Numerous times, I’ve heard executives say “my people just don’t get it” when referring to the execution of their strategy—or lack thereof.
They had crafted a great, inspiring strategy for their organization and communicated this strategy to their managers and employees. And yet, somehow nothing changes.
No execution. no action. no change.
You know how this works. While the top has communicated a strategy to become more sustainable two years ago, the coffee machine still spits out plastic cups, exactly one employee is driving an electric car, and none of the company’s products and services has changed. And that while the large majority of employees applauds the change.
In analyzing these situations over the past years, I’ve come to the conclusion that this problem is not well-described in the strategy literature or addressed in the plethora of strategy tools and methods that are available.
This is crucial, as it bars the successful implementation of perfectly effective strategic plans. It is the problem of contextualization: translating generic corporate strategy to the specific context of a department, business unit, division, or any other organizational unit.
What Is Not The Problem
Bad or lack of strategy execution has many causes. Prominent ones include ineffective strategy formulation, ineffective communication, ineffective change management, ineffective project management, or ineffective engagement in the strategy process.
Strategy textbooks, as well as successful CEOs, consultants and strategists know the solutions to these issues. They know how to properly formulate a strategy and communicate it, how to manage change and projects, and how to engage people throughout the strategy process.
And yet, even if everything has been done according to the book, the problem remains, especially in mid-sized and larger companies where a corporate strategy needs to be executed at lower organizational levels.
There are many cases where a great strategic plan is formulated—a plan that is carefully thought-out and is met by the enthusiasm and “ready-to-execute” attitude of employees—so that there is no possibility it will fail.
And yet, it does.
The Contextualization Problem
The problem that remains is a contextualization problem: the problem of putting the new strategy into context.
The executives’ complaint that “my people just don’t get it” is more accurate than they may be aware. It is not that people don’t understand the strategy in general or that they don’t want to execute it. The problem is that they cannot see the connection between the strategy and their work—they can’t contextualize it.
Contextualization helps us make sense of the world, and people do it all the time, especially when they learn to use new models, frameworks, tools, concepts, or anything else that is abstract.
The only way in which we can learn and apply them is by linking them to our own specific experiences and situations.
Take cooking from a recipe. This only works if we understand what the names and descriptions of ingredients, tools and steps in the recipe mean in the context of our kitchen.
Or take a driving test, which we can only pass when we understand how to apply the theory and rules we learned in practice while hitting the road.
The same applies to strategy. Going back to the example above, while people probably understand the plastic cup and electric car part of the strategy, the challenge is in making the company’s products, services, and activities more sustainable.
If you are an accountant, software developer, marketeer, or consultant, for example, what does sustainability mean for you? How do you translate this general ambition to the specific context of the department, region, function, or business unit you are responsible for?
Exactly making that translation turns out to be extremely challenging. Generally speaking, people are very well capable of making sense of the context they work in and the work they are responsible for.
Employees understand their job, managers understand their unit or department, and executives understand their company. Thus, each of them understands what is happening at the level of abstraction that they normally work at.
That is until a strategic plan is introduced that changes the conduct or even the routines of employees, managers or executives.
The problem with executing a corporate strategy is that it requires bridging between two levels of abstraction: that of the generic strategy of the organization as a whole, and the specific level of the organizational unit.
And it is this bridging between levels of abstraction that people have problems with and that is a substantial barrier that gets in the way of successful execution.
Executives can’t do it because they don’t know enough about the specifics.
Employees can’t do it because they don’t know enough about the generics.
Here is where the ‘middle-manager' comes in. Located at the in-between, these are the ones who are expected to make the connection, to contextualize the strategy. But, as it turns out, most of them can’t do it either.
And for the same reason as given above: they understand their organizational unit, but this does not automatically mean that they can also bridge between levels of abstraction—between the corporate strategy and their unit.
By highlighting the contextualization problem we don’t have the full solutions yet. But we know three things.
First, we know that, when a seemingly perfect strategy plan fails to be executed, its failure does not immediately have to be related to poor strategy formulation, poor communication, poor change management, poor project management, or poor engagement.
These are common problems for which we know the solutions, but something else may be going on.
Second, since contextualization is a cognitive, sensemaking problem, we know that the solutions need to focus on better sensemaking as well. Not sensemaking in general, but focused on the challenge of connecting the generic corporate strategy to the specific context of organizational units.
Third, and most importantly, we know from education that examples are one of the most effective ways to facilitate contextualization.
People need examples, when learning something new, and therefore just as much when learning to execute a new strategy. I’ve experienced this time and again with clients.
No matter how concrete and clear their strategy was, their middle managers needed examples to see how the overall strategy translated to their specific context.
When contextualization is facilitated in this way through examples, people may finally get it and start executing your great and inspiring strategy.