While strategy tends to hover amongst the upper echelons of the organization, from a hierarchy perspective, it is typically viewed as an abstract concept that is meant to guide and govern the organization. It provides perspective and directionality for more tactical decisions as a means to point towards a business/performance goal. What often gets lost in strategy development is the human component of the organization. The person is viewed as an organizational asset that can be leveraged as a means to achieve strategic goals. On a human level…that makes me feel a bit sick in my stomach.

There is some truth to people executing on the strategy in a meaningful way that advances the organization. That is a very real “what” that takes place and most employees don’t take issue with that. Where things get icky is the premise of this process is rooted in what I mentioned in the previous paragraph – leveraging assets. While the intentions may be good on behalf of the executives who develop strategy, the way this manifests in the organization becomes incongruent with the “we value our people” mantra that is important and a truthful statement.

Many executives tend to respond to any resistance to this innocent incongruence poorly. There are many attempts to collaborate with the Communications Department to redesign the messaging and/or reframe the message. Problem is, the substance of the message is the problem, so by making that message louder or with a bit more PR, the problem becomes exacerbated. What often follows the messaging are performance metrics as a means to achieve strategic goals. This may be a recipe for compliance, but it does little for commitment; what can you expect from “leveraged assets”?

Employees may not be consciously aware that this is their response, but they feel it. It may be communicated through statements that show they believe they are a victim of the strategy process. The ubiquitous “they” become a natural part of the organizational narrative. Levels of ownership in their roles become diminished and employee engagement takes a noticeable hit. Bring in the HR interventions, team building events, and leadership competency training. These are great in and of themselves, however in this scenario they are amazing tools that are poorly applied.

Strategy that is executed by many must be developed, or at a minimum informed, by many. The ivory tower strategy development approach has simply had its day. Here are 8 simple tips for how you can develop a great strategy and honor the humans that partner with you to make it a business reality.

  • Provide broad ideas – Don’t try to get a fully baked idea. As an executive team, think very broadly about where the organization may need to be in five years in order to have good market position. This should have 3-5 general statements that serve to educate, not dictate.
  • Go as deep as possible – Get feedback from as many people as possible. Think crowdsourcing. Your frontline staff are intimately aware of constraints and can serve as great insight as to organizational capability. The idea is honoring the brilliance of your people and giving them the opportunity to help lead the organization.
  • Have a defined process – Don’t just build some survey and ask for input. Are you really going to pore over that much data as an executive team? Didn’t think so. Whether you use internal Organization Development or HR help, or contract an external consultant for this, make sure there is a process that can capture, collate, and analyze the data from this process. Unless you have more than 50,000 employees, allowing 4-6 weeks for executing this process should be adequate. Planning the process will take longer.
  • Reward participation – Don’t make it a compulsory event within your organization. Be sensitive to your culture and how people may respond to a “request” from the C-Suite. Make sure you have a solid communication plan prior to asking for employee input. Reward the entire organization in some meaningful way for helping develop strategy.
  • Communicate incessantly – Make this process as transparent as possible. If key themes are emerging, share what they are. You’re not committing to anything at this point. You are simply sharing the mind of the organization with the organization. This may actually bring out even better ideas, so have a mechanism in place during the process to receive feedback as a means to strengthen, inform, or validate the data you are receiving.
  • Develop the strategy – Once you have gone through your defined process, you are now ready to critically look through the data and compare it to where you think the organization needs to be in five years. You have a better understanding of organizational capacity and constraints, as well as ideas on how to think about certain strategic areas as it relates to employees closer to the customer.
  • Follow-up with the org – Present a draft to the organization in the form of a town hall or something along those lines. In that draft, mention how the data received from the organization led you to that conclusion. This is true collaboration between the C-Suite and the organization in a meaningful way. There may be further refinement and feedback on the draft; make room for that.
  • Make the strategy public – The organization will be very connected to this strategy. They will have a sense of ownership and implementation of the strategy will be much easier. You can bet that they have already thought how they could contribute to executing on the strategy. Leverage that, not the “asset”.

I would love to hear how this can be used in your organization, or if you have used something similar in your current or previous professional life. Keeping business human isn’t as difficult as it sounds, it just requires a shift in thinking and approach. Happy strategizing!

  • Annette Mason

    Hi William, thank you for this succinct, human-centered strategy post. The essence was summarized nicely by, “Keeping business human isn’t as difficult as it sounds, it just requires a shift in thinking and approach.” Your steps are nicely laid out.

    Businesses can never start too soon to share or “Followup with the Org”!
    While it takes time away from founders wrestling with an overwhelming workload, it creates leverage and engenders communication pathways on topics that matter.

  • I appreciate your thoughts, Annette. It takes time away from the C-Suite initially, but eventually becomes a manner of doing and more habitual than disruptive. Have a great week!