The greatest strategic plans and the most scintillating visions mean nothing if they are not executed and sustained, right? Yet, there is little attention paid to the transition from idea to execution. Perhaps this is because, as Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter argue in their outstanding book, Humanize, “our organizations have for centuries been modeled after machines,” driven by data and structured for predictability and maximum efficiency without taking into account the unpredictable dimensions of human behavior, values and motivations. One “mechanistic” assumption in particular seems to have been implanted in our DNA, and that is that changing an organization’s direction is a matter of coming up with the right idea, structure or process. Once you have come up with a plan, and committed it to writing, then the rest will take care of itself. Ideas will get automatic buy-in and turn into reality. It never happens. Plans are usually shelved or trickle down to a few isolated projects. This is why intellectual clarity and breakthrough thinking are not enough. By far the greatest challenge of all is to transition from the intellect to the heart. Inspiring and mobilizing people around a shared sense of purpose is a critical next step.
Renowned strategists Gary Hamel and C.K Prahalad believe that marshalling resources and human capital behind a bold strategic intent is the only way to achieve global leadership. Conventional strategic planning, they say, limits plans to the resources and capabilities they currently possess or are able to perceive. As a result it can only bring about incremental improvements. Strategic intent, on the other hand, stretches imagination and energy beyond what can be immediately seen or fully articulated and detailed. It implies “a sizeable stretch for the organization.”
Now here is what appears puzzling to me with regard to associations and other non-profits. They all pride themselves for their missions that supposedly drive their business and stretch their mental horizons beyond their current resources, for example by: advancing professions; eliminating medical error or poverty; saving lives; becoming the foremost knowledge resource in their sector, etc. Yet these do not translate into environments of high energy, constant innovation and growth; driven staff or increased customer value. Why not?
It seems to me that when mission, strategic intent or purpose is merely stated rather than acted upon, it does not have any palpable effect on human motivation, performance or results. It is perceived as a cosmetic enhancement and, as a result, does not engage the heart. Hamel and Prahalad give a number of examples of how strategic intent can mobilize action. It is not enough to set stretch goals. Strategic intent must set “a target that deserves personal effort and commitment.”
“Beat Benz” they say, was the rallying cry of Japanese auto producers that paved the way for their market domination. They believe that strategic purpose must trigger a real, gut level motivation. “Strategic intent gives employees the only goal that is worthy of commitment: to unseat the best or remain the best, worldwide.”
Associations would have difficulty setting a goal around profit or acknowledged competition. I am not suggesting that they should. I am saying that there seems to be a confusion between what sounds good and therefore should inspire and what actually inspires real, live human beings.
In his book, Narcissistic Leaders: Who Succeeds who Fails, leadership and strategy expert Michael Maccoby argues that the leadership model has changed dramatically. In the industrial and post industrial eras, the expert, command-and-control type of leader was the golden standard. In today’s knowledge workplace, the leaders who build great companies are innovators who also understand how to harness the human side of the workplace to the execution of bold visions. Unlike the more abstract mission statements of some non profits, their vision translates into action and real world business results. Successful leaders achieve organization-wide buy-in of their vision by motivating stakeholders to embrace a common purpose and implement that vision.
Unlike mission, purpose and intent are not static. The leader’s role is to constantly identify new purpose. “In this respect,” Hamel and Pralahad write, “strategic intent is like a marathon run in 400 –meter sprints. No one knows what the terrain will look like at mile 26, so the role of top management is to focus the organization’s attention on the ground to be covered in the next 400 meters. In several companies management did this by presenting the organization with a series of corporate challenges, each specifying the next hill in the race to achieve strategic intent. One year the challenge might be quality, the next total customer care, the next entry into new markets, the next a rejuvenated product line….”
Strategic purpose is relational rather than descriptive; it is aspirational as well as actionable and practical. Employees and other stakeholders have to personally identify with it, see a direct benefit and understand how exactly their contribution will advance the purpose.
Here are 5 of the recommendations that Hamel and Prahalad have for developing purpose that unites and motivates:
- Create a sense of urgency
- Develop a competitive focus at every level through the widespread use of competitive intelligence
- Provide employees with the skills they need to work effectively
- Give the organization time to digest one challenge before launching another
- Establish clear milestones and review mechanisms to track progress and ensure that internal recognition and rewards reinforce desired behavior