrong sequence. There’s nothing more demoralizing than spending time and energy focused on the wrong things or in the wrong order.
  • A strategy can also fail when the people responsible for implementing it don’t do what they’re supposed to do. Strategic plans fail when people screw them up.

I’ve seen a lot of this last one over my career—whether it’s at a large multi-national corporation or a small, community-based organization. Strategies fail when the people implementing them fail to follow the plan.

In many cases, the strategic planner shoulders a great deal of the responsibility for these failures. When strategic planners forget to design the strategy with the people who will be implementing it in mind, they risk making a fatal error. I’ve known planners who failed to truly consider the performers as they were fixating on what the performance, itself, was supposed to produce.

Performers and performances

There are so many things a good strategist must keep track of to increase the chances of success. I want to highlight one of THE most important items—the cast. Every strategy needs a cast where everyone involved in the performance has been assigned a clearly defined role.

I hate to mix metaphors, especially since I so often talk about the importance of road maps. But a map is a guide. Once you start moving, you will do well if the people who are moving with you know what to do, how to do it, when to do it, and why it matters. Defining and assigning roles is another way of handing out a map.

Based on what I’ve observed, every person who even remotely can influence the successful implementation of the strategy needs a role, not just a title, and certainly not simply a list of new stretch goals and objectives.

Everyone who affects the strategy needs a part to play in its implementation. If my part is not defined or not clearly articulated, it’s understandable why I might become easily distracted or even detached from the strategy itself.

“If I’m not a part of the collective agenda, I’ll focus on my own agenda.”

The benefits of a clearly defined role

The dictionary defines a role as “the function assumed or part played by a person or thing in a particular situation.” Giving people a part to play, and allowing them to share in the collective agenda, creates some powerful benefits to all involved.

  • Clearly defined roles can empower individuals on a team. Roles make people responsible for making decisions and taking actions that are in accordance with the part they’ve been assigned to play.
  • Clearly defined roles can encourage a sense of accountability. They establish a social contract where it is understood that your role enables someone else to perform their role. They connect people.
  • Clearly defined roles can refocus our priorities. They discourage people from becoming narrowly consumed with just the completion of their tasks. They put those tasks in context.
  • Clearly defined roles can also unlock creativity and innovation. When you accept and want to fulfill your role, it creates an incentive to overcome the challenges and obstacles that present themselves. The desire to do your part in the pursuit of the strategy inspires creative and innovative means of overcoming obstacles.
  • Clearly defined roles can also promote adaptability by forcing people to assess and to respond to the environment, especially when the environment is dynamic and involves a lot of moving pieces.

When people don’t feel like they are part of the strategy, or feel they don’t matter to its implementation, they have every reason to ignore it. Titles and tasks, alone, encourage a “CYA” mindset. Titles and tasks enable people to get away with doing just enough to get by, or just enough NOT to get fired.

Give people a role, and define the broad parameters of the role, and you will promote individual ownership and stewardship of the strategy. You will push strategic execution down the line and into the hands of the people who are likely most involved in determining successful implementation.

When someone internalizes their role, as long as it’s aligned with the strategy and is clearly understood, they will internalize the strategy.

About the author: Dr. A.J. Robinson is the founder and CEO of Symphonic Strategies, a firm that specializes in collective action, leadership development, and systems change. He’s a strategist, teacher, and activist for policies and practices that elevate. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the George Washington University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.