Two practical ways to implement your strategic priorities FAST

Posted by on Feb 29, 2012

In all my years as a management consultant, one of the funniest expressions I’ve heard is “it may work in practice, but it will never fly in theory”.

Our last two articles on strategic prioritization were more theoretical and conceptual, but this week, let’s get practical.

Senior managers may put a lot of effort into selecting the right strategic priorities, but it goes for naught unless they’re converted to action.  This week we’ll describe two simple, practical ways to convert your priorities to understanding throughout the organization, and most importantly, ACTION at the front lines.

Idea 1: Make your strategic priorities everyone’s priorities

In our first article on setting strategic priorities, we cited a 2010 Booz-Allen survey finding that 64% of surveyed executives said their company had too many strategic priorities.   We also cited a 2011 McKinsey global survey finding that “Just half of executives say their time spent at work aligns with their organizations’ strategic priorities”.

Three common problems contribute to this.

  1. Priorities from the top are not well communicated.
  2. They’re converted into different priorities as they are passed down the organization.
  3. They’re not put into perspective against the many other KPIs for which people are held accountable, or perhaps on which their bonuses are based.

All three can be easily solved.

COMMUNICATE PRIORITIES USING CLEAR STRATEGIC THEMES AND A STORY ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE TRYING TO DO.

This became clear to me when one of my clients was grappling with a sudden, unexpected market reversal and facing losses for the first time in many years.  A new strategic plan generated many objectives.  We talked about how to communicate this mass of objectives to employees, but decided instead to reduce the strategy to a story line of three sequential priorities.  The first priority was “stop the bleeding”. The second was “build a new platform for growth”, and  the third was “back into black” (meaning profit). This helped to focus effort and got everyone on side working towards the three priorities.

Using a little creativity, your executive team can come up with similar strategic themes that tell the “story” of your strategy in ways that people in your organization can relate to.

MAKE YOUR PRIORITIES EVERYONE’S PRIORITIES

A typical way in which priorities are shared in an organization sees each of the VPs take the top priorities to their unit, and to determine how that unit can best support company priorities.

Let’s say one of the priorities is “increase margins”. The senior Finance team may determine that since they have no influence on revenues, their priority is “cost control”. But when someone from Marketing approaches the IT group reporting to the VP of Finance with requests for increases in data mining to help improve margins, she’s met with a stone walling response: “Sorry, that’s not our priority. We’re cutting costs”. We’ve all heard stories like that in many organizations.

This clash could be avoided very easily by simply communicating the priorities differently.  All that needs to change is “Increasing margins is everyone’s top priority. If you’re not increasing margins in your job, you’d better be helping someone who is.  Ask how you can help those who are responsible for increasing margins. What can you do to help them succeed?

Simple? Yes! Effective? Very! We’ve seen this re-focus large organizations very quickly on making the changes necessary to execute new strategic priorities.

CHANGE ACCOUNTABILITIES TO MATCH PRIORITIES

If your organization has a set of metrics for which managers and employees are held accountable, make sure your company-wide priorities are integrated into these, and make sure they’re weighted appropriately.  This is particularly important if you have a pay-for-performance component in your compensation.  If you don’t make these changes very quickly after communicating your new priorities, your strategy will soon be bleeding from self-inflicted wounds.

Idea 2: Convert priorities to action at the front lines

When you create and communicate new priorities, you must show your employees (and sometimes your customers!) that you’re serious about it, and you really, really mean it!  You can do this by making changes in processes, procedures or emphasis at the front line, so that everyone can see that the leadership of the organization is aligned and very serious about the changes.  Two examples illustrate this very well.

At BC TEL (the predecessor to TELUS) new competition for business customers in the early 1990s left the company vulnerable to cherry-picking by new entrants to the Canadian market.  A significant proportion of BC TEL’s customers were receptive to the idea of switching to the competition, partly because they did not see or feel the BC TEL value proposition benefiting them.

BC TEL’s Business Customer Service executive team set a priority to communicate this value to the customers on every customer contact. To do so, they decided to optimize every customer’s account in a few small business customer segments on every customer contact.

A few months later, I called BC TEL about a change we wanted to make to our account.  What I experienced was an amazingly skillful demonstration of a customer service rep communicating the company’s value proposition, and finding ways to help me, as a customer, to get more value from BC TEL’s services. I was very impressed!  BC TEL had taken this priority and made it tangible and real by changing the customer contact process and the call script to increase customer loyalty on every contact.  It was unexpected, and it exceeded my expectations.

In a similar case, Vancity Insurance changed their value proposition to “relentless about the right coverage”, reasoning that as an agency which carries a variety of insurance carriers’ products, its role should be to help its customers get the best coverage for their needs.

Within a few months, I visited a Vancity Insurance branch to renew my home and automobile coverage, and I was treated to what could easily have been a clinic on how to do it right. The agent not only made sure she understood my needs, but helped me to see why the coverage she recommended was right for me.  While agents may have done this invisibly in the past, making the customer aware of the value really helped to differentiate Vancity for me from the undifferentiated mass of insurance brokers out there, who mostly look the same.

It was a great demonstration of moving a strategic priority quickly from the pages of the strategic plan to the front lines, and making the value proposition visible to customers.  Again, it exceeded my expectations.

The lessons from this are not difficult to implement.

You can find ways to communicate your strategy so that your priorities are shared by everyone in the organization. If they’re not contributing directly in their own jobs, they should be asking how they can help those whose jobs are contributing directly.

Wherever possible, make changes in work processes to integrate your priorities right at the front line, especially if they involve providing value to customers.

These relatively simple changes will pay off quickly and far beyond their costs.

© 2012 Knowlan Consulting Group Inc. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication or publication in any form, in whole or in part, is prohibited.

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