“We Have A Business Strategy, But…”
by Betsy Burton
“We have a business strategy but you’re not allowed to see it.”
If I had a dime for the number of times that a business or IT leader told me that this was the response from their executives or strategy team when they asked about the business strategy, I would take a nice long trip to Fuji. Yes…it is thousands of times.
Now, there are just as many organizations in which the executive or strategy leader might admit that they don’t have an actionable strategy; rather, they have goals. But I am always amazed at how many have stated they have a strategy but won’t let people within their own organization see it.
So…. how are we (business and IT leaders) supposed to execute on our actionable business strategy if we can’t see it? In this blog we explore what message this response may really be sending you—whether intended or not—and what you can do to help mitigate it.
We Don’t Really Trust You
This is a very common response in large organizations. There is a hierarchy in the organization, and the executives are reluctant to share the business strategy with employees and service providers (even under NDA). In some highly competitive markets, this response may be somewhat warranted, as the business strategy must detail the market conditions and how your business plans to win in the marketplace (see Good Strategy Versus Bad: The Difference and Why It Matters by Richard Rumelt). However, even in these conditions, they should be able to provide some prioritization and actionable direction.
There are a few ways to mitigate this response, including:
First, if your organization is publicly held or a government organization, go take a look at your public filing and presentations under your investor page or government website. In there you will find a glimmer of what the stated strategy is. Use this to draft up your best idea of what the business strategy is and take this to your executives. If you are not publicly held, do your best to estimate what the strategy is, and create a strawman.
Then, very humbly offer that this is the information you found on the public site or your best understanding, and could they help you correct or understand it. In the process of clarifying what you drafted, you may learn more about the stated strategy.
Also, consider creating high level summaries that could be brought to a wider audience of employees and trusted advisors that would not reveal too much if it gets to competition. Bring these to your executives with the proposal that this will give enough information so the audience knows what the priorities are.
By doing this you are demonstrating to your executives that you are able to handle sensitive material carefully and able to work within their constrains…..thus slowly gaining their trust.
We Don’t Want You to Debate it or Shoot Holes in It
This is another very common message that executives may be unintentionally sending employees. Nobody likes to hear that their pet project has issues, especially when they are sticking their neck out and making plans into the future.
To mitigate this issue, follow that same advice mentioned above regarding creating a strawman. But this time, go to them and say, “This is what I think the strategy is based on public statements and available information. Am I in the right ballpark? And if so, here are some areas where we can help.” Don’t tell them what is wrong or debate it, just tell them how you can help.
Once you gain credibility and demonstrate value…..then you may be consulted or even asked for input at another date.
We Don’t Really Have One….We Just Want You to Go Away
This is probably the most common situation. The reality is, most organizations have a really hard time defining what their business strategy is, because it takes a lot of emotional intelligence and organizational maturity to be willing to clearly state, “This is where we are going, and these are the actions we need to take to get there.” Too often, executives only give vague ideas that they can’t be held accountable for, or flip flop between tactical demands.
As above, the best thing to do is to create a strawman and see if executives are willing to engage with it. They may tell you to “go away” because they don’t want to talk with you about it. In which case you operate based on your best estimate anyhow; it is better to operate based on your best estimate rather than nothing at all because chances are you are close to right. I have also seen cases where the strawman becomes the basis for the creation of an actionable business strategy, which puts you in the center of its development. They may also say: “no that is wrong, let me fix it,” which is still good as you are still getting to the end goal you need.
You need to know your business strategy. Don’t wait to be told what it is.
As business and IT leaders, we are making investments into business models, people, processes, information, and technology every day. If we are making these without any idea of what the strategy is, we will waste time, energy, and money. The business strategy will evolve and change, but having some strategy that is clear, actionable, distinct, and differentiating can increase your business value and dramatically decrease costs and risk.
As we have stated in previous blogs, to increase your strategic standing in the organization, it is not about “asking” for a seat at the table, it is about delivering value and outcomes that make it obvious that you are integral to the organization’s strategic and operational planning. For more on this topic, see It’s Time for the “Business Versus IT” Debate to Be Over.