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The Six Disciplines Blog

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Strategy Gap Between Managers and Team Members


Seeing The Strategy Gap

One year after the strategy sessions, the senior team of a small manufacturing company expected significant improvements in their employee survey. The survey asked everyone, “How well is our company executing on its strategy?” But production workers’ scores actually declined, and more than once their comments said something to the effect of “What strategy?” The senior team was a bit shocked and definitely disheartened. But Dorian, new to the senior team meetings, spoke up. He had worked his way from running a machine “on the floor” to soon managing the entire production process. “If they knew how the changes connected to the 10-year vision, as I have learned today, then they would buy in a lot more. They are assuming the worst. They need to see the future you see.” Dorian saw the strategy gap between managers and their direct reports and was in a great position to start closing that gap.


Why Managers Fail To Communicate Strategy

Here are the most common reasons we have found of why managers fail to communicate the overall company strategy to their teams.

  • It’s a sensitive subject. Strategy implies change and with change comes the phasing out of products, processes, and positions. So yes, talking strategy with employees can be tough and should be carefully thought through to avoid stirring up rumors or fears. But not talking about strategy to avoid uneasy feelings amongst employees is a form of delayed gratification, trading the long-term good for the short-term pleasure.
  • Operational excellence is misunderstood to be strategy. Most managers have inherited their department and have primarily been asked to keep the processes running and make improvements. But as Michael Porter has famously shown, operational excellence is not a strategy. It is necessary, but doing the same things, only better, does not give you a competitive advantage. Managers need to know how their organization is unique in its market in ways that matter to their customers, and they need to understand how the activities in their department contribute to that unique advantage.
  • Strategy is for top leaders. Managers assume only senior leaders need to understand strategy, but Michael Porter again points out that the strategy of your company is experienced by your customers, not in a board room, but in the front-line activities of your employees. For example, Chick-fil-A’s “My pleasure!” curtesy is a strategic activity all employees are trained on, which sets them apart from their competitors.
  • Employees do not care. True. Employees do not care about empty, motivational, “strategy” talks that simply re-package the same “work harder” message. But we know, based on our own research, that they do care about your organization. And they do care about your customers. The problem is not the apathy of your workforce, but that managers rarely are able to connect their work to the overall purpose of the company.


5 Actions To Connect Your Team Members to Strategy

Here are five quick tips on how managers can connect their employees to your organization’s strategy.

  1. Take ownership. Take responsibility to understand your organization’s strategy. Do your homework. If it isn’t in a presentation, or on a poster, or in a slick video, bother anyone and everyone higher in the organization than you with strategy questions until you understand it.
  2. Write an Elevator Speech on Your Strategy. Once you think you understand your company’s strategy, write it out in the form of an elevator speech. This will force you to clean up any sloppy thinking and concretely express what can sound like vague ideas
  3. Train on the Strategy of Specific Activities. Find the specific activities your team members perform that are expressions of the strategy. Once you isolate those few activities, train your team on them, making sure they see how they are uniquely valuable to your customers.
  4. “Charter” Every Project. Leaders often start projects in the middle, with identifying deliverables and communicating the schedule. And then, after enough push-back and questioning from front-line workers, the project team and senior leaders pause to “clean up” and finally communicate the reason why the project is important. Instead, start with a project charter. According to the Project Management Institute, it is an ideal place to document the relationships between the project and the organizational strategy.
  5. Senior Leaders Need to Package and Deliver the Strategy Themselves. Many organizations cascade strategy down through the ranks. They depend soley on managers and supervisors to relay the company strategy onto front-line workers. But, according to an HBR study on embedding strategy, there is strong evidence to suggest that “employees need to hear from senior managers themselves—through straight talk, and ideally in reciprocal exchanges, so that workers feel their own views are heard.” So we recommend senior leaders find a way to package their strategy, either in a talk or a video, and then meet with front-line employees themselves to answer questions.

Effective managers can help close the strategy gap. Want to start helping your managers be more effective? Click here to learn more about Six Disciplines’ Workgroup Alignment Kit.  Click here to learn more about the Six Disciplines Methodology.

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Since 2005, the Six Disciplines blog offers posts about performance excellence, strategy execution, business coaching, leadership development, innovation, and business process improvement. This blog has received prestigious awards for leadership and management and has been syndicated by several major media sources.