From Strategy to Successful Execution: An Integrated Approach through Five Lenses

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Chapter And Authors Information

Lieve Van de Walle

Managing Partner Sugarloaf BVBA, Belgium

Patrick Stoop

General Managing Partner C-lever.org, Belgium
From Strategy to Successful Execution: An Integrated Approach through Five Lenses
From the Edited Volume
Edited By:
Professor John Metselaar
Content

Abstract

The challenge for any organization in this fast changing world is to determine who they want to be and where they want to go. They need to sense, investigate, navigate and act on the unexpected opportunities. In an era where (digital) transformation is unstoppable and accelerating the challenge is to determine how they can best serve their stakeholders. Organizations increasingly operate remotely and are designed around projects, across sectors and industries. In a digital world networks are formed which collaborate (remotely) to reach strategic goals (in evolving eco-systems). Most organizations operate in a complex and interconnected world. This article is hands-on and the result of research, experience and practice. Uniquely combining the skills of strategy experts and systemic organization coaches contributes to successful strategy development. The holistic and eclectic approach, presented in this article looks at an organization through five lenses, and balances task and process in a wider systemic context. The goal is not to define brilliant strategies but to get things done, to transform an organisation so the fit with its wider environment becomes as good as it can be. This article will show how strategy can bank on and build the human capital in an organisation, how that changes people’s mindset and how that is the best guarantee for prompt execution and agility on the way. We start the strategic process with execution in mind and execute while allowing strategy to emerge or adapt.

Keywords

organizational effectiveness, ongoing learning process, holistic, strategic capacity, deliberate strategy, emergent strategy, execution, systemic organization coaching

Nature at Work

Around 90% of strategic plans are not implemented”. In their book on strategic patterns, Hoverstad & Lo (2017:5) include this quote from a well-respected professor on strategy. A bit further in their text they refer to a veteran strategist out of their own network who allegedly said “I‘ve never seen a strategy executed in my whole career” (2017:6). This may be a bit harsh, but even if 50% of plans do not get executed, it is still a terrible waste of time and effort. But why is it so hard to get strategy to be ‘fit for purpose’, this is ‘execution proof’? Could it be because we underestimate the complexity of an organization as a system within other systems?

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.

Albert Einstein

Bateson (2002), Hawkins (2018), Gray (2014), Hoverstad & Lo (2017), Seale (2018), Whittington (2020) and many, many others draw a parallel between organizations and nature. In their view, change processes in organizations are bound by some basic rules of nature. It should be our primary focus as leaders and consultants to find out which forces are at work in the organization and its environment.People like to focus on the parts and simplify.                “In conventional strategy one assumes that other players are passive recipients of our strategy as if the world is simply waiting to conform to our needs and to roll over if it’s a competitor”, according to Hoverstad & Lo (2017:10). But the reality is that everybody is moving and that the future we envisage in our ‘vision’ statements doesn’t exist yet and it is not just up to us to make that happen. The strategic game is a dance, I move, you move, I move. Ignoring complexity does not result in effective strategy.

Throughout this article we often use the word system rather than organization. It may feel abstract, but it really isn’t. It is a richer term, implying that we are part of something bigger, a system of relationships within a boundary. We all belong to several systems, our family of origin, our community, our company, our sports club…. And our company belongs to several systems, a network, a sector, an industry, a supply chain network, a value chain… In each system some things are explicit but under those visible parts there are also hidden dynamics, patterns of behaviour, implicit loyalties, unspoken rules, and many resources we are not necessarily aware of. When engaging in strategy (design & execution) we must pay attention to the whole system, not just to what we see at first glance.

A system is not only complex, it also has a very strong drive to maintain its coherence, what is perceived as its natural order. This explains why significant changes in an organization that took years to take hold, are sometimes reversed when some key people leave. Without also changing the underlying dynamics, it is very easy to slip back into the old ways of doing things. Whittington (2020:10) states“As well as a system created by its members, it is also self-organizing in that it always attempts to stay whole by keeping what belongs to it within its boundary and balancing anything that disturbs its coherence.”

This explains why it is so hard to implement a strategy that is not thoroughly grounded in an organization and the field it operates in. What we infer from Hoverstad & Lo, Gray and Whittington is that you have to work with and within the system from day one and that you cannot just assume that you can transform a system let alone force a change in strategy on it simply by saying so, no matter how terribly smart the argumentation is. A system inherently resists change and will do anything to stay as it is. This is where Drucker’s famous statement comes in:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Peter Drucker

This is illustrated in the following case of a ‘new’ health care organization, the result of a merger between a detox centre and a mental health clinic. The new company made perfect sense as both parties are quite complementary in their region. The management defined a brilliant strategy on paper but failed to involve, motivate and support their employees on this journey. Teams were split up or integrated and were left to it. And then COVID happened. Cultures clashed, the mental health clinic was renowned for its strict procedures and reliability. The detox centre excelled due to its incredible commitment to its clients. If the detox professionals had to bend the rules to accommodate their clients, they did. Presented this way, the risks of conflicting paradigms and cultures are evident; still they were ignored in the merger strategy. The result is stuckness, low motivation, tension and despair. Expertise is going out of the window as key people leave in droves or burn out. It is especially tragic that this organization whose core business is the ‘brain’, so underestimated people’s primary need to belong, feel safe and be valued. The systemic rule about Endings & Beginnings was neglected. You cannot start something new if you do not honour the past (closure).

Nevertheless, strategic management remains crucial for any type of organisation. Both the lack of deliberate strategy or holding on to (or not being aware of) dated or unfortunate (strategic) choices can have dire consequences. It is not because the system strives for coherence and resists change, that we should not challenge it. In order to succeed, or even just to survive, we often need to change our direction, focus, patterns and habits. This goes for individuals as well as for organizations.

Strategic management is the art of doing the best possible, today and tomorrow, in synergy and interaction with other organisations. It requires broad awareness of what is going on in our organization and around us. We follow Bryce & George when they state “Strategizing consists of all activities undertaken by public organisations or other entities to deliberately and emergently (re)align their aspirations and capabilities (2020:5).” Transforming a system implies the need to make courageous decisions about its fit in its wider environment, while relentlessly finetuning relations, structures, processes, culture and/or daily practices in order to accomplish that fit.

A Systemic Strategic Model Looking Through Five Lenses

We view strategic management as multidimensional and multidisciplinary. An integrated approach that can deal with complexity is needed to achieve organizational effectiveness. The model below was developed by Peter Hawkins & partners (2017, 2018), linked to the Academy of Executive coaching, to strengthen the collective intelligence of teams and make teams future fit. Practice as strategy experts and organization coaches, allowed for testing, adopting and modifying this approach, leading to a finetuned model found to be useful and rigorous when working with different types of client organisations. It is holistic and centres on the human and systemic component that is often left unattended in other models. The framework has two dimensions inside/outside and task/process.

The inside/outside dimension cements the importance of the systemic perspective and requires constant updating of a stakeholder map while considering who is inside and who is outside. This, however, is not always a straightforward question! The task/process dimension addresses the focus on task such as through addressing purpose, vision, goals, delivery of objectives, … “the more cognitive ‘what and why’ of running a business or community”. A task is complemented by a people process, such as interpersonal relationships, leadership style, organization dynamics, … all the more emotional “who and how aspects” (Leary-Joyce & Lines 2018:22). In this model both task and process are equally important.

Figure 1.1. ®Systemic Team Coaching – Hawkins (2017, 2018), Leary-Joyce & Lines (2018)

The model consists of five disciplines, which represent the lenses you look through when designing & executing strategy. To make your organization ready to face the future, all five disciplines need to be to be constantly monitored and worked on to remain effective. Core learning is the mindset to make strategic management successful. It is situated at the heart of the model as it is the vessel of collective intelligence. Strategy is an ongoing process that never stops. Once the wheel is in motion, it keeps turning.

Commissioning

Who commissions strategic initiatives? Who is ultimately responsible and accountable for it? Whom does the organization primarily serve? What does an organization need to accomplish in service of its clients? How does the commissioner view the relationship between deliberate (goal-oriented) and emerging (means-oriented) strategy? Is the strategic intent merely high level or do frontline teams have the authority to assess the immediate situation and act on it? It is up to the primary stakeholder(s) to commission the strategic process and up to the executive team to negotiate the final terms. Leary-Joyce & Lines (2018:23) rightly point out “it also needs to be backed up by the resources of money, time and room for manoeuvre needed by the team to fulfil the agreed purpose”. Commissioning is about setting priorities within such resource limitations and avoids dispersion over too many ambitions. “The work is not done at strategy definition”, sic John Metselaar. This seems logical but is often ‘forgotten’ and hampers execution in due course. As the strategy wheel keeps turning, the commission needs to be reviewed frequently (recontracting).

Clarifying

Clarifying is related to all aspects of strategic planning and implementation: vision, mission statement, strategic goals, systemic analysis, risk analyses, scenarios, change theory, implementation plan (including HR business plan, digital transformation plan, financial plan, choices for organization development and organization culture…). The process of clarifying defines the measurement system against which success and failure will be judged.
Clarifying also comprises strategic steering; this is about guiding the implementation of the strategic plan or thinking through the consequences of emerging strategy. Here policy and management intersect. Steering involves integrated planning, budgeting, implementation, controlling, evaluation and focusing on core learning. Effective execution of the strategy requires spelling out priorities and subsequently allocating available human, logistical and financial resources with these priorities in mind. To inform strategic steering, we extract the essential strategic elements from the periodic management reporting (quarterly, half-yearly and annual) and complement these with additional strategic information about (preliminary) impacts, evolving strategic insights, changing contexts – if applicable, conditions for success for alternative execution scenarios, new opportunities, strategic risks, etc. This part of strategic management also implies accountability by (empowered) teams for progress in the execution of the strategy.

Co-creating

Co-creating strategy (emergence/design & execution) involves people, relationships inside and outside, culture and leadership. How do we do this together? How can we be more than the sum of the parts? What can we do together that we cannot achieve apart? How can we unlock and strengthen the strategic potential in our company? In the proposed approach, strategy sessions are living labs where we intervene in the corporate culture from day one. Change in organization culture is not a consequence of deliberate strategy but part of the journey. A major change process is not a linear process (establishing KPIs), it is the result of a symbiosis between vision, strategy and action. We agree with Moerkerken (2015:293) when she states that we do not ‘make’ but rather ‘cause’ change.
Strategy as we see it requires generative and adaptive thinking, which occurs only with psychological safety. We thus need to create optimal conditions for people to participate, contribute, be alert, speak up, bounce off and generate ideas, unlock diversity and handle friction in a constructive manner. This way an organization can embrace and navigate complexity, sit with uncertainty while maintaining focus and cultivate resilience. This collective and generative intelligence is needed to make organizations thrive and future fit. It is crucial to partner with employees and major stakeholders. In our experience it pays off a thousand-fold: to map the daily reality and culture of an organization, to then rise above it, to dream and sharply define one’s ambition, to raise the sense of urgency (the system needs change to survive), to remove blockages on the way, to make optimal use of talent and to relentlessly strengthen strategic capacity and support.

Connecting

Typical questions arising in the Connecting quadrant are: How can we best serve our stakeholders? What sort of relationships are we in? Where do these relationships take us? Do we like that direction? Is this who we want to be? And if we do not like what we see, how can we change it? What does this ask of us? Actively engaging stakeholders during the strategic cycle and in various aspects of strategic management is crucial. This is how we prevent cognitive bias (George podcast 2020) and blind spots, open new perspectives, invite brilliance, encourage intrapreneurship, generate understanding, insight, connection, and cross fertilization. In addition we create networks and strengthen our support base. Actively involving stakeholders teaches us how interdependent we are from what is happening around us and helps us determine the direction we want to take.
Hoverstad & Lo (2017:19) adopted the term ‘structural coupling’ from biology in this respect: “it’s the process whereby an organism interacts with its environment in such a way that the organism changes the environment, and the environment changes the organism.” In their view organizations are structurally coupled to their environments (customers, competitors, suppliers, communities, authorities, etc). The better frontline teams are connected and the higher their awareness, the better they understand network dynamics and their strategic value. Lessons learned in a wide range of settings highlight the importance of transparent and inspiring communication with the wider system, and demonstrate the effectiveness of storytelling. Employees and other important stakeholders need to understand that how and what they are doing connects to the organization’s strategic levers. The story needs to bring strategy home so that people can relate to, give meaning to and embrace it. A one-pager with strong visuals often goes a long way. It communicates that strategy is not the privilege of a few master strategists but a joint responsibility. Organizations that are able to articulate a higher goal or purpose that is aligned with this approach can create an inspiring vision and generate (sustained) momentum.

Core Learning

As stated above, core learning is the mindset to make strategic management successful. It is situated at the heart of the model as it drives all the rest. Strategy is an ongoing process that never stops, and it is everyone’s business at some level. Teams, particularly those with heightened awareness of strategy, should regularly take the time to reflect, consolidate their learnings, celebrate tops & flops, and integrate new elements. This process involves deeply questioning assumptions, experimenting and testing what works, while pruning what doesn’t work, looking for the right fit in the landscape, realigning capacity and ambition levels and focusing on co-creation and innovation.
Shared insight in the need for change as well as sustainability and feasibility of policy choices, shared self-confidence and the corresponding implementation strategy are quintessential for establishing a wide support base. And that support base determines the success of a strategy. Such an organisation is capable of appreciating what is good, letting go of what no longer serves your purpose and developing and/or transforming where that seems required. Continuous monitoring of existing decisions and (auto)evaluation of internal capacity for strategic management and organisation culture are all fundamental to strategic management. Edmondson (2019:71) puts it like this “The people on the front line who create and deliver products and services are privy to the most important strategic data the company has available. They know what customers want, what competitors are doing, and what the latest technology allows. Organizational learning – championed by company leaders but enacted by everyone – requires actively seeking deviations that challenge the assumptions underpinning a current strategy.”

Our Stance

Synergy between internal and external capacity is key! Success of strategy design and execution may by fostered by a synergic collective of strategy experts and organisation coaches, accompanying, supporting, coaching and -if need be- directing an internal team that is passionate about strategy and/or teams charged with specific parts of strategic management. It is not useful and certainly not sustainable when external strategic consultants take charge of the entire project and do the work for rather than in co-creation with the organisation. If an organisation calls upon strategic consultants and organisation coaches, then they should meet the teams they work with, where they are, without judgement, with respect for where they come from, and who they are right now.
“Out beyond ideas or right and wrong, there is a field. I will meet you there.
Rumi

However, as outsiders, consultants have a particular role to play and that is to bring out the best in people, introduce variation in their thinking and stretch their potential. Transforming organization culture can be quite tough. People use their formal and informal positions of power to steer in the direction that best serves their own beliefs and convictions (Whittington 2020:104-110). Often people have trouble to imagine what different looks like. George (2020 in podcast), elaborates on the risk of cognitive bias (negative bias, discrimination bias, confirmation bias). Mental capacity to discover new paths emerges only when people start questioning and breaking their own roles, routines and ingrained patterns. It is the passion of effective consultants and coaches to focus on exactly that. Transforming a system is also about shared paradigm shifts and personal transformation of each and every employee. It is not the management who changes corporate culture, it can merely invite employees to change together. That’s why it is so important to create a safe space, amidst all the chaos, to consciously and continuously engage people in the change process (Edmondson 2019:113-123).
The approach presented in this article does not rely on experts who pride themselves on a heavy toolbox of models and pre-defined rigour. What organizations need are strategy facilitators and organization coaches who believe in the resilience, talent, experience and maturity of teams and individuals in an organization and in their ability to learn and grow, in dialogue also with external stakeholders. It is up to such facilitators to show interest, to not know, to be a humble listener, to be curious, to draw out insight and dig deep. We do not see it as the consultants’ task to deliver the ‘perfect’ strategic plan but to look for what gives clients the best fit in their environment, given their capacity and ambitions. Their interventions challenge and make people reflect on who they are as a company (or organization) and who they want to be. However, it is not about challenging at all cost. It is essential to guarantee psychological safety while fostering (self) trust. People need to step up and show ‘daring’ leadership in order to be innovative, but they can only do that if they feel safe. During the entire process (internal and external) strategy facilitators work in vivo with major stakeholders to support them in more technical disciplines of strategic management, organization development, leadership, and organization culture. The proposed approach reveals hidden dynamics and patterns that stand in the way of progress. It is about engaging in a partnership and striving to define an inspiring strategy that is being implemented as we speak.

Our Toolbox

As indicated above we see strategic management as a continuous interaction between innovation, strategic learning, commissioning, strategic planning and strategic direction (or leadership), co-creation and connecting with stakeholders. The methodologies to select when working in organizations allow the strategy team to look through different lenses in order to get a better view of the whole. Methodologies we find extremely suited for this collective endeavour are Appreciative Inquiry (Cooperrider 1986), Scenario Thinking (Bradfield et al. 2005), Design Thinking (Brown: 2009), Deep Democracy (Kramer 2019), Systemic (team) coaching (Hawkins 2017, 2018; Leary-Joyce & Lines 2018).
What all these methods have in common is that they are holistic and make optimal use of diversity, equity, friction, generative thinking, and wisdom of the group. They all attach extreme importance to involving stakeholders, focusing on what vision inspires, increasing self-conscience and collective learning, stretching one’s ambitions and relying on and strengthening internal strategic capacity.
When it comes to specific needs for strategic steering, it is important to build on experiences in comparable situations and to choose and tailor the right additional methodologies. These may include a planning, budgeting & control cycle with PDCA concepts integrated, an HRM cycle truly aligning incentives to strategic ambitions, theory of change, results chain, additional MEAL concepts (monitoring, evaluation, accountability & learning) and/or zero-base approaches integrated in the planning & control cycle, etc.

The Strategy Team

To assess how the organization scores on the five disciplines of strategic thinking, it is important to interview or survey key stakeholders. This informs us on how we ideally approach the strategic exercise or challenge. In co-creation with the top of the organization external facilitators may help select a solid, diverse yet complementary strategy team. With diversity we do not only aim at different competences, experiences and roles in the organization but also personalities, decision styles and perspectives. This avoids group think and stimulates generative thinking. It also suggests that neither the consultants nor the top of the organization are omniscient and do not claim to have all the answers.
During the process one shall invariably engage large and diverse groups of employees and stakeholders to collect, bounce off and/or test ideas. A strategy team ideally consists of an external expert, an organizational coach, a process sponsor & managers, key employees and outside stakeholders and a few staff to take care of practical arrangements. The more the internal organization takes charge of the process, the better the self-reliance and the more sustainable the transformation initiated.
No matter how the team is set-up and what its focus is, due to intensive collaboration, empowerment and crosspollination during the process, learning transfer is organic. This is a form of ‘just in time learning’, people in the organization learn from each other, from the consultants and they learn from them. The strategy team practises in a safe environment, it tries out new methodologies, engages in scenario thinking, tests prototypes, and/or learns how to handle friction and other group dynamics. The idea is to firmly ground any transformation process. This is why we recommend engaging organization coaches in strategic projects. They coach live during sessions and support the personal growth and specific expertise of key figures. When possible, the process might even include a module on training internal coaches or leadership so that all leaders co-create, breathe and model the desired organization behaviours/culture. As far as leadership is concerned, we like to see them evolve from chess master to gardener. It is key to nurture a growth mindset – failure is an opportunity for growth – and also to be very aware of the principle of subsidiarity. What can be decided by the frontline teams needs to be decided there. This encourages accountability and raises awareness about the interdependency with stakeholders. Actively engaging stakeholders helps understand what really matters to them and implies reflecting on how implementing different scenarios might impact these stakeholders and/or their system/environment.
There are different avenues we can take depending on the maturity level, intentions, wishes and resources (money, time, people, urgency) available. We can opt for a small and deep intersection of the organization so that all layers of the organization are represented. This means we break through silos and hierarchy. Sometimes it may be advisable to work with as wide a group as possible. Or we alternate zooming in and out, this has the benefit of efficiency and rigorous discussion in a small group and confrontation with the wisdom of many in a larger group.
We advocate that the strategy team remains involved during execution. It may be important to add a few people with specific skills but in general we concur with Leinwand & Rotering (2017:2) when they suggest that “The leaders who are able to be both visionaries and operators, and switch between these two mindsets, are the ones who can turn their organizations into super-competitors.”
Together with the leadership team, the strategy team clarifies why changing course matters so much, why it makes a difference and for whom. “They translate the strategy into the everyday” Leinwand & Rotering (2017:1), in other words they make it smaller, concreter and thus less scary. Both relentlessly challenge and encourage the organization to work on its key capabilities. They advocate change and explain to teams how they all contribute to make the company win, how their work is connected to the big picture change, what their freedom is to take initiative, experiment and grow. They make sure that the organization follows through on what was agreed. They (re)allocate budgets to where they matter most and ensure that teams’ purpose and goals are aligned with the organization’s new priorities. They make visible projects to demonstrate that the organization is serious about building the capabilities required for successful execution (scaling up, hiring, learning & development, IT, process reengineering, breaking through silos and hierarchies…). Most of all, they monitor that the organization creates value for its customers in their own unique way as promised in the strategic document.

Conclusion

In this article we have demonstrated how to engage with people, their organization and its wider system during a strategic process, in order to secure effective execution. Three points are key in our approach. First, like nature organizations are complex and require order and cohesion. However, sometimes an organization needs to be shaken up in order to survive. We adopt the 5 lenses approach to make sure we catch that complexity and concentrate our efforts where change is most needed and the return on investment might be highest. Peace in the midst of chaos is crucial for an organization to dare ‘greatly’ and find a new balance. Second, successful external support combines both business experts and organization coaches. We fully recognize that it is not the job of external consultants to lead the strategic process but rather to ‘cause’ change in people’s mindset and to intensify the learning. As such, the human capacity in a system is put to good use and is given an opportunity to further develop and thrive. Finally, strategy only makes sense if execution is advocated, supported, monitored and properly resourced. Making execution part of the commission is a solid starting position. Maximizing involvement of people within the system throughout the process leads to stellar performance. Allowing strategy to evolve and improve during execution (emergent strategy) is embedded in this approach.

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