How to Keep From Getting
Blindsided by Your Organization’s Reality
by Pamela S. Harper
It happens every day in companies around the world. Executives introduce
a new strategy or initiative that should work within a specified timeframe,
only to watch their good plan turn bad amid a mix of unexpected challenges.
When such a situation occurs, many leaders instinctively blame outside factors
for the stalled strategy. What they fail to realize, however, is that in many
instances overlooking or underestimating their own organization’s reality
is what blindsides them and causes their plans to screech to a halt.
“Organizational Reality” is what I call the complex web of internal and
external factors that impact and are impacted by your company. These include
not only the economic, financial, and business factors commonly accounted
for in strategic thinking and planning, but also less quantitative circumstances,
capabilities, cultural issues, and relationships that have just as profound
an influence on business outcomes.
With businesses being connected in so many ways through alliances, mergers,
and outsource relationships, and with so many factors acting on our organizations,
it’s more difficult than ever to rely upon our individual impressions of reality
to guide us in making critical decisions. Since our organization is ultimately
what transforms our strategies and initiatives into high performance, we must
account for the unique mix of perceptions and factors that define organizational
reality as it exists today before we commit to new courses of action to move
toward our visions.
The Importance of Organizational Reality
There’s a wealth of studies supporting the concept that business results
are clearly linked to how organizations form and behave as social systems.
And there are still more studies showing that organizations exhibit oberservable
and reproducible patterns of behavior. Yet it’s often hard to see these patterns
when we’re inside our own system and under the gun to make steady progress.
The result is that, even when we know better, we tend to slide into tunnel
vision. When we neglect to consider whether our organizations are actually
capable or willing to execute the given strategies and initiatives in a way
that satisfies our success criteria, we risk running into unexpected roadblocks
that can derail even the best conceived strategies. This is precisely how
so many good plans turn bad.
Preventing this situation from occurring starts with thinking through and
planning your strategies and initiatives with as much input as possible from
various stakeholders. Added views increase your perspective on your organization’s
reality. By using the following six questions as your guide, you’ll be able
to paint a clear picture of what exists within your business today.
- Do we understand how our organization’s unique reality impacts upon
the business challenges we face?
Many times, business leaders are unpleasantly surprised when a strategy
or initiative that worked well in another company, or from them in another
time or place backfires. This happens because success is dependent upon
the complex mix of factors that define your organization’s reality in the
here and now. These include both apparent and less apparent external circumstances
and internal issues. Some common external factors include market position,
technology, competitive and industry issues, political and economic issues,
your web of suppliers, alliance, and outsourcing partner relationships,
and other external stakeholders. Internal factors include the company’s
structure, capital and other resources, individual competencies, internal
stakeholders, and the company’s culture. Even in the unlikely case that
you and your closest competitor have the same strategy, locations, resources,
and structure, no other organization has your company’s exact combination
of competencies, culture, and relationships with internal and external stakeholders,
to name a few.
Probing for assumptions about these issues can provide additional insights
that enable you to more accurately address the challenges your company faces.
The combination of all of these facets makes a tremendous difference in
how effectively or efficiently your organization transforms strategies into
the level of performance that will give you a return on your investment
within your required timeframe.
- Do we know who in the most critical stakeholders are for our strategies
It’s easy to make assumptions about who key stakeholders are for a particular
strategy or initiative, and overlook or underestimate the ability of one
or more stakeholder groups to advance or block progress. This is especially
true when a plan seems so logical from our own perspective, time is tight,
and confidentiality is critical. To reduce the risk of unexpected problems
blindsiding you during execution, you need to identify key stakeholders
beyond those you customarily focus on.
The trickiest part of negotiating stakeholder buy-in is deciding which stakeholders
are critical to the success of a particular strategy or initiative. You
may perceive one group (such as customers) as vital, but the organizational
reality suggests than another group (employees) wields greater power. Also
keep in mind that power bases vary according to what you’re trying to do.
For instance, certain regulatory groups could be very influential if you’re
expanding your facilities, but others could be more important if you’re
planning an initiative to increase productivity.
- Do we know which elements of our organization’s culture will advance
and block our strategy or initiative?
Although many leaders recognize the importance of business culture, it’s
common to overlook one or more cultural elements that can play an unexpectedly
strong role in advancing or blocking progress. For example, some leaders
refer to corporate culture as being about the “soft stuff,” that is, how
their people interact, get along, and form factions. In reality, an organization’s
culture goes far beyond its politics. Organizational culture consists of
all of the formal and informal values, beliefs, and practices that
exist in an organization and is the primary force shaping key strategic
decisions and the organization’s reality.
There are two advantages to systematically taking your business culture
into account as you plan your strategies and initiatives. First, locating
specific cultural elements that could advance or block your strategy or
initiative helps you “try on” the fit of the strategic option you selected.
This helps you to decide how reasonable it would be to expect to see a return
on investment within the timeframe you’ve estimated, as well as better manage
the expectations of key stakeholders. Second, taking an early read on your
culture provides you with guidance for organizing priorities, goals, and
actions that are relevant to your organization. To increase the likelihood
of achieving your objectives, identify the performance factors required
to implement your strategy or initiative, and then uncover which characteristics
of your culture will advance or block that performance.
- Do we know our organization’s “starting point” for a strategy’s implementation?
The first goals and action steps you select to kick off your strategy or
initiative (the “starting point”) set the tone for everything else that
follows. When putting together plans to execute a strategy or initiative,
it’s natural to focus on the goals and actions that seem most immediately
linked to its objective. However, if an execution plan begins with steps
that are not suited to your organization’s unique and multifaceted reality,
members of your organization who are in favor of addressing issues that
they perceive as more “relevant” can push those carefully laid out priorities,
goals, and actions aside. Not only does this cost you time, resources, and
opportunities, but it can also throw off your projections for return on
When an execution plan starts at a place that’s in line with organizational
reality, it accounts for all the steps the organization must accomplish
to move from the present to the desired objective. It’s also balanced against
all of the other organization’s priorities to reduce conflicts that can
stall the plan and make it irrelevant to the people who are responsible
for carrying it out. The better your plan’s starting point suits your organization’s
current reality, the more likely it is that stakeholders will see relevance
in its goals and act to accomplish them.
- Do we know the most effective ways to communicate with our organization?
If people don’t pick up on or misperceive the communications you send out
about a strategy or initiative, the result can be just as problematic as
if you didn’t communicate at all. There’s a big difference between transmitting
information and communicating credibly. While the former may get
your messages across, the latter builds on this so that your messages meet
the needs of your organization’s various stakeholder groups and accomplish
the results you want. This requires concentrated effort to sustain over
the long haul.
Gaining a sense of what communication channels various stakeholders are
more likely to actually turn to for information, and using as many of them
as possible to reach as broad a cross-section of your audience as possible
can spell the difference between building and losing stakeholder support
before and during execution. The more that people trust your communication,
the more likely it is that they’ll continue to support a particular strategy
- Do we know how to effectively manage our risks?
Because your organization’s reality constantly changes, even the best plans
can spiral out of control. You can better manage your risks in a given strategy
by identifying the major milestones and critical success factors for your
strategic plan, and by establishing a plan to carry out a series of checkpoint
evaluations tailored to the importance and risk associated with various
steps. In order to make your checkpoints most effective, describe the key
outcomes you want to occur as the strategy or initiative progresses. Then,
designate timeframes for these occurrences to happen.
Bear in mind that just because a plan is on schedule, it doesn’t mean that
all is well. A good checkpoint evaluation provides measures for gauging
the progress of the plan in ways that go beyond evaluating the timeliness
and completeness of goals. It also includes ways to question if the right
things are happening, and whether changes in internal or external conditions
have occurred that require adjusting the plan. This kind of question is
especially useful for flushing out the insidious incremental changes in
conditions or execution that can slowly but inevitably blindside your organization.
As with any analysis process, it takes commitment and persistence to uncover
your organization’s reality and adapt your strategies to fit. However, the
more thought you give to these six questions, the more you’ll be able to internalize
them and ultimately balance what should work with what will
work to meet the business challenges you face. In this way, you can accelerate
your company toward greater profitability for many years to come.
Pamela Harper is president of Business Advancement Inc., a firm that helps
leaders transform their business strategies into high performance results.
She is a nationally known speaker and author of the book Preventing Strategic
Gridlock® (Cameo Publications, 2003). For more information, call (201)
612-1228 or go to www.businessadvance.com
Cameo Publications, LLC is a leading Editorial and Publishing Services
firm for professional speakers and business leaders. By assisting authors
through every phase of the publishing process, from idea creation to finished
product, Cameo Publications produces high quality books that educate and entertain
readers worldwide. Since 1998, Cameo Publications has helped hundreds of corporate
and motivational speakers expand their market reach by enabling their audiences
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- P.O. Box 8006 Hilton Head Island, SC 29938; Phone: (843) 785-3770; Fax:
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or email: Paula@cameopublications.com
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