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.

  1. 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.

  2. Do we know who in the most critical stakeholders are for our strategies and initiatives?

    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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 investment.

    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.

  5. 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 or initiative.

  6. 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

Preventing Strategic Gridlock:
Leading Over, Under and Around Organizational Jams to Achieve High Performance Results

by Pamela S. Harper

Cameo Publications

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 to take the message home. Contact: Paula B. Duncan, Marketing Coordinator - P.O. Box 8006 Hilton Head Island, SC 29938; Phone: (843) 785-3770; Fax: (843) 785-8722; visit www.cameopublications.com or email: Paula@cameopublications.com .

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Copyright 2003 by Pamela Harper. All rights reserved.

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