Strategy is a very messy idea, especially on the corporate level. For one, new books come out every year attempting to define strategy as an idea, implying that we don’t all agree on what it is. Another issue is that in evaluating past strategies, it is very hard to separate the conceptual strategy from its execution — How can you say if the strategy failed if it was actually the execution that failed? How can you know where one begins and the other ends?
Another issue, albeit a very tactical one, is that the people who generally put corporate strategy together (C-suite and top executives) live in a very different reality than the people who will be putting it into practice every day. Executives, by nature, must think in very broad strokes, about bigger ideas that affect the entire company. Whether they use a Porter/Positioning model or a BCG/Matrix to develop a strategy, all the data and detail that goes into it, strategy gets explained and defined in very broad strokes, in terms like “niche-focus,” or “cut costs to be the low-cost leader.”
But in a large organization, the farther down the org chart you go, the more contact staff has with customers. This means that while the strategy was conceived by the top, it gets implemented at the bottom. This isn’t the problem. The problem is that the exec doesn’t really understand the realities of the front-line job. When they say “cut costs,” it’s the worker who has to fill out paper work and enter orders into the computer and manage the Mid-Atlantic sales region via mobile phone and laptop. How does a cost-cutting strategy impact them? Should they fill out less paper work? Should they look for a more efficient order entry system? Should they fire their lowest-performing salesperson? Specifically, when Susan in purchasing has a question as to whether moving certain operations to the cloud constitutes cost-cutting, she doesn’t ask the CEO, she asks her boss.
It seems obvious in practice. If you have a question, you ask one level up. But is that how the strategy is being communicated?
This is the crux of the Goldilocks issue: The strategy or other message can’t be too conceptual to front-line staff and can’t be too tactical for executives. At each level, it has to be just right.
This is the crux of the Goldilocks issue: The strategy or other message can’t be too conceptual or too tactical. At each level, it has to be just right.
Strategy gets communicated down and questions go up. This is why it is critical to think through the process of communicating down. You can’t just assume a 30-minute presentation from the CEO to all staff will do anything more than motivate and interest staff. From the CEO’s vantage point, he or she can’t explain how the strategy will impact every single person’s role and process. They rely on management to communicate those messages downward. But you need to consider every step. How will executives communicate it to directors? How will they communicate it to regional managers? How will they tell their local managers? And how do they tell their staff? There’s a fit issue — the strategy can’t be too conceptual or too tactical, it has to be just right.
At each rung of the ladder, more detail and granularity must be integrated into that message. What the CEO says is only the basic message and framework for the presentation a store manager gives their staff. It can’t be the entirety of the message. Solving for Goldilocks isn’t a matter of crafting a single just-right solution, but in planning to deliver different versions of the strategy that is just right to each audience.
So when you deliver a strategy (or any big message), are you packaging it so that it can resonate properly for each level of the hierarchy? Is it clear how one level talks about the idea to the next level?
At FLIRT, we’re big fans of this kind of thinking, and so we’ve started to consider building a message launch kit for each project we roll out. The executive, as the client, needs to know how to roll the project or idea out to all levels of staff in a way that the message doesn’t get diluted or warped. Building a plan that includes handouts and other pre-built deliverables that can be customized for every region, local and role means that executives can be sure that their strategy is understood, not just on a conceptual level, but on an executional one, as well.
Just as Goldilocks discovered beds too hard and soft, or porridges too hot or cold, think if the messages being sent to your employees are too broad or too specific. Goldilocks rejected the beds and meals that weren’t just right. What happens when your employees follow suit. You can’t give a single message that resonates at all levels equally, so customize that message to make it stick.
Before those bears come home.