Influencing Strategy Commitment

Have you experienced a Kodak moment lately? Probably not. The iconic American brand was once synonymous with photography. But, they failed to see the transition from film to digital photography, and became another example of a once-great company that simply didn’t anticipate the changing market. At least that’s the popular myth that many would have you believe. However, Kodak’s fall wasn’t due to a lack of vision or poor strategy. The senior leaders did anticipate the move to digital photography and invested early and heavily to create the foundation for a smooth transition. Their failing was their inability to get buy-in from the mid-level managers within Kodak that the strategy was the right one and in the best, long-term interest of the company. Instead, mid-level managers rejected the change in strategic direction to digital and clung to the behaviors that led to their leadership in film. Despite their best efforts, Kodak’s senior leaders were unable to influence the rest of the organization to follow their strategy. The inability to influence, not the strategy itself, was at the heart of Kodak’s downfall.

Influence is defined as “the power to change or affect someone or something; the power to cause changes without directly forcing them to happen; a person or thing that affects someone or something in an important way.”21 When we attempt to influence, we’re trying to connect our goals to other’s interests in the hopes that they’ll act or behave in a way that we desire. Simply giving someone an order or command to do something without taking the time to connect it to their self-interests may yield results in the short term, but lacks the power of skilled influence in the long term. A study of 7,000 adult workers in the United States found that the average person is spending 40 percent of their time in what’s referred to as non-sales selling, situations where they are attempting to influence someone but no direct purchase is involved.22 In the matrix organizational structure employed in many companies, the ability to influence is crucial if one is to gain their share of internal resources and effectively align their priorities with those of other key players.

A survey of 60,000 workers on how well a company’s strategy is understood and accepted by employees found that senior leadership is by far the most important factor. The researchers concluded, “. . . top management has a profound impact on how well employees grasp and support strategy—far greater than any other variable we examined and far greater than we’d expected.”23 As Kirk Klasson, former Vice President of Strategy at Novell and current CIO at Cooley LLP said, “No strategy can just be handed down to an organization. Without achieving real understanding and agreement, there will be lots of grinning and backslapping over the strategy but zero change when people get back to their offices.”24

People tend to accept inner responsibility for their actions when they believe they’ve had a say in the process and the actions are aligned with some part of their interests. Lacking the ability to contribute input or being unaware of how the task relates to their goals won’t generate the necessary level of commitment. The result is a plan that dies a slow death because people weren’t afforded the opportunity to provide input into the strategy in the first place. To make matters worse, the strategy has not been translated to what it means for people in their daily work and why they should be following this approach.

During the strategic thinking phase of the strategy development process, people from different functional areas and different levels in the organization should have the opportunity to contribute insights. Having representatives from these different areas share input sends a powerful message to the organization that there is real importance in their work and ideas. Not tapping into the insights of frontline managers, often those closest to the customer and the competition, represents a huge missed opportunity for innovation in the form of anticipating emerging needs. One study found that middle managers account for only 20 percent of the input into an organization’s strategy.25 By allowing managers in different areas and levels to share their insights, senior leaders have a much greater chance for securing buy-in and commitment to the strategy once it’s developed. As strategic thinking shouldn’t be an annual event, an ongoing channel for insight sharing should be cultivated. This encourages employees to continually mine their daily experiences for ideas to build their base of expertise and pass along to others.

In addition to providing managers with the opportunity to contribute their insights to the strategy, it’s equally important to share with everyone why the strategy being pursued has been chosen. People don’t have to agree with the strategy or the rationale behind the why. The important thing is they want to know what the strategy is and why. In essence, they need the because, as in “We’re doing X, because Y.” That’s it. Research in the social sciences shows that people are much more likely to fulfill a request if you simply give them a reason for doing it. One study had a person standing in line waiting to make copies at a Xerox machine. If the participant asked the person ahead of them, “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?,” they were granted permission to go ahead 60 percent of the time. When the end of the request was changed to “May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” the permission rate jumped to 94 percent.26 While the reason, “I’m in a rush,” is fairly nebulous, it was prefaced by the magic word: because.

If we don’t provide people with the reason behind the strategy, they’ll often make one up. In the behavioral sciences, this is referred to as counterfactual thinking. In layman’s terms, counterfactual thinking is “second guessing.” Second guessing is borne out of people’s desire for understanding the reason why something is happening. In the realm of business strategy, people are much less likely to “throw the leader under the bus” if their input was included in the process at some point and they were then given a clear statement of strategy and why it was chosen. To get managers to truly understand and apply strategy in the course of their daily work, you must share with them the why.

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