Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant

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

Implementing strategy – from the bottom up – part 2

Last week, I tried to illustrate a classic top down implementation process in terms of the key problems that companies face. This week I’m going to try and describe how I’ve seen it work from a ‘bottom up’ approach.

This is altogether more challenging for two main reasons:

1) Organisations rarely design their future strategy with the most junior members of the workforce in control or with much influence. The times where this occasionally happens is where the customer base and the employee base are similar in terms of age profile, socio economic groups and overall demographics. In this case, the strategy of getting closer to one’s customer is simply a case of improved employee engagement.

2) For some strange reason, shareholders trust the same people (or same type of people in terms of demographics, experience, and background) to create and implement a strategy when their previous attempt failed. Either this reflects shareholder apathy or and extraordinary lack of imagination.

What are the characteristics of companies that tend towards the bottom up approach? There are two that immediately come to mind:

1) The first is one where the product, service offering is new and disruptive. Channels to market, brand, customer demographics are all untested and therefore the normal hierarchies do not apply…in fact, all ideas and opinions are welcome. The nature of this type of business is that it runs like a project. All aspects of the work that the company is engaged in, are carefully planned and coordinated and there is an energy and drive around getting to market. All the people who work there understand their mission, feel the connection between their personal values and those of the company and hence give all of their discretionary time to the company.

2) The other situation where heirarchy does not play a role in determining who comes up with a strategy is in businesses where the core skill set is highly specialised or technical. In this case, direction and strategy is determined by those with that specific skill set. Management or leadership is almost always born from people with that skill set.

What happens in implementation in these situations?

1) Direction and strategy for the first example are by their very nature highly iterative and agile…indeed the success of the business depends on its ability to respond very quickly. What you see is a series of initiatives which are started and ended as they develop and ultimately fail, to one which works…leaders in this type of organisation are sanguine about the fact that the ultimately successful strategy originated from a series of mistakes and failures. It is part of the culture to celebrate both.

2) For the second, research and development is the only driver. Where success comes, it is often through the unlikely confluence of the development of a product and the quite independent development of a need from an unlikely customer base! In these days, continued independence of this type of business is extremely unlikely as owners recognise the increasing challenge of achieving the same confluence again, and competitors want to get their hands on the innovation factory which the business represents!

I suspect that for most of us, living in a business with the characteristics of the first example would be a new and potentially very attractive option. Next week, I’m going to have a go at thinking about how we get there.

As ever, I’m very keen to hear your examples of other situations where the bottom up implementation has genuinely been tried and tested.

Categories: Agile, Change management, Functional Leadership, Learning, Organisational design, Project Management, Transformation

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