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.