Why do some great strategies get executed and others don’t? What can we do to deliberately speed up and control successful strategy journeys?
Jeroen De Flander, author of ‘The Execution Shortcut. Why some strategies take the hidden path to success and others never reach the finish line‘, claims that at the core of any successful strategy journey lies the ‘H3 -connection’, the triple interdependence of Head, Heart, Hands.
Fully aware of the power held by the H3-connection, successful strategists answer three crucial questions:
1) How do I make others care about my idea – care enough so they are willing to figure out how they can contribute to success? (Heart)
2) How do I make others aware of what the idea is all about – aware enough so they can make autonomous decisions that positively impact success? (Head)
3) How do I keep others going and energise them enough to keep them travelling the execution path even when I’m not around? (Hands)
“To improve execution speed and accuracy, we should shift our energy from asking people to make action plans to helping them make better decisions” – Jeroen De Flander
Successful strategies can be recognised by their decision patterns: small choices – the day-to-day decisions – which are in line with the big choice – the company strategy.
While the whole journey starts from having a defined company strategy, the author emphasises that day-to-day decisions play a key role. In fact, small decisions made by every individual in the daily job have a big impact on the successful execution of the company strategy, because of their sheer number and exponential force. Therefore, enabling people to make autonomous execution decisions in line with the overall big choice is crucial inside any organisations.
However, it can be very easy to get lost in day-to-day choices. To help with this, successful strategists set a clear goal – called by the author the ‘Finish Line’ – which is realistic but challenging, capturing the strategy’s core, and enabling people to see what success looks like.
Successful strategists also make use of two tactics:
They limit the options with a list of ‘no’. “We can’t be all things to all people. If we try, we end up nowhere on our journey. Successful strategists make a choice – who and how – and decide to stick with that choice. They fight against choice dilution…proudly make and defend a List of Noes”, explains De Flander.
They provide ‘prioritization guidelines’ for the remaining options. “There are many forks in the road on the execution path. It is easy for travelers to get lost…Like army generals, successful strategists provide travelers with prioritization information in a context that fits their jobs,” writes the author.
Then, successful strategists give people regular feed-back on exactly where they are and where they should be in line with the goal. Doing that, helps to safeguard the core of the strategy – the big choice – during the entire journey, while boosting the performance and motivation of people.
However, “a finish line [clear goal] does not tell us how to complete the journey successfully. It does not tell us how to win,” writes the author. That is why strategists also use a set of indicators, measures, that offer people the possibility to monitor their performance, and to predict success over the entire journey.
“It’s the emotional connection that kick-starts travelers. Successful strategists aim for the heart first” – Jeroen De Flander
To increase strategy success, the author suggests reconsidering the relationship we have with all our team members. “We need to cultivate a ‘can do’ environment, a place where we expect success from every team member, not only a few high performers,” writes De Flander.
People have enormous strengths; when they believe, they can do amazing things, more than they have ever imagined. They also have their own limitations, such us fearing to say no, apathy when they are not engaged, and indecision when presented with too many options.
According to De Flander, successful strategists know that it is possible to tap into people’s strengths and circumvent their flaws. They reach out to the hearts of their people though a triple game plan:
Sharing strategy stories
“Stories make messages stickier. Wrap a story around your message and it becomes 20 times easier for the listener to remember,” writes De Flander. Stories put information in a context that people can relate to. Also, they offer a second benefit, which is to facilitate an emotional connection: “They reach for the heart.” Finally, a good thing about stories, including corporate stories, is that they do not have to be invented, but just spotted.
“Most of the yeses we get are noes in disguise”, notices the author. This relates to the fact, that often, just because someone said ‘yes’ to an idea does not mean something is going to happen. For example, someone can say ‘yes’ although he/she has so many things to do that is not sure to get it all done in time; or someone says ‘yes’ only because they are afraid to lose position or influence; someone else may say ‘yes’ but is already thinking to voice their ‘no’ privately to others, etc.
To increase the overall strategy engagement, it is important to find a way to boost what De Flander calls ‘micro-commitment’, big commitment on small things, a ‘Big Yes’. The author suggests we challenge “every yes we get and give. In practice, it means we only deliver real commitments ourselves and challenge other to do the same.” This requires no special skills but just the right mindset.
Also, De Flander suggests offering team members an alternative to express non-commitment, which means to make the word ‘no’ an acceptable alternative to the fake yeses. This can be very challenging since in many organisations a ‘no’ is considered to be a dirty word, an unacceptable expression used only by the lazy or disloyal. However, the author warns that an environment where ‘no’ is unacceptable can be dangerous and detrimental for the organisation, because people do not dare to challenge decisions. “In such an environment, individuals are more afraid of the consequences of disagreeing than the consequences of someone’s wrong decision.”
“The key to success is belief,” writes De Flander, explaining that people who strongly believe in their ability to reach the ‘Finish Line’ (end goal), outperform those that do not.
Success is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we expect to succeed, we automatically mobilise our internal resources to achieve the expected, and all this happens without our rational consent. Moreover, when others believe in us, the dynamic is even reinforced. That is why the author emphasises the need to create a positive environment where “successes are verbally reinforced and psychological hardship downplayed” so that so a ‘can do’ spirit and attitude in the team can be cultivated. People need someone who believes in them so they can believe in themselves. “Embrace your challenges. You have what it takes to succeed. I’m convinced you can do it. You are a winner.”
“Complexity is the CO₂ of the modern business world. CO₂mplexity kills” – Jeroen De Flander
Even if people care (‘heart’) and understand (‘head’), their efforts to get the strategy executed may stop after a brief period. That is not because they do not want to, but because willpower is depleted and the human ability to make rational decisions is limited.
Luckily, there are ways that De Flanders suggests helping to increase people’s autonomy on the strategy execution journey.
Simplicity is necessary in order to tackle complexity. “We have to make things simple,” writes the author. At the same time however, “we can’t make things too simple” they still need to serve the original purpose. That is the reason why successful strategists carefully balance the over simple and the overly complex.
The power of habits
“Habits are nature’s way of combating willpower depletion.” Every decision we make demands people’s mental strength, and when there are too many decisions to take, reserves run out. Habits can help people to protect their own body’s limited resources. By automating small, repetitive decisions individuals can safeguard their mental energy.
Having said that, however, the author makes very clear that to avoid failure, people need to automate the crucial decisions that support the strategy and culture of the organisation. The set of routines that people define have to be in the right direction. This also implies “to act resolutely against people who take deliberate decisions that go against building the right habits.”
Once automated, the rights habits ensure that good intentions on the execution strategy journey are not blown away from the myriad of daily distractions, competing destinations and existing bad habits. “Routines beat willpower depletion. Hands take over from the head. And the activity, once experienced as extremely difficult, becomes second nature. A habit is born.”
The internal communicator H3 – connector
In the end, in ‘The execution shortcut’ De Flander tells us that strategy success largely depends on the strategist’s ability to make great ‘H3-connections’: the Hearts Connection, the Heads Connection and the Hands Connection.
De Flander’s argument is that organisations need people who care about the idea for something to start happening. And it is not the idea itself but the emotional bond with it that motivate people to contribute. However, strategy cannot be executed relying on motivation alone. In order to make sound day-to-day decisions – which are aligned with the big strategy – people need to understand the idea. And, by simplifying the working environment and cultivating the rights habits, they can be energised during the whole strategy execution journey.
This book is meant for anyone in management – particular those aspiring to be leaders. So do not expect a blow-by-blow manual on how to communicate strategy internally. However, internal communicators are clearly in a key position to lead a successful H3-connection inside their organisations. As H3-connectors, internal communications professionals can help their organisations to connect the company strategy with the Hearts, Heads and Hands of employees and uncover the hidden path to success.
Indeed, I would recommend any internal communications professionals interested in business strategy to read this book, and make the most of the great advice and practical examples that De Flander elucidates in a clear and engaging style.
This article originally appeared on simply-communicate