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Will Hutton

Will Hutton

Principal, Hertford College, Oxford University and chair of the Big Innovation Centre

Monday 12 Sep 2011
Engage - the secret to strategy success

Engage - the secret to strategy success

“Engagement” is the new buzzword: employee engagement, community engagement, stakeholder engagement. But what does engagement mean in relation to strategy, and is it more than just a fad and fashion? Is there really something important here?

A widely acknowledged problem in organisations is getting people to understand and act on the strategy. Senior management teams often create a strategy but then find that it is hard to get others on board.

Right at the forefront of addressing this problem is collaborative engagement, which aims to get people to provide input to the development of the strategy. All the different forms of collaborative engagement seek to engage the participants emotionally, as well as practically and intellectually, right through the strategy process – not only during implementation or “execution”.

The first benefit of large-scale collaborative engagement is that it usually generates more and better ideas. When strategy is created it is common for those involved to be left with the uneasy feeling that they haven’t made the best use of the minds, imaginations or collective know-how of people inside and alongside the organisation. Good collaborative working makes the most of the amassed wisdom and day-to-day knowledge of all those involved, including those closest to the customer and products, for example in the sales team, the complaints department and the factory.The second benefit is that it improves the chances of the strategy being implemented effectively. When strategy is dreamt up at the top of an organisation and then cascaded down, a gulf of understanding and ownership opens up. In other words, there is a strategy with clear vision and direction from the top layer which people lower down then try to implement, but there is a gap between the two. Those responsible for implementing the strategy do so without really connecting the actions they are taking on a day-to-day basis with that vision or direction.

However, if more people are involved, by using a collaborative process, there is a greater likelihood that a wider number will understand the overall objectives and logic of the strategy, and be motivated and able to adapt its implementation as conditions evolve.

Collaborative engagement also provides a powerful mechanism for learning together, developing the overall strategic capacity of the organisation and growing the capability of the next generation of leaders. By moving strategy beyond an annual ritual and into a vibrant part of organisational life, people are more alert to how it relates to their jobs

Perhaps the most important benefit of collaborative engagement is that it increases the likelihood of the organisation being able to respond to unexpected and unpredicted changes as the strategy is implemented.

The more you engage people throughout the process, the more able they can play this responsive and responsible role at all times. Irrespective of whether your strategy is created by just one or two people or by a wider group, the strategic concepts and tools used to analyse and develop strategic options are the same. What changes is the number of people involved in the conversations around the analysis. This can range from small senior or cross-functional teams of fewer than 10 people to comprehensive organisational conversations involving many.

After the long tenure of a MD, it was the HRD of a UK cosmetics company who played a catalytic role with his new MD and fellow Board members to completely alter the way in which strategy was undertaken. He believed there were significant limitations to the previous approach and was convinced that engaging more widely would not only deliver a better strategy for the organisation but would also help to develop talent across the business.

If it has been decided to include a large number of people in the option creation process then it is best to create a number of different teams and allocate a different question or questions to each for further investigation, based on themes that have usually been defined by the board or executive team.

It’s good to include the mavericks in your process. In deciding the composition of strategic enquiry groups during such a process in an international engineering consultancy, the MD said, “We must make sure H is in one of the groups – he’s always asking really tricky questions.” In our own research, one recipient described his role in strategy specifically as being “an agent provocateur to the board….” – asking the questions that the CEO wished he hadn’t. It may be difficult to handle the questions that result, yet these dissident voices often provide vital insight into opportunities and risks in both the internal and external environments.

Practical considerations include thinking about how much time and budget you have. If the group is very large, this may not permit a face-to-face encounter but there are many virtual ways of gathering input (such as online meeting platforms). It is possible to involve large groups of people in quite a short timeframe, so long as the process is well thought through and creatively designed.

If many people are involved then there must be a particular emphasis on communication. Each group needs to know something about the findings of the others. Given the mix of backgrounds of the people involved, forms of communication should not be restricted to those typical of strategy processes in large companies.

If you think about the outputs of strategy work done in your organisation, what comes to mind? Almost certainly it will be some kind of report – most likely presented as a series of PowerPoint slides. But there are other ways of representing strategic exploration, from the traditional slideshow to poster exhibitions, photo montages, stories, poems and “street theatre” productions.

A comment often made by senior managers is that “Engagement sounds fine, but if we involve more people then they’ll think that means they also have a decision-making vote.” There is a strong case to be made for engaging others in the decision-making process, not as decision-makers but to keep the executive group as well informed as possible, to act as a critical friend or devil’s advocate, or to challenge ‘stuck thinking’ within the senior group.

The process of engagement does not finish with the roll-out of the initial strategy. The awareness, attention and learning ability of the organisation needs to be harnessed in order to allow the strategic actions to be refined as the strategy adapts to changing circumstances. The more people are primed to act as the nerve endings of the organisation, noticing the tiny signals that this or that is happening, the more the organisation is able to react. It can still follow its plan, but does so intelligently and flexibly in an uncertain world.

Working with a global pharmaceutical company, we helped General Managers create a strategy process to deliver the ambition outlined by their CEO. The HR Director recognised the role of HR Business Partners in engaging each geography in the practical steps of implementing the strategy and being alert to the strategic messages being received through it. We helped the BPs share ideas for engaging their businesses, and regular follow-up calls were arranged by the HRD to ensure that they continued to maximise learning both from the roll-out process and the insights being gathered.

Philippa Hardman and Chris Nichols of Ashridge Business School wrote a chapter on Engagement in the book What You Need to Know About Strategy by Jo Whitehead