How to Turn Strategy into Action

how to Turn Strategy into action

From battlefield to business: how to turn strategy into action

Turning strategy into action is a core leadership skill. We know this because recent research such as this tells us so. Many senior-management teams remain stuck in a spiral of firefighting at the expense of strategic focus.

It’s a widespread problem. A recent survey across 1000 companies asked 125,000 managers if they agreed that ‘Important strategic and operational decisions are quickly translated into action’. The majority answered ‘no’.

In fact, the organisations found it difficult to do what they regarded as important, let alone turn the organisation’s strategy into action.

This is odd. Why can companies do things that don’t matter very much but can’t do things that do?

An age-old problem

It’s an age-old problem. With more years’ coaching behind me than I care to remember, I’ve noticed the same conversations coming up in boardrooms repeatedly in the last 20 plus years. Turning strategy into action just doesn’t seem to happen.

This is odder still. When we know we have a fundamental problem that’s not new, why can’t we solve it?

If a problem is widespread and enduring, its origins are likely to be deep-seated, and the solution similarly fundamental.
But this old problem also has an equally old solution. Old, and relatively simple. Indeed, once you ‘get’ it, it feels like little more than common sense. Unfortunately, being common sense doesn’t make something common practice.
So, if this solution has been around for a long time and it’s simple to understand, why isn’t it common practice?

There are two main reasons.

Building up barriers

The first is that management thinking throughout the 20th century has built up barriers to adopting the solution. Whilst much of this thinking has been disputed by modern management thinkers, its legacy is insidious.

The second reason is that, although the legacy model’s failings are evident, it’s not clear what it should be replaced with. Lacking any alternative theory to call upon, management schools fall back on the legacy model as default and perpetuate a flawed philosophy.

Ringing any bells with you?

In the decades after the Industrial Revolution, many businesses were built up around processing things for factories. People were needed to operate them and they were integrated into them like the proverbial cogs.

The machine became the model for business as a whole, and managers were trained in how to manage the workforce. Their job was to keep the cogs turning smoothly.

In 1911, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s classic The Principles of Scientific Management enshrined the machine model for several generations. This approach to management rests on three premises:

  1. It is possible to know all you need to know to be able to plan what to do.
  2. Planners and doers should be separated.
  3. ‘There is but one right way.’

Standardised tasks

Taylor studied repetitive, menial tasks (like shifting pig iron onto railcars) in great detail and worked out how to perform them optimally, as a machine would.

Just about every business involves tasks with similar characteristics, and today a lot of those tasks are performed by robots or have been standardised in computer programs.

Taylor and his followers helped to professionalise management in ways we now take for granted, and their methods resulted in significant efficiency improvements within factories.

The essence of management was creating perfect plans. Telling people what, when and how to do things.

Austrian management consultant Peter Drucker was the first to challenge these premises in the 1950s, and many have followed.

However, most of the systems in large organisations that determine how people carry out planning and budgeting, target-setting and performance management are still based on engineering principles.

Globalisation and standardisation

Today, we also have to contend with globalisation, which leads to standardisation and pressure for increased compliance, plus fear of litigation, which imposes further constraints.

We’re increasingly risk-averse. It’s eradicating the art of leadership and with it our ability to turn strategy into action.

Despite our rejection of scientific management, we might be moving closer to turning not just workers but managers into robots.

This brings us to the second reason why the problem of turning strategy into action is so enduring.

Whilst it’s relatively straightforward what we should not do, there’s no such advice about what we should do. There’s no accepted set of management disciplines for achieving the outcomes we want in the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) environment we are faced with today.

Let me give you my spin on the matter, based on my many years spent in the military.

Mission-Focused Leadership

My leadership coaching philosophy, Mission-Focused Leadership, has its roots in the teachings of a 19th-century Prussian General.

Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke was arguably one of the most respected military strategists of all time. So much so that NATO’s military doctrine is based upon his teachings and his admirers include the late General Electric boss Jack Welch.

Moltke realised that in a fast-changing, unpredictable environment, organisations no longer work like well-oiled machines.

My Leadership Coaching incorporates into business what he’d learned on the battlefield, where he’d perfected the art of turning strategy into action.

Von Moltke endured years of military campaigning in unpredictable environments. He understood that his armies must learn how to adapt and behave like organisms while acting more effectively with less information than their rivals.

An organisation of that type – the type we’re searching for now – began to be developed more than 100 years before Taylor created the problem.

The more Alignment you have, the more Autonomy you can grant

Von Moltke found that trying to get results by directly taking charge of things at lower levels in the organisational hierarchy was dysfunctional. He emphasised the importance of alignment. The more alignment you have, the more autonomy you can grant.

Leaders were encouraged to align their teams with a joint mission and then allow people at all levels within the organisation autonomy and freedom of action.

Ultimately, this results in the organisation not depending on being led by a military genius. Instead, it becomes an intelligent organisation. Rather than relying on exceptional individuals, the business benefits from raising the performance of the average.

The origins of my Leadership Coaching Philosophy, Mission-Focused Leadership, are based on Moltke’s theory of leadership.

Mission-Focused Leadership challenges the old way of leading a business. It aims to inspire people at all levels of the organisation to achieve focused commitment rather than mere compliance.

Delegation within a framework

Or, to put it another way, Mission-Focused Leadership is a leadership style that provides overall direction and then delegates freedom to work within an agreed framework – rather than to control action through rules and regulations. It seeks to stimulate initiative rather than suppress.

Its purpose is to empower employees and encourage responsiveness and coherence within an organisation from the very top to the bottom. Its spin-offs are inestimable.

With Mission-Focused Leadership, an organisation:

• Knows what it needs to achieve (its Mission)
• Knows how it’s going to achieve it (the Plan)
• Benefits from speed of decision, speed of execution and speed of change from one activity to another
• Is not distracted from its Mission while executing the Plan (Focus)
• Knows how to turn the Plan into action at the appropriate level (Leadership).

There are four cornerstones of the Mission-Focused Leadership system, and you can read more about my Business coaching system here.

In summary, today’s business Leaders should seek to understand complexity and then create simplified strategy; align front-line teams with a common Mission and empower them to execute the plan. It’s not rocket science, but it is military-grade thinking.

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