I am flying back from the Chief Strategy Officer conference that was held in San Francisco (CSOSF). Because the conference ended in the middle of Friday afternoon, I am taking a red-eye back to Atlanta. I may or may not look like this in another 30 minutes:
Still, the conference was more than worth it. As I sit on the plane, overpaying for my Gogo inflight wireless service, I have time to reflect on what I learned over the past couple of days.
First, I was struck by how restrained the use of the word “strategy” was, especially given that this conference was for CSOs. That’s what they are supposed to think about…strategy. But, as it turns out, the biggest problem that these stewards of strategy face is not strategy formulation.
Sure… strategy formulation was discussed. But it wasn’t the primary focus. Rather, the discussions tended to focus on strategy execution or implementation. As Bryan Neider, SVP of Global Shared Services at Electronic Arts put it, “It is easier to build a great deck on strategy than execute on it.”
All of these CSOs are smart people. They get their jobs because they are. However, they don’t control the resources within the company to execute their strategy. Thus, they are often challenged to move their strategies from PowerPoints and Excel to flesh-and-blood activities inside the organization.
Second, these strategy leaders see implementation of plans as a “change management” activity. It is not “strategy execution”. It is about causing real change in the organization. The outcome of change is manifesting the strategy. Without true change management, a strategy is just a project foisted on the organization that may or may not stick. To be effective, many parts of an organization need to truly change their activities, behaviors, and motivations. CSOs have now become the main proponents of change management within organizations given its importance.
Third, a priority is being placed on giving managers enough information about the strategic framework that they can make autonomous decisions when confronted with obstacles. Patrick Conway, Chief Knowledge Officer of the US Army, shared an interesting observation in this vein. In the earlier days of the army, when a squad tried for cross a river by a bridge and found that the bridge was blown up, they had to call back to headquarters to receive orders about how to proceed. In the new army, squads are empowered to determine their own alternative way to cross the river. For example, by commandeering a boat or finding a fordable point in the river. They are empowered to make these decisions because they know enough about the ultimate objective to adapt from the original plan. In Patrick’s words, they have “armed, enabled, and empowered” performance. This more flexible approach has a much greater chance of the ultimate objective being reached.
Taken together, these three points indicate a strong need to make strategy visible and relevant to the entire organization. Managers need to know what the overall picture is. They also need tools to work through their pieces of the strategy. They need a framework and a system to make sure that they are armed, enabled, and empowered to propel the organization forward. The need resources to empower them to become proponents of change management. Strategy is the beginning. The bulk of the work is the organizational change management required to make it real.