Watch out for "Silent killers"

No, that's not the title of a detective story. Or maybe it is - in a way. It's about strategies, but more importantly it's about the challenges of implementing them.

Six Silent killers

In the article "The silent killers of Strategy Implementation and Learning" in the MIT Sloan Management Review, authors Michael Beer & Russell A. Eisenstat address what they refer to as "The silent killers". Based on their research, they discuss the difficulties of strategy implementation and learning success. They make a comparison - just as in humans there may be high cholesterol blocking arteries without obvious symptoms, so in companies there may be structures operating beneath the surface, blocking and stopping, without being directly visible. A kind of barrier that can lead to companies' strategies not being activated - no matter how well thought out they are. Why?

"Between the ideal of strategic alignment and the reality of implementation lie many difficulties."
"For one thing, senior managers get lulled into believing that a well-conceived strategy communicated to the organization equals implementation. For another, they approach change in a narrow, nonsystemic and programmatic manner that does not address root causes."

In their research, the authors have identified six "silent killers". Broadly speaking, they are described as follows:  

  1. Top-down or Laissez-faire management style
  2. Unclear strategy and conflicting priorities  
  3. Ineffective management team
  4. Weak vertical communication
  5. Poor coordination between functions, business areas or borders
  6. Insufficient leadership and development

These are barriers that many will have encountered, some visible, some not. No matter how good or elaborate a strategy is, one or more of these barriers can cause implementation to fail. The more obstacles, the greater the risk:

"Individually, the six barriers are troubling. Taken together, they create a vicious circle from which it is difficult to escape. "

One of the barriers they highlight as particularly critical - weak vertical communication. It is a "silent killer" that not only risks killing strategy implementation, it also inhibits discussion of the issues. They have encountered situations where employees experience problems, but feel that managers and leaders are not receptive to discussion for a variety of reasons - disinterest, inability to take criticism or a sense of threat. This leads to employees keeping their observations to themselves - which can ultimately lead to inaction and sometimes cynicism.

"Six silent killers of strategy implementation exist in most companies, but too many managers avoid confronting them. Leaders need to face these killers if they and their organizations are to learn and succeed."

The authors give various examples from companies they have encountered where different factions oppose and fight each other for the same resources, companies where leaders do not want to cooperate for fear of losing their position, companies where lower level managers are not supported in their leadership role. Companies with a lack of clarity where employees, unsure of where the company is going, are not using their full potential to drive the business forward. Simply because the employee is unsure of the right direction. These are all different examples of warning flags for successful strategy implementation.

Affects quality

All these barriers affect quality at several levels: in governance, in learning and in implementation. In terms of governance, the authors stress the importance of anchoring decisions. A top-down management style where some senior people bypass other people in senior teams and give orders to people at lower levels discourages the management team from becoming a cohesive team. Top-down management where employees who are afraid to speak up about problems in day-to-day operations, or do not feel they are being heard. This risks leading to inaction and inefficiency.

"If the general manager is the only one who has the whole picture, all major decisions must be made at the top."

The quality of learning is limited by blocked vertical communication. Many organisations discuss technology trends, consumer behaviour and competitors while failing to communicate what the strategy actually means to the employee in day-to-day operations.

"...but they failed to communicate downward a coherent story showing why the changing world outside the organization demanded new ways of working together."

Is it hopeless to implement strategies?

Absolutely not. But it requires teamwork, dialogue and cooperation. Companies can become both fast and agile when they are aware of the risks and respond to them, i.e. if the "six killers" are managed and turned into opportunities. Here's how, according to the authors, the barriers can be managed:

  1. With leadership based on partnership with clear business focus and delegation to clearly accountable people.
  2. With clarity of strategy and priorities underpinned by discussions at all levels.
  3. With a management team that speaks with a common voice and creates the context and organisation needed to implement the strategy effectively.
  4. With an established, honest, fact-based dialogue with all levels.
  5. With initiatives and roles to get the right people working on the right things in the right way.
  6. Seeing the potential - mid-level managers with the potential to develop leadership skills will receive coaching and training.

Get involved!

We encounter companies grappling with many of these challenges on a daily basis - many with clear, well-articulated strategies that have been worked on - and often communicated - to the top echelon. But when we ask employees, they often don't have a clear picture of the strategy, and therefore don't see for themselves how they can help make it a reality. If we ask middle managers, they may have a somewhat vague picture of the strategy, and many see a challenge in talking about it, and being able to communicate it further.

We've seen that there are many barriers that prevent strategies from being realised - but we've also seen that there are many ways to work against them. At its core, it's always about involving everyone - transforming business by involving all the people - which is our motto.

Or as the authors write:

"Many managers approach strategic change with the assumption that employees are barriers. Our research suggests the opposite; when properly involved, they become true partners."

Our offers:

Strategy communication and activation