Let’s change! But just a little bit…

A strategy can become irrelevant the moment it is set. Fast changing conditions on the ground often render solutions proposed by the original strategy inapt.

When that happens, we must understand the new situation and consider changes holistically to avoid strategic mistakes and keep initiatives aligned with each other.

If rain starts pouring unexpectedly on race day, it’s obvious we should replace slick tires for rain tires. But the best teams also change to their cars’ aerodynamics and engine settings for optimal performance. They tweak the entire car.

The most strategic companies take a similar approach. They empower front-line leaders to make changes on the go, get updated intelligence to top executives as fast as possible, and make coordinated changes to their plan.

What’s happening out there?

In the First World War, 250,000 British troops fell at Passchendaele as they tried to advance over mud field. According to M.D. Feld from the Defense Research Program at Harvard University, the strategy was set at headquarters on a sunny day, yet not changed when the rain poured:

The critics argued that the planning of Passchendaele was carried out in almost total ignorance of the conditions under which the battle had to be fought. No senior officer from the Operations Branch of the General Headquarters, it was claimed, ever set foot (or eyes) on the Passchendaele battlefield during the four months the battle was in progress. Daily reports of the condition of the battlefield were first ignored, then ordered discontinued. Only after the battle did the Army Chief of Staff learn that he had been directing men to advance through a sea of mud.”

It’s clear strategists and decision-makers benefit from having up-to-date insights on problems faced on the ground. It ensures the strategy adapts to new realities. Yet just like the officers who sent their troops into a bloodshed at Passchendaele, management culture at certain organizations fails to support and promote the flow of information from the bottom up.

Specifically, organizational hierarchies and varying levels of power gradients make it difficult for those on the ground to speak honestly and openly about their thoughts on strategy. Frontline workers rely on empathetic, supportive, open-minded managers and executives to have a voice.

Inattentive business management may not result in death, but can certainly cause disasters including low morale and engagement, missed opportunities, and both employee churn.

In many cases, top executives and dedicated strategy planners are simply too distant from the ground to have the required context on the problems faced. Henry Mintzberg, strategy professor at McGill University, reveals in Strategy Safari that executives at…

Procter and Gamble apparently never dreamed that people would use Pampers other than for traveling; Thomas Watson Sr. apparently claimed in 1948: ‘I think there is a world market for about five computers.’ … This means that strategies can arise in all kinds of strange places and unusual ways.

Companies wanting to stay in touch with reality need to listen to its people at the front and empower them to lead changes. Mintzberg further shares in The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning how:

…effective strategy making under difficult circumstances requires either that the formulator be the implementor or else that the implementors take personal charge of the formulation… the power over the process must rest with people who have intimate sense of the context in which the strategies have to work. Either the leaders must be able to probe deeply into the organization or else people inside the organization must be able to influence the strategies that are formed.”

In a famous business case study, Richard Pascale shares how Honda wanted to sell its large motorcycles as it first entered the North American market, only to find success with its much smaller Supercub bikes. The original strategy didn’t pan out, but the team changed plans to exploit new opportunities.

Mr. Kawashima, who led Honda’s entry into the U.S. at the time, describes how “we had no strategy other than the idea of seeing if we could sell something in the United States.” They faced another surprise after realizing “…the retailers who wanted to sell [the Supercubs] weren’t motorcycle dealers, they were sporting goods stores.

If Honda didn’t adapt its strategy and kept trying to sell its large motorcycles, it may not be in U.S. today.

Can everyone at the company lead changes?

To empower line workers with the power to change strategy, some organizations train each individual to be a leader.

Our modern military recognizes the benefits of this approach. That soldiers executing the mission know how to best achieve their objectives. The Marines thus empower each soldier with the ability to change strategy on the ground. Jon R. Katzenbach, a strategy consultant, shares in his research that during training:

Each Marine rotates through all the positions in a fire team – leader, machine-gunner, assistant machine-gunner, and rifleman.

The marines don’t distinguish between followers and potential leaders; they believe every member of the Corps must be able to lead. Consider the exigencies of battle.

The 19-year old lance corporal who suddenly finds himself facing an angry mob … must know when and how to use force. Indeed, the nature of war dictates that Marines must be trained to do more than just take orders. That is why every enlisted Marine learns how to run a fire team – the basic four-person unit of Marine operations – and every officer learns how to run a 40-member rifle platoon.”

Can we change the plan?

An organization’s strategic plan must be adjustable for it to adapt to new realities.

Yet too often, strategic plans are too restrictive and pigeon-hole a company down one path. Beyond being an organization that learns and adapts, having adjustable plans is crucial to successful execution.

Strategic plans have a propensity to become inflexible after they’ve been finalized. A strategy professor shared in an interview that:

Plans are inflexible. Plans, once made must be adhered to simply because it’s difficult to alter parts of it without altering the whole, which is too elaborate to be done frequently. …The more clearly articulated the strategy, the greater resistance to its change.”

When strategy involves a complex set of interdependent initiatives, managers may not even be able to identify the impact a change could have on the overall plan. In other words, we may not even know what other initiatives need to change to ensure everything remains aligned.

In turn, leaders either don’t make changes at all for fear of disrupting the strategy, or only change initiatives in silo, hoping it won’t impact other pieces. They fear rocking the boat too much.

Organizations recognize this problem. A strategy professor at Harvard University shared with us in an interview that organizations who send leaders for executive education prioritize the need for them to learn how to think holistically:

They need people to be better strategic thinkers. Need them to think in an integrated systemic way. At the end of the day, if we do this, what else does it impact? Is it aligned with where we want to go? To better tackle problems wrestling with systemic implications.”

Thinking holistically is not a nice to have. It is essential to keep inter-related initiatives strategically aligned.


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