Leading the human side of change

To play a needed role in strategy implementation, HR needs to leverage its internal connections

Successful strategy implementation is the biggest issue facing business. It is no longer sufficient to make the promise. Increasingly organizations need to demonstrate that they can translate strategic ideas into concrete actions and results.

Ultimately, successful strategy implementation requires getting three things right: the social system, the technical system and the business process system.

When making strategic shifts in organizations, most executive teams tend to do a better job of bringing business processes in line with their new strategy and identifying the benefits of new technology, than the job of aligning the social system. The social system is about getting the people issues right and typically, that’s the biggest challenge.

It’s often put this way: You can get the best technology money can buy and you can identify the ideal process blueprint for your business, but it takes people to wring the value out of the software and to align the work with the vision. Without the people, it just doesn’t happen.

As a function, HR is well positioned to help with the people side of strategy implementation. What HR brings is an organization-wide perspective and an in-depth expertise on human dynamics and on how to effectively engage and align employees.

Common barriers to strategy implementation

HR professionals who want to get better at helping their organizations implement strategy should first ask themselves what gets in the way of implementation now. In part, strategy implementation is a process of overcoming barriers to change. These barriers can be grouped into five “root causes,” listed below.

Lack of co-ordination at the top:
•lack of alignment between top executives blocks critical cross-system collaboration.

Employees aren’t on board:
•they don’t understand the strategy;
•they don’t feel a sense of urgency to execute the strategy; or
•they don’t feel inspired by the strategic goals.

Insufficient change at the work group level:
•managers are not refocusing the efforts of their work groups to align with the strategy;
•managers operate in a way that kills employee enthusiasm for the strategy; or
•in mission-critical areas, work proceeds as usual even though the strategy requires significant, rapid change.

Insufficient cross-functional collaboration:
•no mechanisms are in place to cut through the competitiveness that exists between “silos” and enable collaboration between work groups.

No measurement system in place:
•the means of measuring progress towards new goals are missing or inadequate.

Where to start

There are four essential strategy implementation tasks that all organizations need to accomplish. While this work does not always follow a predictable, linear path, jobs 1 and 2 are foundational.

Job 1 — Ensure that employees understand the strategy: Employees need to understand not only the strategic direction, but the drivers of the strategy, the rationale behind it and the associated metrics. If employees don’t understand the game, they don’t play it very well.

Job 2 — Increase employee commitment to the strategy: Because strategic shifts often cause change, employees have to feel compelled to go the extra mile to turn strategies into reality. They have to believe that overall, the net result, despite the pain, is worth the effort.

Job 3 — Align local effort with the strategy: Jobs 1 and 2 may be foundational, but it’s still not quite time for high-fives once the employee population understands the strategy and feels good about it. There remains the crucial job 3: changing the work at the local level. As Peter Drucker observed, at some point, the talk about strategy has to “devolve into action.”

Job 4 — Cause global cross-system realignment: Job 4 is where the implementation magic really starts to happen. Job 4 involves making systemic changes needed to carry out the strategy. In most cases, this means forging improved relationships across key organizational work groups. This is the most challenging work because it requires the “silos” to engage in give and take.

Whose work is it?

If the four jobs are crucial to strategy implementation, whose work is it? Does it belong with the CEO, the executive team, HR or everyone?

While successful strategy implementation ultimately involves everyone in the organization, HR professionals can play an important role by:

•ensuring that the executive team understands the human side of strategy implementation and is aligned around this work;

•proposing a comprehensive set of initiatives to accomplish the four jobs; and

•partnering with line managers to make things happen.

To do’s for HR strategy implementation leaders

HR professionals who want to work more effectively with the line on strategy implementation should pursue the following tactics:

Focus on business problems, not HR activities: Starting today, in every one of your conversations with line executives, ask what is keeping them up at night. Chances are they will not complain about the lack of a competency model or that the organization doesn’t have a vision, mission or a values statement. Instead, they will speak of things like customer response time, bottle-necks, sales performance and production processes. The value you can bring is in understanding the business issues and then aligning what you do to help the business get results.

Measure HR in terms of business results: The old adage, “what gets measured is what gets done,” is equally important in ensuring that you measure your results (and contribution) in terms that the line can understand.

Forge a tight, partner-like relationship with top line executives: A partnership is one in which both parties are working towards the same goal. Become exceptionally open to feedback as to how you are doing, how you are helping line management achieve their goals, and how the relationship is working or not working

Be a tenacious coalition-builder: Cross-system collaboration is critical to successful strategy implementation. Use your access to the entire organization to build coalitions and relationships.

Become more sophisticated with respect to organizational change: If this article, with its emphasis on organizational change, reminds you that you never really understood all that OD stuff in graduate school, do yourself a favour and sign up for a course. You won’t regret it.

Use outside partners to support your effort: Consider hiring and using outside partners to help you put together an approach to helping your organization. Doing so is not an admission of inadequacy. In fact, it might just inject the creativity and objectivity the organization needs.

Richard McKnight and Jane Hawkrigg are senior consultants with Right Management Consultants, a global organizational consulting and career transition firm. They can be contacted at [email protected] or [email protected], or visit www.right.com/ca.

Latest stories