It takes a village: How stakeholder engagement is the key to strategic success

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Dr. Joseph A. Griffin, PMP, Graduate Faculty, Northeastern University

Dr. Kelly Otter, Dean of School of Continuing Studies, Georgetown University

This paper provides the reader with a straightforward approach to translating strategic goals and objectives into organizational action. Six steps are suggested for moving through the entire process: (1) Clarify your mission, vision, and purpose; (2) Identify your strategic goals and objectives; (3) Develop appropriate tactics; (4) Create an execution plan; (5) Execute; ad (6) Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. The paper also suggests that the key to successfully implementing these six steps is effective stakeholder engagement. For without strong stakeholder support, the likelihood of successfully translating strategic goals into organizational action will be less likely.

Introduction

Companies, divisions, and, even teams fail to act strategically for many reasons. First, they may simply lack a strategy. Companies can often become consumed by the day-to-day activities, failing to consider how those daily routines should support the long-term strategy of the organization. Other organizations may have a strategy but lack the ability to execute it successfully due to lack of resources or the like. For others, the strategy may become lost in transaction, as it may not translate into tactical action. This paper offers an approach to translating strategic goals and objectives into organizational action successfully regardless of the reason(s) one has failed to make translation previously.

The paper will describe the proposed approach for translating strategy into organizational actions: (1) Clarify your mission, vision, and purpose; (2) Identify your strategic goals and objectives; (3) Develop appropriate tactics; (4) Create an execution plan; (5) Execute; and (6) Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate.

This approach relies on a foundational factor and orientation. The foundational factor is that it takes a village. One person or, even, the leadership team of an organization must have the support and involvement of the individuals who comprise the organization to execute this approach successfully.

The foundational orientation is change engagement. Without broad stakeholder engagement, the strategy risks being myopic and the tactics disconnected. To manage this engagement, one needs to think beyond management to engagement. Change engagement seeks to do more than merely gain acceptance to change; it seeks to engage stakeholders as change agents in an active, direct manner.

The Case for Strategic Actions

Some companies may seek profits or market share or an improved stock price, or a company may seek to be measured by the triple bottom line: people, profit, and planet. Others may choose from a variety of other value propositions or goals. In order to achieve these goals, actions must be taken. The actions may be haphazard. In organizations where there is an over-arching goal, but where divisions of the units enjoy a high degree of autonomy, the means by which the different divisions seek to achieve the over-arching goals may not simply be different but may actually be at odds with one another. Although it seems implausible when written, no experienced professional finds it an incredulous proposition. Rather, at times, it seems the norm.

But if you were to question the leaders of these companies or divisions, it would be highly unlikely that you would encounter anyone who disagreed with the need to act strategically. Most people would agree that long-term and short-term strategies should be developed for ensuring the organization's goals are achieved. Yet, in practice, it seems many organizations act in a manner that is not necessarily strategic.

This can be easily seen by looking at a company's portfolio of projects. Many times, the linkage between a company's portfolio of projects and programs lack a direct link to a strategic goal or set of goals. Rather, the projects arise based on a real need that may exist, but many companies fail to determine whether that ‘need’ is truly a strategic need or not. Of course, this is not always the case. Many companies have very solid project management offices (PMOs) where projects are analyzed based on the benefits they will deliver to the strategic directions of the company. But, unfortunately, this is not always the case.

If a company wishes to remain competitive to achieve its goals, it must take strategic actions. The tactical movements of the organization must support and be directly linked to the strategic goals of the organization. Of course, this does not guarantee success, as some companies have chosen poor strategic goals. One has many poorly conceived and executed strategies to choose from. For instance, Netflix's strategy to spin-off its DVD business and raise prices had severe consequences for the organization: “the company lost 800,000 subscribers, its stock price dropped 77 percent in four months, and the management's reputation was battered” (Sandoval, 2012). Also, a company may haphazardly choose success, but there is no question that a company is more likely to achieve success over the long term when it identifies a clear and achievable strategy and then takes the tactical actions necessary to implementing the strategy.

Reasons Why We Don't Act Strategically

Many leaders talk about the need for strategic actions, and, as stated above, almost no one would disagree for the need to act in a strategic manner, yet we so often see companies or individuals who we believe fail to do so. As could most people, we can think of plenty of examples of previous leaders who we thought failed to act strategically. There are a few reasons for this.

First, they may simply lack a strategy. Companies can often become consumed by the day-to-day activities, failing to consider how those daily routines should support the long-term strategy of the organization. Rather, they are being driven by the demands of customers, never wondering whether or not these customers are worth the investment. Not all customers create a true return. When one looks at the raw cost and revenue, it may appear profitable, but when one considers the internal resources required to support a particular customer, the company could be losing money. Without a clear strategy for the market, it is difficult to know how to evaluate the daily routines of the company's employees to determine whether or not the daily effort expended is providing the best return on investment.

Other organizations may have a strategy but lack the ability to determine if it is the right strategy or to execute it successfully due to lack of expertise, resources, or the like. Recently, an episode of “This American Life” aired on NPR where a story was told about a skilled electrician who decided to become an amateur physicist. He had determined through his research of books from the library that he had discovered a flaw in Einstein's theory of relativity, but the scientific community was dismissing of his view. In the story, he repeatedly stated that he knew he was right, but he just wasn't very good at math, and he needed someone to do the incredibly complex math for him to prove his theory was correct (Powell, 2005). This budding physicist had a goal—disprove Einstein's theory of relativity and turn the scientific community on its head. Yet, he lacked the resources and expertise to execute his strategy.

In the experience of the authors, another source of failure seems to arise from the lack of commitment to a particular strategy and the discipline necessary to pursue the strategy. Too often, shifting direction takes time, and in the interim period, the gains may be slow, or even nonexistent. This may lead some to shift courses too quickly. Of course, one might say that a company needs to be nimble and flexible. This is true. An entire collection of project management methodologies has developed within the project management community as a testament to this need: agile. Yet, too often it seems that companies give up too quickly on a particular strategy. When the short term seems bleak, the long-term benefits are abandoned.

Of course, most people do act strategically—their strategy may be flawed, unreadable, haphazard, or inconsistent, but they have a strategy. The fact that the strategy is unclear, at best, or incoherent, at worst, to others is what makes it appear that they are acting without a clear strategy. Often times, this can occur when the link between the organizational actions or tactical actions and the strategic goals are unclear. Therefore, it is critical that an organization develop the ability to translate strategic goals into organizational action. This paper proposes a six-step process for translating strategic goals to organizational actions.

Translating Strategic Goals to Organizational Actions

Step 1: Clarify your mission, vision, and values

Before an organization, a project team, or an individual begins seeking to translate strategic goals into organizational actions, the mission, vision, and values of the organization need to be clarified. One's mission, vision, and values are three powerful means of shaping an organization's culture—who you or the organization is. But it also works the other way: a company's culture will heavily influence the mission, vision, and values of the organization. If the mission, vision, and values are too broadly or narrowly defined, then the organization may focus so broadly that it is ineffective or so narrowly that it acts in a myopic manner, so getting this right is key. In writing about the importance of corporate culture, Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, wrote, “I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn't just one aspect of the game; it is the game” (Elenburg, 2003). Therefore, all of the factors need to be understood: the mission, vision, values, and culture.

Your mission is your reason for existence; some writers or speakers may use the term purpose, depending on whether the term ‘mission statement’ is considered in or out. Regardless of what it is called, it is critical that a company, a project team, and, even, an individual, understand what the ultimate mission or purpose is. Otherwise, you have tactics that are directed from different starting points.

Your vision is where you are planning on going. Is it to be a market leader, the most profitable, to give back to others, or does it include all of these? It's your vision to shape, but without a clear vision it is difficult to evaluate your organizational actions' ultimate outcomes. A clear vision provides a measuring stick for success, as it ensures that the goal for which you are aiming is the goal that you chose.

Finally, you need to know what your values are. Your values guide you in terms of the actions you take or do not take. Some organizations have accidental values. These values have simply developed over the years, and there is no consistency to them or how they are practiced. Other organizations have misaligned values. What they say their values are, are not in fact their values in practice. There is a disconnect between their stated values and their functional values. Rather, an organization should seek to have intentional and aligned values that are embedded within the very culture of the organization. This can create a consistent baseline for how people will work to achieve the strategy through organizational action.

By clarifying these items and ensuring that they align, a company or project team can have a firm foundation for moving forward to Step 2.

Step 2: Identify your strategic goals and objectives

Once the foundation is in place, an organization needs to identify the strategic goals and objectives. These are the practical means of steering the organization toward the shared vision. One should develop both short-term and long-term values. In the United States, short term is typically less than one year, and longer term is one to five years or more. However, in other cultures, the long-term strategies can be much longer. Masayoshi Son, the founder of Softbank Corp. has developed a 300-year plan. He sees his role as merely building a foundation for what his successors will achieve (McCombs, 2012). One might benefit from thinking beyond the next earning announcement, fiscal year end, or even the decade. Regardless of the time horizon, one needs to identify the strategic goals and objectives.

In doing this, it might be helpful to think along the lines of how one crafts a risk statement. There are a few different formats for risk statements, with one being cause, condition, and conclusion. You first need to identify the initiating event (the cause), which then creates a state of being (condition), which leads to the logical outcome (conclusion). Here is an example risk statement: Because of the flooding in the Midwest (cause), the shipment of drywall was delayed (condition), leading to a two-day delay in the completion of Phase 2 of the building project (conclusion).

Through the corporate strategies, one is attempting to identify desirable conditions or conclusions. A desirable condition may be a stock price of X or a certain amount of participation in community causes. The company needs to clearly identify what those strategies will be for creating the desirable condition, allowing one to accomplish their vision or conclusion. The means of achieving these desirable outcomes is the causes, or the tactics.

Step 3: Develop appropriate tactics

Developing appropriate tactics is about identifying the causes that will lead to the desired conclusions. Most often the mission, vision, values, and strategies are decided by a senior leadership team at a retreat or the like. Regardless of whether or not one thinks this is the most effective means, it is a popular method. But after those items are drafted, it must be decided how these lofty goals will be achieved, what tactics will win the way that is constantly raging in the marketplace.

Many times this is left to the leadership level just below the senior leadership team. A mandate is given, and it is up to those just below the C suite to determine who will actually accomplish the work. This group then turns to those in middle management to determine how the desired outcomes can be achieved. Middle management may go to the line workers, or they may simply make a decision about how to proceed and issue the directives. This can cause all types of workplace unrest and conflict. Sometimes, the line workers feel the asks are unrealistic or not attuned to the realities of the daily operations of the company or the like.

But it is at this point that many organizations begin to face the realities of the disconnect of those in leadership and those responsible for the daily operations of the organization. And it is this key point that this paper seeks to address most pointedly. This issue will be addressed in the latter half of the paper, but for the sake of moving through the steps, we will move on. However, the reader should remember that this is a critical area where the need for change engagement is most often most visible.

Step 4: Create an execution plan

Once the tactics have been decided, one must create an execution plan. At this point, proposals for projects and programs are written, prioritized, and then funded based on the prioritization. The plan may be for the short term, such as the fiscal year, or it could be created for a longer period of time. Regardless, of the length of the plan, it is important to develop a written execution plan, as it acts as something of a baseline for implementing the tactics that have been chosen to achieve the stated organizational strategy.

Step 5: Execute

At this point, one is turning organizational strategy into organizational action. The projects and programs identified are put into motion, and the organization is seeking to tangibly create the causes that will lead to the desired conditions and conclusions. Execution is a very simply step to write about, as one merely executes the plan, but it is the most complex step to actually engage in. Once the realities of the organization and the marketplace and project teams and everything else begins to shine a light on the tactics chosen, the shortcomings begin to become evident. This requires those leading these projects and programs to continually evaluate the alignment of the tactics to the ultimate strategies, rather than blinding executing, which leads us to the final step.

Step 6: Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate

Program and project evaluation is not new to any experienced person working in a project context. There are numerous reporting templates color-coded red, yellow, and green. Some may have even developed a fairly sophisticated dashboard looking at a range of project metrics, using a tool such as earned value. All of these types of tools can be very helpful, but this is not the type of evaluation we are hoping to focus on.

In project evaluation, one can typically look at a minimum of three areas: efficiency, effectiveness, and impact. Efficiency seeks to show how well one is using his or her resources. This is where most evaluation in the project management community seems to be focused. Are we on budget and schedule? When we look to evaluate the scope of work, we are typically looking at our effectiveness. Are we effectively accomplishing the scope of work identified? When it comes to impact, depending on the project, one could look at the immediate impact of the work of the project, such as were the proposed savings achieved, but one could also look at the bigger picture by seeking to understand how the project or program supports the company's strategic direction. This is the type of evaluation that we are proposing take place.

As a project or program manager oversees the work, he or she should be focused on whether or not the work is producing the desired outcome at the strategic level of the organization. A project could look successful on paper, meaning it is within scope, budget, and on time, but it could fail to deliver actual support or furtherance of the corporate strategies. Therefore, the project manager should seek to understand, first, how his or her project supports the corporate objectives, and then be asked to make an informed evaluation throughout the execution of the individual project about whether or not he or she believes it will.

Foundational Factor: It Takes a Village

We are not proposing that the steps above are original or transformative in and of themselves. They are simply a simple, direct approach for moving from one place to another. Many companies have followed similar steps only to find themselves unable to successfully translate strategic goals into organizational action. We believe a key to successfully implementing these steps is a particular foundational factor, which is the realization that it takes more than an individual, more than even the strategic leadership team to translate successfully strategic goals into organizational action. The strategic leadership team needs the support and involvement of the individuals who comprise the organization to execute this approach successfully.

Gaining the support and feedback of the entire organization may be reasonable in a relatively small organization, but can be impossible in many of the global organizations in which one may be working. However, there are means for gathering feedback and implementing it into the direction. For instance, the strategic leadership team could draft a set of strategic objectives, and then ask for feedback through the use of a focus group, or if the size of the company allows, through a web-based feedback tool. Additionally, the company could have different divisions form representative groups who could participate in planning sessions to ensure that the views and concerns of each division is heard.

Regardless of the specific means, one should seek to invite as broad as engagement as possible. Now, we are not promoting that companies should be run as a democracy. But we are arguing that companies that craft strategic objectives apart of the input of those who are engaged in the daily operations of the company do so at their own peril. A quick dose of the daily realities of the organization will help ensure that the strategies do not simply aim toward the vision of the company, but that they are grounded in the daily realities of the organization. One with any professional experience does not typically have to think too hard about examples of when corporate strategies were entirely disconnected from the on-ground realities. Oftentimes, these are examples that could have been corrected had those developing the strategies taken the time to hear the perspectives of those who would be ultimately responsible for implementing them. Therefore, by engaging as wide an audience as possible, one will not only shape more realistic strategies, they can also do much to gain the buy-in of these who will be ultimately responsible for implementing the strategies.

Foundational Orientation: Change Engagement

The foundational orientation or starting point is what we are calling change engagement, a combination of stakeholder engagement and change management.

It has often been repeated that one of the primary jobs of a project manager is that of managing stakeholder expectations. This advice is often given because stakeholders can often have unrealistic expectations. Because of this, from the very beginning, project managers need to begin working to ensure that the expectations and viewpoints of the various stakeholders are realistic given the realities of the project. Without such management, the project manager may find himself or herself in between the proverbial rock and a hard place. This tends to be the standards means of working with stakeholders— keep expectations as realistic (read low) as possible and point to the supporting results. This is not the worst advice one could get. Sometimes, it is necessary, but it is not ideal advice.

Rather than the project team and key stakeholders having an adversarial relationship (even if it is a silent battle or war), it would be best for there to be full and meaningful engagement, appropriate to a given stakeholder. In the context of this paper, it means that the strategic leadership team does not simply treat employees as means to an end, but as active participants in the process of translating strategic objectives into organizational action. We believe this can be best accomplished through change engagement.

Change management seeks to do more than merely gain acceptance to proposed strategic objectives, but to actively engage employees as change agents within the organization. The primary means of accomplishing this is by empowering employees in the process of translating strategic objectives into organizational actions. This is done throughout each of the six steps done above in a rather simple manner—let people have a voice and give their voice meaning.

We all take ownership of what we create, and we tend to like what we create. If people have a voice in both creating the strategic objectives and identifying the tactical means of making those strategic objectives a reality, they will tend to take ownership, which tends to create a more dedicated and participative team. When we begin to see that our voice can make a difference in the direction of the company, it all of a sudden becomes our company, and we all want to protect and support what is ours.

Elenburg, D. (May 15, 2003). Book Review – Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? (Review of the book, Who Says Elephant Can't Dance). developerWorks®. Retrieved from http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/rational/library/2071.html

McCombs, D., & Alpeyev, P. (October 12, 2012). Softbank founder has 300-year plan in wooing Sprint Nextel. Bloomberg.com. Retrieved from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-10-11/softbank-founder-has-300-year-plan-in-pursuit-of-sprint-nextel.html.

Powell, R. A. (Narrator). (July 22, 2005). #293 A little bit of knowledge [Radio Broadcast Episode]. This American Life. Chicago, IL: National Public Radio.

Sandoval, G. (July 11, 2012). Netflix's lost year: The inside story of the price-hike train wreck. CNET News. Retrieved from http://www.cnet.com/news/netflixs-lost-year-the-inside-story-of-the-price-hike-train-wreck/

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2014, Joseph A. Griffin and Kelly Otter
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings –

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