International Affairs Forum: The focus of the year’s Association of Strategic Planning (ASP) Conference is Bridging the Strategy Execution Gap. In your experience, what have you experienced in this regard? Specifically, would you discuss any issues you’ve encountered and approaches used to mitigate those issues.
Meegan Scott: Typically, we come across the whole range of issues related to bridging the strategy to execution gap, and all the related challenges. I’ll be addressing these topics in detail at this year’s ASP conference but let’s touch on three of them.
They are ineffective strategy communication; performance management; and the fear of taking risk.
The first is ineffective strategy communication (Failure to help teams to understand strategy. A lot of times boards, senior management, management, and staff do not understand the strategy because the language of strategy is not necessarily the language of their subject matter expertise. For example, IT language seems to cannibalize other languages in business and use it as if it’s something new and specific to IT.
For instance, social marketing is a type of marketing that has to do with behavior change or cause marketing. But IT literature and talk may drop the “media” out of social media marketing, and the world forgets that there is a big thing called social marketing. I’ve been challenged by experts in different fora where I’m explaining the difference between the two. And even the role of social marketing in going beyond awareness creation to producing a service or product solution during strategy development. Social media marketing is not social marketing.
In such a context the main challenge is that of answering the question — What is the strategy?
Another is, What is in the strategy for my department? That will become a tough question to answer or lead to the wrong answers if the strategy is not understood.
If I invest resources, if I commit to this, how does it benefit my department? What is in it for me, the individual? Not having answers to those questions will make it difficult to get commitment and action for delivering the strategy. Moreover, it will hide the opportunity and appeal contained in the strategy from an individual who wants to make a social contribution.
Do I or my department have a role in that? That’s another serious question for consideration and not having the answer could cloud or blind the individual team member or manager charged with helping to promote strategy from understanding their role impact as well as his or her role in contributing to change. What is his or her role in delivering the strategy or ensuring its success?
Our solution to that problem is a communication campaign for helping individuals and teams to “recognize my vision and me” in the strategy picture a well as for translating and simplifying the language of strategy. The sessions are also about facilitating dialogue.
One measure we put in place to deal with the strategy communication issue is to host a session after creating the strategy plan. In that session we explain what the strategy is, to help teams to understand the vocabulary. But we also facilitate conversations for helping them to see their role in the strategy and to address fears.
Highlighting what is meant by the strategic intent, the directions etc. This is on top of learning opportunities provided during planning.
Trouble comes often when no time is dedicated to educating teams in the language of strategy. In effect, we deliver language translation for facilitating understanding.
We may provide work exercises. This allows participants from all levels to understand what the strategy is. I explain to them how the strategy should work, how it will benefit the organization in terms of strengthening it.
How it should work in terms of making a high demand institution; in making the services high demand and so on. What it would mean for them if they seek another job, and it is known that they come with experience from an entity that is known as a high performer, an entity with a strong reputation, as well as the kind of growth that will come from doing and learning in the strategy execution process.
We try to help clients or participants to understand the strategy to the degree to which they need to know— in addition to helping team members organization wide.
Especially when the strategy is for an intervention that requires behaviour change it is important that the clients or members understand their role, the likely social cost to them and “their how” if the strategy execution is to be a success.
So, we help them to break down what they need to know, to identify what’s in it for them as well as the organization by looking at their wants, needs, aspirations, and preferences.
We also work to identify obstacles they may encounter and their desired solutions. We’ll do little things like quizzes and send reminders using typical marketing tools, those are in addition to PowerPoints, newsletters and so on. For execution teams we may put an exercise on Slack or Wiki or something like that, so they can work at it together, read and help each other as well as us to learn. We might even put them in groups to see which one will win in getting the strategy language right or to energize them to get it done. In fact, our strategy magazine— The Noësis, was born out of this process.
The next issue has to do with performance. One of the main issues with performance is coordination and another is using performance information to improve results. The second has to do with gathering, analyzing and managing information that’s coming out of the measurement process; from customers; and stakeholder feedback. After collection, the information is collated and analyzed, which should lead to preparing recommendations and actions for getting the right work done effectively.
Problems arising from lack of discipline and experience with gathering and using performance measurement and management information occurs both at the board level and at the operations level. When we collate the strategic plan, we ensure that cross functional responsibilities are highlighted. At the operations plan level, we detail this even more with the level of effort in days or months, projections, and timelines. Sometimes the budget for a particular initiative will come from multiple sources, maybe even some from government— it is important to capture that, procurement periods and related responsibilities.
To support discipline and the growth of experience in using performance information we assign related responsibilities from the board down (Typically limiting the board to governance). We have found many board chairs to be quite surprised when we tell them, You are accountable for managing the performance and measurement of the corporate strategy plan, and that successful execution of the corporate strategy plan is your responsibility.
In the case of smaller organizations, where they’re still trying to build capacity, and the board has to dip into operations, the board ends up sharing some responsibility for things operations, because it operates up and down as do the information flows.
One of the things we ensure is they sign up for that level of accountability in the plan document and to communicate this. Then, we make it known to the team and staff, so they know to watch the board and their chair or president for fulfilling their related role in this.
Next is the head of operations, whether CEO or manager, he or she is assigned responsibility for the operational plan. That’s the one year or two-year strategic operational plan. We have always created one-year plans but we know that some entities have a two-year strategic operational plan (SOP).
After that we ensure that the unit heads know their responsibilities for performance management in their units, and within those, different individuals within the unit have some responsibility for passing data up. That’s accounted for in the plan document through the performance management system and made available for everybody to see. That way, there’s no passing and hiding.
Another thing we do is to ensure that all plans have a performance management framework, and system tools, and that the team knows how and what the framework is about and how to use it. In fact, we involve them in the creation of the system.
Included in the system is a complementary compendium of indicators. The reason we do this— comes from experience working in an entity with a strong background in planning and monitoring and measurement and maintenance. But every year when strategic planning training is performed, you have to go over areas for performance management. Still people may want to include some indicators of busyness that you don’t want to measure at the strategic level, or indicators that cannot be verified or measured in some instances.
This is partly because they don’t understand indicators and how they can be used across organizations, across geographic divides, and so on. Not understanding that, they will want to come with their own measures of busyness that are unique to them without adding any useful information. They see it as something they are working on and should therefore be measured.
The compendium of indicators helps them to understand how indicators are structured and serve as a dictionary and reference document. We would have used or adapted some of the indicators in the compendium for their plans.
We play the role of evangelist for the importance of performance management and measurement from day one. We also play the role of interpreter of the results, because before each planning event, we perform an assessment into the results of the organization to-date. After having gone through their results, seeing how things look, and looking at where they are, and where they intended to be, the group can have a better appreciation of how they will benefit them from a culture of performance improvement, management, and measurement.
Depending on our role, we also serve as a coach to ensure that reporting happens. If we take on the role of adjunct planner and performance management and measurement help, we’ll lead those performance meetings. If not, we just plan performance measurement and management, validate the measures that they have captured, gather other information, and analyze the information to provide a verdict on the plan, and or process and how it has impacted the growth of the organization.
The last issue is the fear of risk taking. Even for individuals who are on the board or in senior management, you will find there is a fear that if something is tried that they’ve never done before, they may fail.
We help by reminding teams about the reason for the organizations existence, undertake research to enhance understanding of the risk; and to bring to light how and why undertaking the risk will advance the strategic thrust of the organization. To do this, we ask questions that force them to rethink their fears. We engage them in a discussion about risk intelligence versus risk management, that discussion helps them to understand that there is a difference between risk intelligence and risk management. Pretty often it helps them to change perspective.
It enables them to see that, with an assessment, and research, an initiative, for which they do not necessarily have all the resources and capability is possible. But only if they assess the risk, and put in place plans to acquire the needed resources.
Putting measures in place could mean building staff competence to undertake the initiative by a certain timeframe within the plan period. Or to lead an effort to mobilize other resources. In the case of a nonprofit community centre, perhaps they’ll have to look for a grant or other funding opportunities. And so, helping them to understand that approach to finding solutions that would give them an advantage in the marketplace helps to eliminate or reduce the fear and to embrace risk.
A good example would be an alumni association that is planning to grow both its membership and funding. But they may fail to realize the need to own and articulate its role in helping alumni to improve their social and economic outcomes. Articulating such a major role and commitment is sometimes seen to involve too big a risk. Because the association has not owned or articulated that “risky commitment” they do not work to develop a strategy, theory of change or performance framework for delivering that outcome that would advance their vision and mission.
Instead they will pursue several activities and outputs that will neither strengthen the organization nor cause wide and lasting change. In so doing they may raise $20,000, acquire 10 new members who are not engaged while missing out on the opportunity to present a change strategy that appeals to a funder who would provide say— $150,000. They miss messaging that would appeal to and attract more engaged members as well as significantly improve the reputation of the school and outcomes for past and present students. There are other door opening opportunities that they will fail to design into their member programming thereby missing both membership growth opportunities and taking a beaten from the competition for membership fees, donations or entertainment expenditures.
Occasionally, the one-off strategy planning workshop does not address these issues, sometimes it does. But there are opportunities during execution to address the issue. You have to get them to see the ways in which they can actually take on a risk in an intelligent way to deliver the strategy intent and to really position the organization to gain a competitive advantage.
Meegan Scott is managing director, founder and lead strategic management consultant at Magate Wildhorse Ltd. Meegan has almost two decades of experience in strategic management—serving in both local and international development. Her practice terrain lies at the convergence of corporate strategy; strategy execution; social research; program management; change management; marketing; performance management and measurement.
Prior to establishing Magate Wildhorse, Meegan wore the twin hats of Incubator Marketing Manager and strategic management consultant to client entities of the incubator. She also served as Corporate Strategy Planner to the National Environment and Planning Agency in Jamaica.
Meegan holds a Bachelors of Social Science in International Relations; an MBA (Marketing and finance focused); the designation PMP, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Business Analysis.