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We are a global management consultancy that delivers exceptional outcomes and sustainable change



Trans­for­ma­tions may start from the top but suc­cess bub­bles up from the bottom.


One of our client CEOs once told us, “We know our prob­lems. We know the solu­tions too. But we’re still not able to set things right.” Though we have heard sim­i­lar state­ments from clients before, this was the first time any­one had summed the sit­u­a­tion up so sim­ply and succinctly.

Call it fail­ure of exe­cu­tion, poor imple­men­ta­tion or sim­ply not walk­ing the talk, this inabil­i­ty afflicts even rel­a­tive­ly suc­cess­ful organ­i­sa­tions. Most organ­i­sa­tions have well-defined strate­gies, whether care­ful­ly doc­u­ment­ed or etched in the top management’s minds, but what is the path from there? How do organ­i­sa­tions ensure that their plans are not for­got­ten or put on the back burn­er, but lived, breathed and put into action by employ­ees on the ground?

What com­pa­nies need to be aware of is the board­room phe­nom­e­non. In most organ­i­sa­tions, employ­ees are com­plete­ly exclud­ed from the process of strat­e­gy devel­op­ment and for­mu­la­tion. A recent sur­vey showed that in around 60% of com­pa­nies, plans are for­mu­lat­ed by a small group of senior man­age­ment. The CEO and oth­er C‑suite mem­bers hud­dle togeth­er in a board­room or at an off­site loca­tion and draw up and flesh out plans over end­less­ly renewed cups of tea and coffee.

These plans are lat­er com­mu­ni­cat­ed to employ­ees through for­mal doc­u­ments or inspi­ra­tional speech­es, how­ev­er being unaware of the think­ing behind them and how they came about means they are unable to iden­ti­fy them­selves with the strat­e­gy. So how can the senior man­age­ment expect them to co-operate seam­less­ly with putting the plans into practice?

This top-down approach to plan­ning is one of the main rea­sons why strate­gies so often fail to come to fruition. How­ev­er it is pos­si­ble to make the strat­e­gy devel­op­ment process more inclu­sive and par­tic­i­pa­tive, and to ensure that every­one has a com­pre­hen­sive under­stand­ing of the company’s intend­ed direc­tion and the rea­sons behind it.
Organ­i­sa­tions tend to focus on chan­nels of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that run from the CEO’s office to peo­ple down below, but few realise the impor­tance of upward com­mu­ni­ca­tion and infor­mal chan­nels, or the grapevine.

We’ve lis­tened in on many dis­cus­sions over cof­fee in com­pa­ny cafe­te­rias where groups of employ­ees take turns crit­i­cis­ing the approach of the man­age­ment and oth­er fac­tors that are con­tribut­ing to oper­a­tional prob­lems. In the past we’ve often asked myself why, if this aware­ness exists right there with­in the organ­i­sa­tion, do they con­tin­ue on the wrong track and go on repeat­ing the same mis­takes. Now we always tell our clients that employ­ees’ per­cep­tions are impor­tant. Ignore them at your per­il. If they are right, you need to do some­thing about it, and even if they’re wrong, you still need to do some­thing about it – set the record straight.

So how can man­age­ment both become more aware of what oper­at­ing teams are think­ing and mobilise them to become more involved in imple­ment­ing strat­e­gy? The answer is sim­ple – to ensure that there is two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion across the organ­i­sa­tion­al hierarchy.

Many organ­i­sa­tions have tried to encour­age upward com­mu­ni­ca­tion, with sug­ges­tion box­es, griev­ance cells, employ­ee sur­veys or invit­ing staff to email the boss with feed­back. How­ev­er there are many more inno­v­a­tive approach­es that can be adopt­ed to ensure com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels are open and, most impor­tant­ly, that employ­ees feel com­fort­able shar­ing their concerns.

Rather than depend­ing on ad-hoc and vol­un­tary efforts, con­sid­er hold­ing for­mal group ses­sions peri­od­i­cal­ly, where employ­ees delib­er­ate the company’s future and the dif­fer­ent options avail­able. A sim­ple exer­cise to try is to bring a group of oper­a­tional employ­ees togeth­er and ask them to imag­ine them­selves in the place of the direc­tors, and decide how they would address spe­cif­ic chal­lenges fac­ing the company.

Some of the sug­ges­tions might not be great, how­ev­er it’s like­ly that the exer­cise will result in some valu­able ideas and insights, which could make a pos­i­tive impact on future plans. Even if peo­ple low­er down the hier­ar­chy may not know what is right, they are often the best placed to know what is wrong. The input gath­ered from a series of such ses­sions can then be sum­marised, fil­tered and tak­en up to the top lev­el, so the actu­al decision-makers can take it into account while for­mu­lat­ing plans.

The key is to always have an ear to the ground. Keep lis­ten­ing to your employ­ees and encour­ag­ing inter­ac­tions and con­ver­sa­tions that cut through the hier­ar­chy. Involved and engaged employ­ees can help an organ­i­sa­tion take a more holis­tic and informed approach to plan­ning. And the very fact of their involve­ment will make a huge dif­fer­ence to stream­lin­ing the process of imple­men­ta­tion, in actu­al­ly mak­ing your organization’s trans­for­ma­tion happen.

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