So your organization is in need of a high-level strategic overhaul and all eyes are on you to make it happen? You have all of these amazing ideas on how to improve processes and increase revenues percolating in your head at such an accelerated rate that you can’t write them down fast enough. Of course you do. You and your team are going to nail this thing in no time flat — easypeasy! Conduct that SWOT analysis, identify your key differentiator, goals and objectives and you’re in business — job security in tact — darling of all those hard-to-please shareholders.
But wait one minute. Let’s get real about this. You know, in reality, this is going to be anything but easy. There are numerous potential obstacles in your way — any one of which is capable of preventing you and your business from successfully implementing your strategic plan.
With so many potential barriers out there let’s simplify things and limit this discussion to addressing, what this writer believes, are the Top Five Obstacles to Successful Implementation of High-Level Business Strategies.
1. Senior managers either don’t know how or are unwilling to engage in truthful conversations about potential threats to the business.
The dynamics in almost any organization make it very difficult for senior managers to hear the unfiltered truth from lower-level managers. In their 2004 Harvard Review article: How to Have an Honest Conversation About Your Business Strategy, co-authors Michael Beer and Russell Eisenstat present the methodology they’ve developed for getting the truth about an organization’s issues out in front so that senior management can do something useful with it (Beer, & Eisenstat, 2004). Their method involves assembling a task force comprised of the organization’s most effective managers to collect data about strategic and organizational problems, thereby sending a clear message from the senior team that it is serious about learning the real truth (Beer, & Eisenstat, 2004). A discussion can then take place between task force members and the senior team, facilitating an open conversation alternating between advocacy and inquiry. The discussion has to focus on the most important issues. It also has to be collaborative, allowing employees to be honest without fear of retribution (Beer, & Eisenstat, 2004). This structured, direct input from key stakeholders motivates senior teams to make changes they otherwise might not make. Engaging in this process leads to dramatic changes in how businesses are organized and managed. Honest conversations at the outset result in ongoing conversations that further improve performance (Beer, & Eisenstat, 2004).
2. Lower-level managers and others in the organization are afraid to speak honestly and openly about obstacles to change.
With your A-Team task force in place you can now ask employees the question: What existing strengths do you think we should build upon and what barriers need to be removed in order to successfully implement the plan? Assuring employees that their feedback will remain strictly confidential goes a long way toward alleviating any “shoot the messenger” fears they have (Beer, & Eisenstat, 2004).
The task force should form a roundtable discussion as a further demonstration of the company’s commitment to really listening to feedback and incorporating the best ideas into the strategy. The roundtable approach will pay significant dividends by facilitating employee trust and a self-reinforcing culture of honesty (Beer, & Eisenstat).
3. The organization lacks the structure, culture and/or leadership required to effectively support the strategy.
In addition to the fore-mentioned recommendations, the task force and senior management must work together to reach agreement on the key strengths and weaknesses in the company’s organizational structure, culture and capabilities. Then determine how to best leverage those strengths while addressing the weaknesses in order to formulate a definitive action plan in support of the strategic initiatives (Beer, & Eisenstat).
4. Employees don’t truly buy-in to leadership’s message regarding how much honest and open employee feedback is valued.
The buy-in issue is a critical one and typically must be addressed over time. Organizational culture is not going to change overnight. Often, previous failed attempts at honest conversation and subsequent failed strategies take their accumulative toll, leading employees to become skeptical that any new attempt at honest conversation is nothing more than lip-service from the powers above.
5. Unwillingness to make the difficult decisions or take responsibility for the performance of the strategic initiative.
Beer and Eisenstat’s study revealed four major organizational problems that typically impede successful implementation of high-level business strategies:
- Slow decision making due to functional organizational structure
- Lack of business focus leading to asking the wrong questions
- Lack of accountability where everyone reports to a function; and
- Leadership ineffectiveness defined by management’s track record of inaction
Honest conversation can help solve these problems as well. When senior management receives direct feedback from its task force as key representatives of the organization, management is incentivized to make the changes they otherwise are reluctant to make. The unvarnished truth lights a fire under management as if it is a job performance evaluation. Management takes the appraisal personally and acts accordingly to drive the change strategy (Beer, & Eisenstat).
In closing, in order for organizational culture and behavior to change, it must do so on a systemic level. First, the roles and decision-making authority at all levels must be examined. Making that kind of high-level commitment can seem like opening Pandora’s Box, yet the risk to reward ratio favors taking that risk. Additionally, organization-wide conversations about issues as fundamental as these can be painful, but will ultimately remove the obstacles to successful implementation of high-level business strategies and spark real change.
Until next time, get it real and keep it real.
Beer, M., & Eisenstat, R. A. (2004). How to Have an Honest Conversation About Your Business Strategy. Harvard Business Review, 82(2), 82-89. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.