One question that senior leaders and CEOs often ask is, “How do we get people more engaged with our strategy?” Research indicates that most employees want not only to understand the strategy but to contribute to it. This notion of cascading a strategy throughout the business and engaging others in its execution seems simple enough, but as many executives soon discover, simple is hard. However, we’ve found that with a process, strong leadership and consistent follow-through, cascading strategy to all levels of the organization can be done efficiently and, more importantly, done well.
As most leaders know, even the best strategies won’t gain traction or deliver desired results unless everyone understands the strategy, aligns with it and actually does something about it. Fundamentally, successful implementation is largely determined by the degree to which people buy into the overarching (“core”) strategy of the business. Unfortunately, many senior leaders tend to focus too much on the formulation aspect of strategy and too little on cascading and operationalizing it.
If a strategy is to produce meaningful results and competitive advantage, the people behind the strategy must be aligned, and the process of achieving strategic alignment has to be thoroughly, thoughtfully orchestrated. Naturally, this means that everyone in the organization needs to understand how they fit and why they matter when it comes to the future direction of the organization.
Leaders are the catalysts of the cascading process in the organization, yet many don’t realize the impact they have on strategy being pushed down and throughout the organization. When leaders can help people see the organization’s vision and enroll them in the process for reaching those goals, the business transforms and truly becomes a place of hope and promise for all stakeholders. With that said, let’s take a deep dive into a process for cascading organizational strategy: the “Strategic Alignment Journey.” This process is built around a series of “Strategic Connection Points.” Take a careful look at the five stages of this process to discover how it can lift and drive the execution side of your organization’s strategy.
Stage 1 is centered on the senior leader of the organization and his or her leadership team. Obviously, the task of leaders at this level is to formulate a clear and compelling strategic direction for the organization. This requires leaders who are passionate, determined and clear about what the future of the organization should look like. This includes long-term goals and objectives, as well as the big things the organization must accomplish to ensure a secure future. In simple terms, it is a “plan to win.” With a clearly defined strategic direction, senior leaders can establish for the whole organization what winning means and the initiatives and maneuvers that will be needed to cross the finish line.
What often gets overlooked in this stage is “strategic teaming.” Strategic teaming involves getting the leadership team unified and helping them to feel greater ownership over the organization’s core strategy. Too often, senior leadership teams are a bit dysfunctional. Many teams display siloed thinking and destructive competition between members of the leadership team itself. Left unchecked, dynamics like these can quickly kill a strategy. In the alignment meeting, the senior leadership team learns how to overcome these challenges and have robust discussions using the “Discuss – Decide – Support” approach. As they work through any formulation issues, a core strategy will emerge that can be shared with the organization. This is the first Strategic Connection Point that triggers the cascade.
In Stage 2, each member of the senior leadership team mirrors the alignment process that occurred during Stage One, but for the area of the business they lead (division, profit center, geographic area, or business unit). The first task in the strategic alignment meetings that take place in Stage Two is explaining the core strategy so everyone can understand and commit to it.
The next essential task is for the team to identify which parts of the core strategy the division will contribute to directly. In other words, if the core strategy has seven or eight major initiatives or priorities, each division or business unit decides which of those they can contribute to and then formulates a unit or division strategy with their own supporting priorities. These are places where the division’s strategy intersects with the organization’s core strategy.
At each stage, the team has to think like a business and figure out a strategy within the business’s larger strategy. This process comes with a natural rhythm, as each stage builds on the one that came before it. Here again, strategic leadership and strategic teaming are critical; leaders must allocate essential resources and remove any obstacles that could derail the entire process.
Stage 3 of the Alignment Journey occurs at the department or functional level where the organization’s core strategy, as well as the division or business unit’s collection of strategic initiatives, is shared. Function or department leaders then identify Strategic Connection Points within the division’s strategy and formulate their own initiatives and plans that individual departments will own and execute. This breathes life into the strategy as departments look to operationalize the priorities that the division has chosen to focus on. As with the other stages, it requires leaders who are willing and able to think ahead, see the connection points, and be change agents.
Stage 4 is often missed by organizations, yet it is central to this dynamic process. At this stage, each leader and team within the department needs to have a line of sight to the strategies above. Leaders must advocate and be a voice for strategic transformation as they determine how they will map their work to the core business strategy. As teams go through their own alignment meetings, the strategy begins to pick up serious momentum and penetrate all parts of the business.
Stage 5 is arguably the most exciting part of the process. This is where each person defines how they will contribute to the strategic priorities of their team and department by creating their own “strategic road maps.” It is invigorating and motivating for people on the front lines to know how they fit, why they matter and how they can contribute. People bring strategies to life. Strategic alignment ignites the energy of all leaders and team members, unleashing discretionary performance and creating the slight strategic edge businesses need to compete and prosper.
Clearly, the engine of the cascading process is the alignment meetings that occur at all levels. But the engine can’t produce results without monitoring and tracking the performance of the interlocking plans and agreements that flow out of those alignment meetings. The strategic plans, objectives and road maps need clearly defined actions and owners. This is how the strategy becomes operationalized; without a plan for operationalization, the strategy is doomed to remain nothing but a concept, hope, or dream without legs.
Once cascaded strategies are in place, organizations should use a “results forum” as a mechanism for reporting on progress, getting realigned as new opportunities and threats surface, and holding everyone accountable for results. A results forum should occur at every stage of the Alignment Journey. During the forum, individuals share their progress on key initiatives and problems. Accountability for the cascading process flows in the opposite direction, from bottom to top. This “reverse cascade” continues up and through the organization until reaching the CEO and the senior leadership team (the ultimate owners of the core enterprise strategy).
Unless there is a follow up at regular intervals, you are unlikely to see much progress. So, if the alignment meeting is the engine of the cascading process, the results forum is the fuel that moves you forward. However, people can become demoralized and frustrated if there is a lack of leadership courage or the discipline to hold people accountable for following through. Why does this happen? Leaders get busy. Day-to-day responsibilities, short-term demands, emergencies and routine tasks all need attention, and leaders often take care of these items to the detriment of their strategic initiatives. Unless leaders are willing to tame these demands, there will be little room to operationalize strategic intentions—and that puts your future at risk.
This alignment process has been used successfully with hundreds of organizations and at all levels, and it’s a marvel to see it all come together. Businesses have a lot of moving parts; finding these Strategic Connection Points is the unifying mechanism that brings focus, action and results. Any organization can begin a transformational journey if there is leadership, determination, a process to cascade the strategy down to all levels, and the fortitude to stay the course through the up and down cycles of business—and the chaos that inevitably comes with daily operational life.
Remember, one of the most important jobs a leader has is to set direction and secure the future. Cascading strategy and achieving strategic alignment is one of the best ways to make that happen. Strategy can be electrifying, and with this process, you can proactively steer your organization into the future and engage the workforce in capitalizing on the exciting challenges and opportunities that await you.