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  • John Chambers, PhD

Strategy as Tick Box

Sustainable strategy is an oxymoron. So much so that many executives avoid the strategic deliberations altogether. As opportunities for “long term” market share dwindle, and the speed of competition is as swift as the electrons hitting the router, strategies can become obsolete not in five years but maybe in 15 months. Exacerbating the dilemma is that strategic development is often last on the To-Do list in the “fast paced” environment of some enterprises. Eschew the hallway running and build structures that adapt and morph seamlessly to ever-changing demands. Although the competitive, "first mover" opportunity is nearly impossible to sustain, your strategy is more critical now than ever before.

If you are not regularly referencing your strategy, communicating, championing it, incorporating it into your meeting deliberations, then the strategy effort was but a tick-box, a to-do, a need to fulfill some board requirement called “Deliver New Strategy.” You may as well finish the document and stick it on the shelf, or let it rest as a desktop decoration, ostensible proof that we think big thoughts and we earned our executive office. As a leader, don’t allow that to happen. We must constantly talk about the strategy in light of tactical efforts and support behaviors. As fluent as a translator, negotiating among nation states, your vocabulary and your messaging must weave seamlessly from tactical focus to the the tapestry of the overarching vision and strategy. Being a strategic orator is not a trivial gift-of-gab talent. It requires hard work, study and a marrying of your expected, strategic perspective to the team's deliverables.

Your strategy is a navigational guide, your compass, the sextant. So pick it up and use it. Integrate it into conversations and daily challenges. Reference it and validate it when a change in business approach is under consideration. Is the change a one-off, or does the change have far reaching implications on your current strategic objectives? Is the strategy directing choices, or are transactional activities directing the strategy? Hopefully it’s not the latter.

The buzzword for years, even decades, was “alignment” and whether or not plans and activities were in support of a particular objective. If so, we thought, then they were aligned. The problem, of course, was everyone could say that anything was aligned to anything else. It became a word game. Superficial, tick-box thinking like that gave alignment a bad name, and diminished the importance of cultivating and developing commitments to long term strategic objectives.

Projects, behaviors, tactics and operations should always be considered against the enterprise strategy, with clear cut connections. I’m reminded, as I often am, by the late Taiichi Ohno, the Toyota executive who refined the 5-step, root cause approach for manufacturing analysis. As we recall, when there was a failure, he’d ask “Why?” And after each answer he’d ask “Why?” again, in order to stepwise arrive at the root cause of defects and problems. In the same vein, we should coach strategic thinking for our organizations by de-layering our rationales for tasks, one step at a time. Coach all teams toward a strategic mindset and don’t shy from it because it might appear as basic, common sense. For example, think of an enterprise whose primary strategic goal states, “Take measurable steps to quantify our brand reputation as the leading software innovator.”

If our teams have a strategic mindset, then a crack engineer in the lab understands the stack – not the software stack but the stack of dependencies for advancing that strategy:

“Why do we use a DevOps methodology to run test routines as part of the development process?”

“To mitigate defects early, without waiting until the final phase.”

“Why do we care that defects are discovered early?”

“To reduce time to repair.”

“Why is time to repair so important?”

“Because the delivery process can be expedited.”

“And of course, why is rapid delivery important?”

“To ship new products faster.”

“Why does shipment of ‘new’ products matter to the strategy?”

“Because our strategy is to constantly innovate.”

In the above walk, our strategy demanded that we all support the brand reputation goal of "innovator," and the test engineer in the lab is critical to that success, as are all groups. Do they understand the strategy and embrace it?

So here we might be again, the "we already know that" moment, shrugging off the thought because it seems overly didactic and silly; I mean, if we don’t have professionals that understand end-to-end business dependency then they should go back to school, right? Well, you’ll be astonished how many professionals are focused on the vacuum of their silos, for many good reasons, and don’t even know the current enterprise strategy. Some don’t know their own departmental strategy! Yes, we want the best technical skills in each technical role. But if there is no connection, no visible and discussed and reminded connection to the strategy, and if the engineer is not cognizant of the strategy, operational waste will undermine it.

If we cannot attach each and every rationale to the enterprise’s strategic goals, then the corporate strategy has no viability. It shall have no connection to daily operations and behaviors. And without daily operational connections, you might as well tick that box that says, “Write up a strategy” and be done with it.

As leaders, like preachers, we need to communicate the strategy, coaching regularly, passionately.

While the teams are walking the talk, you’ve got to continue talking the talk.

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