Cascading Strategy from the Boardroom to the Front Lines – Five Ways Leaders Help Change Direction

Effective strategy implementation is imperative for long-term success. Think of your company as a river. Executives stand at the mouth of the river, and there the water rushes with great strength and purpose, but as the river rolls cross-country the force and power dissipates – branches and tributaries form. Even though critical strategic choices need to be made downstream, the focus and intent that was so clear at the mouth of the river is lost.

One of the biggest leadership challenges is making sure the intent and focus of corporate strategy is well cascaded through the organization. This is difficult because of the distance that the message and priorities must travel through the organization, as well as because the marketplace, technology, competition, and economy is constantly shifting. Organization members downstream are making tactical decisions that ideally line up to the corporate strategy, but in reality may be left guessing as to the right application of strategy in the real world.

There are five ways leaders can help cascade strategy to ensure effective implementation.

  1. Embrace downstream involvement. As part of a company’s strategic planning process, cascade changes by involving lower levels in decision-making (organizations like Danaher refer to this as Policy Deployment). This method will call upon the knowledge of third and fourth level leaders to make strategy decisions in the right corporate context while taking into account market and operational realities. Mid-level leaders become alignment leaders relative to strategy when their input is leveraged in strategy development and implementation.
  1. Realign key behavioral indicators. Most organizations have no shortage of metrics or KPIs, but the question is ‘are they driving the strategy?’ Embrace new policies and, if needed, new reward systems. Managers leading the operation alignment must not only communicate the changes, but also redefine the metrics that will show employees what is expected. The input of mid-level managers will tell workers what is required, and the realignment of behavioral indicators then serves as an example. The two, in tandem, produce a show-and-tell that can have significant impact on the culture of an organization.
  1. Talk about success. To the extent practical, leaders should tell stories that show what success looks like. Every successful company undergoes change, both on the macro and micro alignment level. Legends about how a company was aligned, who led the charge, and how the innovation was successful are excellent methods of communicating change within your own organization. While an anecdote is only one piece of feedback, in story form, that data can carry disproportionate weight in the organization in shaping people’s beliefs, mindsets and actions.
  1. Cross-pollinate. An organization should work in tandem with itself.   Often the structure of a company discourages the kind of cross-organizational interaction that helps with strategy implementation. Breaking down the barriers between organizational divisions, cost centers, and functions encourages innovative problem solving. It also eliminates the risk that the work and efforts of one part of the organization don’t undermine the efforts and work of another. As executives work with mid-level leaders, and as these leaders work with one another, they will leave strategic precedents behind that can be helpful to others in the organization. This sort of cross sharing may be an important edge in the quest for successful strategy implementation.
  1. Stand downstream. As a leader, put yourself in the place of the people doing the work. When you learn the nuts and bolts of the work to be done you can make strategic decisions that are aligned both with market potential and operational realities. You may also discover that with this real-world connection strategic priorities are embraced downstream and understood in ways that denizens locked in the boardroom could never hope to achieve. Every leader should know what daily life is like in order to find strategies that connect. What an executive establishes as a strategy doesn’t really become a reality until it is seen, felt, or performed on the front lines. Once that happens true strategy implementation and organization transformation has taken place.

As a leader, it is your responsibility to guide the transformation effort. This is no small task. You will be fighting against the power of an existing waterway. Your challenge is not only to keep the message, culture, and strategy undiluted as it rolls downward, but also to make sure there is no inadvertent dam upstream that halts the flow of progress.