Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Forced compliance is not the same as strategic alignment

Good strategy can be divisive. Any change results in winners and losers. Some people have a strong preference for the status quo above almost any change.  In fact, it is said that if no-one objects to your strategy, it is probably not a very good strategy.

A common response from strong leaders is to demand compliance. "FIFO!" they declare ("Fit in or F off"). Those who oppose are chastised, marginalised and even dismissed.

Strategy almost always requires people to work together to achieve it - so-called strategic alignment. But strategic alignment cannot be demanded, it must be earned. If those opposed to a strategy don't feel free to voice their concerns, then they will simply go underground, proclaiming their support while subtly working to undermine the strategy.

There is, of course, a middle ground. And it is much better than having a strategy so bland that no-one disagrees, or a culture so based on fear that no-one dares to.

The fact is that every strategy has risks and downsides - the bolder the strategy the greater the risks and downsides invariably are. To pretend otherwise is folly. And to dismiss discussion of them denies you the opportunity to better understand and mitigate them.

A good strategist pursues their strategy relentlessly whilst also remaining acutely aware of and actively mitigating the risks.

The solution is to reframe negative criticism into constructive problem solving. Ask questions like:
  1. "Given your concerns about what could happen if we pursue this strategy, what steps might we take to limit the probability of that happening or to limit the impact if it does happen?"
  2. "If you think it won't work, what would have to happen in order to make it possible?"
  3. "If you think that is not how things work, what would it be like if things did work that way?"
When listening to the answer, listen from a perspective of believing that they really are coming at the problem from the perspective of what they believe to be in the best interests of the business. If you can't find that perspective, probe deeper. Look for shared views, rather than differences of opinion, and then use those shared views as a common platform from which to analyse your differences.

You may never convince them to support your strategy, but you will gain a much deeper understanding of the risks and possible mitigating actions. And people who feel they have been genuinely consulted and listened to are much more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt and support your strategy, even despite their concerns, than those who've been marginalised.

And if you find yourself on the wrong side of your bosses strategy, then even if he or she does not ask you questions like that, then simply expressing your concerns as if they were answers to such questions will make them seem more supportive whilst still voicing them.

Of course, there will come times when you simply cannot agree - when you simply want different things for your futures. Perhaps then it really is time to part company. But it is better to part company as friends than as enemies.