Our business context continues to evolve rapidly. Executives believe that half of workforce skills will be outdated in 2 years (Forbes October 2023).
If you’re interested in the Future of Work, you will be used to hearing the word VUCA. We can all see the world is becoming more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. What we don’t know is how more VUCA it will get.
In the meantime, we continue to develop our strategy and plans, and execute these plans. We try and keep as agile as we can. I’m referring to agile without the capital A, rather than Agile Project Management Methodology (a topic for another day). Seasoned executives, innovators, Chief Transformation Officers (#CXOs) and the #PMO, #project and #changemanagement community are keeping hyper alert, monitoring for new trends and changes, staying agile in order to flex when the unexpected happens like Covid.
While being agile and vigilant are important, they are insufficient. The problem is that many businesses are still developing and executing strategy the old way. They first develop their strategy, then they implement it. Many organizations approach strategy in a sequential way like they have always done: first conducting analysis, developing a hypothesis, a short burst of stakeholder interviews, more analysis. Then the focus is on finalizing the strategy and getting sign-off by the executive. Once the strategy is approved, it is followed by announcing the strategy, and beginning execution. I call this the dark room approach (therefore my hashtag #getoutthedarkroom). Working on strategy behind closed doors in the dark room, then coming out and announcing the approach. My colleague Dr Norman Chorn and I have written about this in 2013 and in 2021, see here.
The dark room approach is often complemented by or outsourced to strategy consulting firms developing high quality strategy presentations. I am very familiar with the exceptional quality of the research and analysis that goes into this strategy development, as I used to work at McKinsey in the 1990’s in the Atlanta office.
The reality now with VUCA is that the dark room approach is the OLD way. Sequential stages between strategy and execution simply don’t work. Doing things behind closed doors is the OLD way.
Why dark room strategy does not work
#Darkroomstrategy does not work well due to 3 reasons:
1. Things are moving too fast to conduct strategy sequentially.
My life’s work has been all about turbocharging outcomes. I’m pleased to observe that long protracted strategy formulation phases are generally avoided these days. Strategy horizons have also shortened – 5 year strategies are now more typically 2-3 year strategies with one year plans. These developments are a pragmatic response to the increasing pace of change.
Another way to turbocharge strategy and adopt a more future-oriented approach is to think of the strategy formulation process as the beginning of the implementation, rather than thinking of them as sequential processes. I refer to this combined process as “strategy activation’. So any consultation you do upfront is part of implementation, part of the engagement process.
This is a useful mindset to bear in mind, because I have seen team members leave strategy workshops and interviews, and immediately start re-orienting their thinking and their actions in line with the ideas discussed. This is massively useful in generating early momentum. It shortens the time from strategy to execution, so turbocharging you towards early results.
2. People have adverse neurological reactions to #darkroomstrategy.
When executives, CXOs, PMO, project teams are in the dark room, it triggers almost every adverse neurological reaction in the brain of the rest of the staff. David Rock’s popular neuroscience model is useful to understand this. Summarized in the acronym “SCARF”, people can feel under threat if any leaders are working in the dark room in 5 ways;
– Their sense of Status is threatened if they aren’t included
– They feel a loss of Certainty over their own future
– They feel a loss of Autonomy and control
– Their sense of Relatedness to the leadership of the business is reduced
– They question the Fairness of who gets to be “on the inside”.
3. The world is too complex for executives to have all the answers
There is now an increased risk of autocratic-style CEOs making unilateral decision, because the CEO themselves is unlikely to have all the answers. Even a diverse, talented executive team with the best intentions, high performance aspirations, and top intellect cannot always be right in a VUCA world. They cannot always know every piece of data they need to know at any point in time. The world is too complex. In my view, the concept of ‘best practice” is dead (I’m a big fan of the Cynefin framework).
So to summarize, staying in the dark room to develop strategy is too slow, risky, and limited.
The new way of future strategy is co-designed and multidisciplinary
The new way is characterized by a co-designed strategy using a multidisciplinary approach, thinking from multiple perspectives and several disciplines.
Co-design is much more than consultation
I’m a big advocate of co-design and have been undertaking extensive employee involvement in design for many decades, well before I was introduced to design thinking. Comprehensive involvement of staff at all levels across all areas of the business will significantly de-risk almost all strategy processes. (There are few exceptions and that is for another day.)
This goes much further than staff consultation, and moves implementation through to active involvement in working groups, generating a community of “strategy implementers’ with strong engagement.
A multidisciplinary approach is needed
The FutureBuilders Transformation Framework that I use in my mentoring work with leaders 1on1 and that I teach in my #turbochargeyourtransformation membership academy is shown above.
This involves 3 integrated perspectives to activate strategy, to generate ROI and innovation: business, people, and governance perspectives, to turbocharge your transformation.
A business, commercial perspective means you make optimal decisions for your business. I’ve seen projects failing because project managers do not have sufficient commercial expertise to make the right decisions, or the business owners are not sufficiently involved and leave it to the project managers.
Taking a change management perspective builds momentum. When change management skills are left out of the execution mix, there is typically insufficient engagement and momentum. Morale, motivation and productivity declines. I can think of at least two iconic organizations at the moment that are struggling with all of these.
The project management, project governance is the third important element to be included in strategy execution, as this delivers the glue and traction.
In my experience, leaders typically consider strategy activation from predominantly one or two perspectives and fail to emphasize at least one.
Over 2 decades of experience in the implementation trenches has taught me that the #culture of the organization is critical. Each of these 3 perspectives need to be acclimated to the culture. I observe that many business executives, project and change leaders do not sufficiently understand culture, nor how to adapt their approach to turbocharge strategy within the culture.
As a result, they suffer frustrations of slow progress, resistance against new ideas, change exhaustion, burnout, and projects behind schedule.
Future-oriented leaders will be successful in implementing strategy if they adopt an integrated and culture-friendly approach, that integrates across these dimensions.
An integrated approach ensures you make the right business decisions, with the right people at the right time, working in the right way.
The FutureBuilders Transformation Framework creates a flywheel to turbocharge the transformation. A flywheel is a heavy wheel that stores rotational energy to accelerate faster. It pulls the business into the ROI and Innovation Zone.
For more information on future-facing approaches to transformation, strategy execution, change and digital transformation – join Turbocharge Your Transformation now.
Here’s to your transformation success. 😊
PS This article was featured as a guest post in @MitchZenger’s newsletter.
PSS Not sure how to get your strategy unstuck, projects powering, and transformation turbocharged? I can help you.
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About Lisa Carlin
As a strategy execution specialist and scaleup mentor, Lisa works with ambitious digital leaders to turbocharge their transformation and business planning. Lisa’s clients have an independent sounding board and expert advice so they have absolute confidence they WILL ACHIEVE THEIR GOALS. Lisa is Co-Founder and Director of FutureBuilders Group of organisational development specialists, and volunteers as Chair of the University of Cape Town Australia Trust. Her early career was with Accenture (South Africa) and McKinsey (USA).