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Christian Nimsky's Weblog

Creating a new strategy is hard. Implementing it, even harder. Why?

Christian Nimsky

Trying something new is hard, whether you are an individual, a team or a large organization.  In my experience organizations can struggle to find the best path forward even if they “know” what they want to do. And often, doing that new “thing” well is critical to their continued relevance and survival. So, if the organization has the necessary motivation, why is doing something new hard?

There has been a lot of good research on “strategic misses,” either in the form of failing to act effectively to address market shifts (Kodak - even though they invented the digital camera! - as analyzed in many places but with Chunka Mui’s piece in Forbes a great place to start) or by letting a bias toward action guided through the lens of prior success scatter precious momentum (Donald Sull’s excellent piece in HBR from 1999 is still relevant).

Even if your new strategy is sound and unclouded by historical success or other bias, acting on the new strategy is still hard.  Why?

I have a hypothesis: I believe the reason why implementing new strategies is hard because organizations tend to evolve structures, rhythms, methods and cultures over time to optimally support a specific strategy, much as animals evolve to thrive in a specific environment.  And the more optimized they have become, the harder it is to change course. 

Big shifts generate turbulence in the organization.  A lot of people consider the confusion and turbulence surrounding a major shift in strategy to be normal. Maybe, but is it inevitable? There are some risks to accepting turbulence as a “new normal”: If the organization doesn’t change course smoothly, it can trip itself up and fail at both the old strategy and the new one.

I want to see if there’s a better way. This post - and the ones that will follow it - are my attempt to start a conversation about what you have experienced and what works (or not) when navigating big shifts in strategy.

So let’s start by talking not about strategy itself, but turbulence.  How do you know you are about to experience turbulence?

Often when people sense a gap between where things are and what the new strategy would require they try to start talking about it. If they perceive the gap to be a big one, what usually comes out in the early stages are semi-doubtful questions or statements like:

  • “We’re not set up to do that…"  (gaps in structure, systems, etc.)
  • “Can our people really change their ways?…" (skillset, ways of thinking and/or culture)
  • “I don’t know if we’re that kind of company…" (customer engagement pathways, brand)
  • “That new person they hired to lead initiative X has a real mountain to climb..." (possible lack of buy-in/support)

And then there’s the big question nobody likes to talk about in public: “If we’re moving to this new strategy, do our leaders have what it takes to get us there safely?” 

These signals are important because in transitions people tend to act differently.  They may make decisions a little more hesitantly, calling lots of meetings.  They might not implement new approaches or products swiftly. At the other extreme, some might make rash decisions and leap without looking. 

I’ve even seen some individuals “short” the new strategy like a stock, taking actions that enable them to profit from any setback in the new strategy.

Unmanaged, these behaviors can threaten the success of the organization regardless of the strategy itself.  

Open mic time: Do you find this topic relevant?  If so, what have you seen, and do you think there is a better way?  What would you advise a colleague leading a major new effort in their company to watch out for?

In future posts if there is interest, I’m planning on diving a little deeper into the behaviors, the different roles people can assume and what organizations contemplating a big change can do about it.

Image above courtesy of Gerard Van Der Leun via Flickr