When is the last time you looked at a company strategy and felt excited?
I suspect that most people might say ‘never’. I wouldn’t mind, except isn’t strategy meant to do something like this? Isn’t it meant to be more than a document that emerges from some dry strategic process, only to gather dust on the bookshelves of senior managers? Surely a good strategy is one that creates a call to action, provides a clear direction and helps to build momentum. But if these are the characteristics of a good strategy, then how do you create such a beast?
I think that building good strategy involves a keen focus on the inside of an organisation. Good strategy ignites employees to act. It also gives them the means to act in the best individual way that they can, while still serving the best interests of the company. I’ll just say that again for emphasis. Good strategy lets people act in an individual manner while serving a common aim.
The key is to forget the mantra of buy-in and to focus instead on the concept of momentum. Buy-in is only a dream because it suggests that the strategy is 100% right, it is communicated with 100% effectiveness and that it can be carried out with 100% efficiency. This, of course, is nonsense. Momentum, on the other hand, just asks for you to communicate the gist of the strategy, provide a handful of guiding principles and then let the folks get on with their jobs.
Principles are statements that describe how things should get done. They are underpinning behaviour necessary to bring about the strategy. They aren’t rules. Rules tell you what you can and cannot do. They aren’t objectives either, as objectives follow that prescriptive SMART format. No, principles are memorable statements that employees can easily ingest and then interpret for their own situation and skill set.
Here is an example from a task I tackled with a European CEO of a major brand. In trying to refocus his customer service arm we developed the strategy and got some key messages out. For Finance, we laid out some cost of calls guidelines. For Engineering we spelled out service level agreements. But for the folks in the customer service teams, we supplied just one guiding principle – “Our service is like oxygen and a customer dies after three minutes without it”.
Now just pause for a moment. That one sentence is a strategy. And as a strategy it IS pretty exciting…right? It is also memorable and easy to apply. But most importantly that one phrase could be internalised by each of the staff. They could interpret its meaning to their particular situation and they could respond in the best way they knew how. They could all behave as individuals, but know that they were serving the strategy together. They had momentum.
Just one more thing.
Strategy these days is hardly worth the paper it is written on unless it is strongly tied to your brand. After all, a brand is only as good as the next experience a customer has with your company. If that next experience reinforces some of the things your company stands for and strikes a chord of belief with the customer, you will live to sell another day. But woe betide you if his experience is anything less than what the customer expects. Strategy or not, a bad brand experience can be a bitter pill indeed – for the customer and your company.
But the good news is that if you build your strategy by creating and applying principles, you also positively affect the behaviour of your company at the same time. Your employees not only get the strategy done, they do it in a preferred way, in line with the principles. What really happens – and what I should have said right at the start – is that strategic principles do two things for you.
They allow your staff to Be the strategy and Live the brand.
There is still room for dusty strategy documents, anodyne planning processes and hard and fast objectives, don’t get me wrong. These things give the detail of what the strategy will achieve. But when it comes to getting things done, in a way that makes everyone happy – you, customers and employees – you need strategic momentum. And if it is momentum that you seek, principles should not be far behind.
Patrick Harris is formerly Director of Creaticity at Orange and an Executive Director of France Telecom UK R&D. Now he operates his consultancy, thoughtengine, operating in the areas of Brand, Strategy, Creativity and Futures. Patrick is also a current Director in Medinge, a branding think tank that celebrates humanity in brands and the organisations that they represent.
Patrick’s recent article in the Journal of Brand Management, ‘We the People’ can be accessed from the thoughtengine site.