Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant

the day to day experiences of a consultant operating in weird and wonderful client situations

Top down or bottom up? Developing a strategy which actually gets implemented!

Now there’s a question! Let me say upfront that as someone who comes from a programme and project management background (and therefore implementation focus), I have an inbuilt bias to this problem but will try to put a rational and as usual, highly cynical case to this problem. By the way, I don’t mean challenge, issue, risk or distraction, but serious, business / career destroying, crisis inducing, health impacting problem.

This post is in two parts, the first sets out the context and the typical top down approach, the second (next week) will set out the bottom up approach and makes an attempt at a solution.

So, lets talk about context. There are three positions to consider here:

  • Corporate leadership which by it’s nature and indeed responsibility has an ‘external to internal’ mindset. Beyond the needs of shareholders, what is uppermost in the minds of leaders is the competitive landscape, the customer base (current and potential), macro economic drivers (geographical and industry). There is also a focus, albeit perhaps reluctant, on talent. For this group, the external fan club or cheerleaders are the strategy consultancies who provide this kind of analysis in their sleep.
  • Internal leadership (typically middle to just below board level) whose primary concern is one of performance at the most micro of levels. Not for them an external perspective unless it’s actually threatening to their business. What they are thinking about is capability and capacity..what they yearn for is stability and equilibrium. Change is a thing to fear and avoid. They also have an group of cheerleaders…those business / performance improvement consultancies that look for improvement in small percentages over large volumes.
  • The employee base (client facing and operational) who ‘work’ for a living! Their engagement, or let’s describe it properly, energy, enthusiasm, interest, innovation, personal risk, is driven by a bunch of micro interactions, mostly with their immediate leader. Daniel Pink talks about the motivation for this group as autonomy, mastery and purpose. Their perspective is more external than you might think, particularly these days…their peers in other companies and businesses will provide a highly informed and opinionated perspective on the nature of their employer, evaluating the latter on a bunch of criteria that until relatively recently haven’t been anywhere near a formal KPI, ie environmental impact and reputation, brand, personal career enhancement, customer experience.

So let’s think about a typical top down strategic initiative in terms of how it evolves and happens:

  • A small group of the senior leadership is pulled together to develop a new strategic direction. This is often in reaction to either something remedial, ie the appearance of some disruptive change which may have significant consequences for the business or overall performance issues. The individuals who are chosen to contribute look around the table and see their peer group or the peer group to which they aspire…they feel engaged, motivated and excited by the opportunity to contribute to this important process. External help is sort to provide a macro economic view of the landscape.
  • From this context, a revised set of business initiatives is created to respond to specific areas where the business either has strength or weakness. In the former case, it’s to try and create even more of a differentiator in the market. In the latter, it’s to shore up a business area which is perhaps a core activity but where margins or revenues are being eroded.
  • Alongside these initiatives, a strategic vision is help carry people over the bumps in the road. There is a penchant for radical messages here…’doubling in size’, achieving ‘market leadership’ in certain markets, are some of the things you might see.
  • From this often collaborative effort, a view begins to percolate which is the need for socialisationamongst a wider audience. Typically, this involves the development of a deck which goes top down – it starts with a macro economic view, show some of the analysis of the competitor base with the target company positioned. By it’s very nature, this type of analysis is very high level and cannot provide any nuance around very real variations across the spectrum of the business activity.

It’s this, by the way, which starts the process of disillusionment amongst the middle management and employee base, for whom this is the lens which is most relevant.

  • The decision about how to run this type of workshop is often based on numbers of heads rather than numbers of influencers. As a result, however, employees will not ask any questions in a large forum amongst their peers..and the opportunity for immediate feedback is lost.
  • The lack of quality feedback is taken as tacit approval, as opposed to distracted disengagement…Any naysayers are perceived as troublesome.

As an interesting aside, being a naysayer in a corporate is not a skill which is taught, encouraged and therefore practised. The result therefore is that the way that such a message is delivered often feels wrong in terms of tone and language (for both messenger and audience)…much like any other skill which is rarely used (try playing a sport for the first time in 10 years…you will notice some glaring technical issues!) There is little tolerance however for this apparent skill set deficit and the criticism or commentary is portrayed as an individual issue, not a collective one. As a consequence, no-one else is likely to say what they really think.

  • It is in this climate that implementation begins. Most importantly, the difference between the analysis and the actual experience on the ground with clients leads employees to doubt the overall direction..and so the business takes on an unusual shape…years ago, a client of mine memorably described this as the ‘hedgehog’ manoeuvre. I will leave you to work out why!!

Next week, the ‘bottom up’ approach!

Categories: Consulting, Disruptive Innovation, Economics, Forecasting, human behaviour, Strategy, Transformation

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