How to Redefine Strategy Amid Chaos

Quickly Pivot to Survive, Stabilize and Thrive Again

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak global havoc, many organizational strategies are in peril or even obsolete. Without a playbook for our current state, smart leaders are looking for ways to reimagine, redefine and reenergize their business model.  Strong economies mask a number of leadership flaws and organizational gaps.  Now, more than ever, organizations need to redefine strategic priorities and align these with their leaders, teams and structure.  Yet in this era of upheaval and uncertainty, alignment must happen quickly, go deep and be constantly assessed.

Before you can align, you must know what you are aligning to.  Naturally, that starts with strategy. 

Strategic Burst, Not Strategic Planning

Now’s not the time to go into deep, long-term strategic planning.  Instead, consider a series of “strategic bursts” to identify priorities over the next 12-18 months to reimagine possibilities and protect the organization from risk.   While we don’t yet know what changes will come from this unprecedented experience, we know that there will be significant change and challenge. 

  1. Assess Your Current State:  Without delving into tons of data and analytics, have your leaders openly discuss what’s happening today to identify assets and strengths to build on as well as the greatest risks to mitigate.  Be sure to include people and culture elements in this assessment.  You won’t get through this without the right people, practices and cultural strengths.  Consider the driving forces at play such as regulatory changes, revenue shifts, supply chain disruptions, labor shifts or health and safety. 
  2. Reimagine Possibilities:  Reimagining possibilities challenges thinking under “normal” conditions, and we are in anything but normal times.  Amidst this uncertainty, leaders need to reset and put on a different set of lenses to consider what can be in the future and what must be done today.  You don’t need to know how to get there or have near 100% certainty of success.  Nothing is certain and striving for the perfect answer will derail you faster than the pandemic.  This dialogue must be open with an invitation to raise any and all new thoughts and gaps without censoring or retribution.  Suspend judgement.  Get all ideas on the table.  Refine and prioritize later. Leaders should reach into their teams to find ideas for reinvention, efficiencies and the best use of talent.  One client tapped into an idea from one of its Regional Directors to continue to obtain state revenues during the COVID-19 crisis and used this to influence other states to do the same.  This may have been the single most important action to sustain this business while they figure out next steps.
  3. Define your Strategic Imperatives:  Among the many possibilities surfaced for the near term and future state, refine, clarify and articulate your greatest priorities.  While much is unknown, having defined priorities provides a north star for decisions you need to make now and in the near term.   These should pass muster against any criteria you have set for strategic focus such as impact on financials, meets customer needs, is viable in the midst of this crisis (not just someday) and you can execute on this near term. 
  4. Align Priorities and See Connections:  Be sure to look at alignment of priorities.  Will one require a significant financial investment when the funds are rapidly depleting?  Do you have the talent and resources to execute or will this be too stretched across the organization?  Avoid being myopic when applying solutions.  For instance, there will likely not be one answer for shifting how, when and where people do work.  “Remote forever” vs. “everyone come back to the office” by a certain date may be naïve thinking.  Instead consider all the inter-connected pieces – workplace, transportation, safety, technology, communication, learning and measuring impact as well as the emotional and social impacts your people are experiencing.  You don’t have to have all the answers yet.  Just raise the interconnected parts so they are addressed along the way and don’t derail your efforts. 
  5. Be Fast and Agile:  Speed and agility are more critical now than ever.  You may put some ideas in effect as soon as they surface, especially if they are critical to surviving or stabilizing or if a new timely opportunity has surfaced.  Hold up your strategic imperatives to your current state and take immediate steps to address gaps and barriers and to leverage potential enablers and assets.  Be sure to factor people and culture into this strategy pivot as you realign work, manage remotely and make critical decisions on talent retention, reductions or redeployment.  
  6. Keep Your Finger on the Pulse:  We don’t yet know what we don’t yet know.  As we move into the next chapters of this surreal environment, monitor key drivers, shifting events, progress and your people.  Continue to mine for ideas and move quickly on those most viable and act quickly to assess and mitigate risk.  Also keep your finger on the pulse of your people as they juggle work, family, isolation, fear, change and uncertainty.  Rather than the annual employee engagement survey, you may consider assessing the employee experience every few months so you can take action now. Ensure multiple avenues for communication and treat your people with respect.  You need them now more than ever and want to retain the best talent now and when the job market turns around. 

Even the most compelling creative or practical ideas are only as good as the execution.  The next two articles to come will bring ways to align the leadership team to the strategy and align teams and people, despite the challenges you may be facing from distributed and distracted workforces. 

Contact us to share your thoughts or to learn more about how to rapidly pivot your strategy and align your leadership team, people and organization to survive, stabilize and thrive again.

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Top 10 Lessons in Leading Change

Mergers, acquisitions, re-engineering, restructuring, new leaders, new strategies, systems upgrades, process improvements, staff reductions.  The one thing all these events have in common is a need to have a strategy for leading and sustaining change.  Change doesn’t happen because a group of leaders came up with a brilliant idea or because the charismatic CEO gave a visionary presentation at the Town Hall Meeting.   Here are ten key lessons to incorporate in your change strategy:

“60-75 percent of all restructuring failed — not because of strategy, but because of the “human dimension.”

Michael Hammer, author of Reengineering the Corporation

Lesson 1 – Understand the importance of people in every change initiative.

It doesn’t matter how successful the acquiring organization is, or how great the strategy – you need people to execute the strategy and to achieve success.  People must trust leadership, share the organization’s vision, and be included in planning in order buy into the change.  Since every person is wired differently, the approaches to engage them must also vary.  Organizations that use assessments to understand each individual’s preferred work behaviors and motivating needs can leverage this data to figure out who might jump on board as a catalyst for change and who might need more data, time to reflect or an emotional connection in order to get on the bus. 

Lesson 2:  Transformation is a mental, physical and emotional process; not an event.

Large-scale change has a tremendous emotional impact on all involved.  Transformation is not the same as incremental change.  It redefines what we do, how we do it and who we are as an organization.  It’s often unpredictable, fast-paced, and sometimes defies logic.  What worked in the past may not in the future.  Do not underestimate the depth and variety of emotions that people will have, and how this impacts the success of the transition as well as the impact on the culture. Handled correctly, people can be helped through the change process, which may start with denial and negative emotions and gradually move through acceptance to commitment.  Leaders must encourage people to move from one stage to the next – or risk losing talent and the success of the initiative. 

Lesson 3:  Leverage the talent and potential of people.

Prescribing to people what they should do differently usually prompts resistance.  Involving people in creating the future of their organization – their future – tends to evoke a spirit of cooperation and contribution.  People want opportunities to use their gifts and talents, their creativity and their ideas.  Within all people and organizations there is a positive core – a source of positive potential that is brought to life when recognized and stirred up. Demonstrate confidence in and commitment to employees. Turn the traditional hierarchy around; have employees tell management what they believe excellence looks like. Involving others and building on the strengths of people liberates the energy, enthusiasm and engagement throughout the organization.  Provide a forum for all to engage in designing the future.

Lesson 4:  Do an Impact Analysis:  How will the change affect each stakeholder?

Not everyone deals with change in the same way or at the same pace.  Consider all stakeholders, the impact on each and how to deal with it.  Some people are more resilient and adaptable.  Find these “change agents” early on and leverage them to help others get on board.  People who are resilient and adaptable are more satisfied at work since they have accepted the fact that the world will change.  Those who not only accept change, but are energized by it, can be assets. These individuals generally possess qualities such as self-confidence, coping skills, optimism, innovation, and perseverance.   

Lesson 5:  Communication comes from all directions and channels.

Formal communication is only a small part of the messages received by people.  Actions speak louder than words.  People will draw conclusions based on changes in the organizational structure or processes, actions of leaders, decisions that are being made, and behavior that is being rewarded.  The communication strategy must be aligned with the actions of leaders and the structures and systems in place.  What people hear and what they see will speak volumes more than the formal messages.

Lesson 6:  Be truthful and candid in communicating with others.

People will know if they are being fed information that has been “sugar-coated” or is veiled in corporate-speak.  Even if the intent is to protect others, being less than honest will destroy trust. People today want and deserve open and honest communication. While some people won’t be happy with the message, you face a greater risk by being less than honest.  Be up front and proactive in sharing information about challenges, risks, mistakes, failures, opportunities and what you don’t know yet. 

Lesson 7:  Help people to understand the rationale for change.

People need to understand the reason for the change and what the organization is trying to accomplish.  Share the strategy and spell out their role in achieving the goals of the change initiative.  Educate others by providing information about the business environment – economic, competitive, demographic and technological factors as well as industry trends and the financial realities of the business.  This is also true on a departmental level – explain why systems and processed need to change or why locations are being consolidated or job descriptions are changing.  And, once again, remember to involve people in the change.

Lesson 8:  Show the link between individual efforts and the goal.

One of the most effective methods to engage people is to show how their individual efforts and achievements help the organization to be successful and meet its goals.  People should be involved in setting their own goals in a way that links to those of the department and the organization.  They may come up with ideas that add value to those that might be developed by their managers alone.

Lesson 9:  Include others as much as you can – and value their input.

People feel a loss of control during change.  They can also feel unimportant and disrespected if they are not included in the change.  Remember that those closest to the work and the customers know things that management often doesn’t.  Plus, including others helps them to own the changes that will take place.  If it’s their idea, they are more likely to get on board and encourage others to do the same.  If most of the ideas come from management or the acquiring organization, resistance will surely rear its ugly head – even if the ideas are good ones.

Lesson 10:  Negotiate a new “compact” with employees.

Just as in any relationship, people need to understand what is expected of them and what they can expect in exchange.  The interests of both sides need to be considered; the relationship must be built on mutual trust and respect.  All parties have a responsibility toward the success of the business, as well as a right to share in the rewards of that success. Employees expect to be treated fairly and respectfully, compensated appropriately and to have opportunities to develop and have meaningful, challenging work.  The organization expects employees to be committed, to treat their customers well, to meet their goals and to be professional in dealing with others.  The best relationships come when both sides are working toward mutual benefit and areas that are valued by all.

At Strategic Imperatives we understand the human and organizational influences on change, how these can derail your initiative or how they can fuel it for success.  We use solid, research-backed methods combined with people data and decades of experience to help our clients successfully navigate change. Contact us to learn more.