business planning

Discovering the soft edge of strategy

In his book The Soft Edge: Where Great Companies Find Lasting Success Forbes publisher Rich Karlgaard explores the humanistic aspects of strategic advantage. He outlines five elements of the ‘soft edge’  of the organisation that are needed for success: trust, smarts, teamwork, taste, and story.

In an excerpt in this recent Inc Magazine article, the idea of focusing on culture and the human side appears to be a surprising discovery.

The Soft Edge - Post It Summary by Meaning Business

The Soft Edge – Post It Summary by Meaning Business

(As an aside, I find fascinating the degree to which start-up literature gets excited about good practices that have been long established in more traditional organisations. It’s like watching teenagers ‘discover’ the music their parents listened to. I’m working up to a post on the things startups can learn from established business practice and vice versa.)

What is exciting is the way that Karlgaard sets some parameters around the kinds of stories that matter in organisation.

The stories that matter are the human stories, in which real people did something, learning and growing in the process. It might be customers, it might be your CEO, it might be a field sales rep who has learned to believe in the value of what she’s selling.

Story is also the story that you tell yourself about yourself, and that every employee tells himself or herself. Story is what gives meaning to everything, both inside and outside the business world.

If those stories are lacking or, worse, depressing, there is simply no amount of strategy and tactics that can make your company great.

Business Planning and Strategy: 5 Things You’ve Overlooked | Inc.com.

The January springboard

Those early rituals of the new year are starting to fade – people are remembering their passwords, you only have a 50% chance of having a conversation with a customer or sometime-colleague starting with ‘Happy New Year’. But there are a few signs that the year is still fresh.

The ‘what will be the biggest issues for [the profession] this year?’ conversations are in full swing. This is a good new year habit. It is the chance to tap into the ‘blue sky thinking’ that happens between 25 December and 4 January. It is the chance to choose one or two leading ideas to guide activity and development.

I also can’t complain – in the interest of full disclosure, I did win Bnet’s twitter competition on the subject. For the record, my business trend prediction for 2010, in 140 characters was:

@BNETaustralia Whoever collaborates best wins: convergence of leadership, comms, change, HR, design, innovation improves outcomes. #bnetwin

Businesses are realising they might need to communicate their plans for the year.
Whatever the size of the business, a simple plan to communication your strategy is one of the most valuable activities you can invest in at this time of year. It is the opportunity to provide employees with market context, priorities they can measure their performance against and a common focus for all members of the organisation. There is the optimism of the new year.

Resolutions can still be turned into plans.

Is instruction or direction better for engagement?

Do you return from holidays full of direction or full of instructions? One is better for engagement.

Direction or Instruction

Where are you going?

A leader I knew used the summer holiday as his ‘blue sky’ period. He would return from his trip refreshed and with a full to do list. His team had come to dread the return, as it frequently marked a change of strategy. In some cases this meant new efforts, change of direction, or even substantial reorganisation.

For his team, there was an important step missing. While he had given himself the time to think through his ideas, to internalise them and to create a to-do list at the end, his team would be frozen, waiting for the action plan. Four weeks of iterative thinking would be downloaded in an hour. In the months leading up to the break, they would shut down their thinking on new ideas or directions, knowing that there was little certainty of priorities on their return. And once the action plan was presented, there was a feeling that even if they agreed with the solution, they didn’t feel a sense of ownership as their input was missing from the actions now dictated.

The leader had come to believe that it was important that he take this time to make sure he provided clear instruction. But by doing all the thinking for them, he was missing an important opportunity to engage them in the problem and the solution. While there is great strength in aligning people behind a target, there is even greater motivation when people have context, information and an understanding of the problem or situation that they are seeking to solve.

What could he have done differently?

  • Balance destination, direction and detail. When it comes to implementation, people work with details. But before you get there, use the big picture to set the destination and establish direction. Your people might know a better route!
  • Provide clear context. Why is the number one thing, the number one thing?Customer, competitor, political, technological, social. What are the factors that informed your thinking?
  • Build the capability. Creating an environment that supports shared problem-solving, open communication, an outcome focus and clear decision-making takes time at first, but becomes a habit and can be done very effectively over time.

By giving up some control, and creating an environment with open communication, clear context, and strong sense of purpose, leaders can help their teams achieve results they may not have imagined on their own. There are times, such as during a crisis, when instruction will still be important. There is substantial evidence that during these times an engaged workforce goes beyond simply complying with instructions and commits to the outcomes.