Center for Simplified Strategic Planning

Lessons Learned in Aligning an Organization
Two Way Communication is Key
By Denise A. Harrison

Thoroughly discouraged — that summed up how I felt. For the past two years I had been president of a financial services firm and we had some key success metrics under our belt, the company was now solidly profitable, cycle time had decreased by 60%, we had earned more this past year than in the past decade — so why was I feeling so discouraged?

We had just received the employee survey back, and overall, morale was up, people were motivated, but the answers to two questions still bothered me:

  1. Are you familiar with the company's strategy?
  2. Do you know what you need to do in your position to move the company forward?

The answers to both questions were no. Susan, director of human resources, looked as perplexed as I felt.

How had we communicated the strategy over the past two years? Each year we had a company wide meeting to kick off the year. During this meeting I presented the strategy the senior management team had developed for the next three years. In addition, I presented the key objectives for the year. We had a question and answer session following the presentation to handle any questions about the strategic plan. But this was not the only communication; I knew this one presentation was not enough: the strategy needed reinforcement on a regular basis to keep people focused on the longer term objectives rather than the day-to-day fire fighting.

Quarterly Reinforcement
To attain this reinforcement and to celebrate our quarterly achievements I set aside two days each quarter for small group meetings where I once again presented the strategy, the key objectives and discussed the progress made during the previous quarter. I knew people felt more comfortable answering questions in smaller groups so I kept these meetings to groups of 8-10. Even with the annual presentation and the quarterly meetings employees did not relate their day-to-day reality with the strategy.

Sadly, Susan and I both knew that even though we thought we were communicating effectively we were not getting the job done. We had to do something different to engage associates at all levels in thinking strategically. We knew that setting the strategy was the top priority of senior management and strategy development with a larger group would become large and unwieldy. We discussed getting more involvement in the research that was need for the process — yes, involving more people in the information needed to develop a strategic plan was a good idea, but still this would not solve the problem.

We already involved a broad range of people in the development of action plans to meet the year's key objectives, we would continue doing this, but once again, it was not the solution to our problem.

Finally we hit upon the following idea: what if we had each department think about their role in moving the company's strategy forward and develop its own set of objectives and metrics? Well, it was worth a try.

Strategic Alignment: Two Way Communication
The next year we took the following approach: initially we followed the same process set out in previous years, the senior management team continued to set the corporate strategy and select the key company-wide objectives. Once again, I spoke to the whole company about the three year strategy and the key objectives for the next year, but rather than ending the meeting with the usual question and answer period I ended the meeting with a challenge to each department:

Next month we will hold a company meeting for each department to present what it intends to do in the upcoming year in order to support the company strategy and move the company forward.

There was a flourish of activity in all departments preparing for the next meeting, each department looked forward to its chance to show its importance to the rest of the company. Each department assessed the following questions to evaluate their key objectives for moving the company forward:

  1. What are we doing that moves the company forward?
  2. Is there anything we are not doing that we should be doing?
  3. Is there anything that needs more emphasis?
  4. Is there anything that we should stop doing?
  5. What is required from us from other departments in order for them accomplish what they need to do to move the company forward?
  6. How can we enlist the support from other departments to help us achieve our goals and objectives?

Each department selected a spokesperson to present its contributions to the company's future success and proudly presenting what its contributions would be for the next year. The meeting ended with an ice cream party celebration.

After the departmental presentations do you think the associates now knew what the company strategy was? (Yes!) Do you think that each associate now knew what he or she had to do to move the company forward? (Yes!) Do you think that they came up with ideas in each department that were far better than anything the senior management team could have directed it to do? (You betcha!)

Moral: Communication has to be a two way street.

When all we did was present the strategy to the rest of the company, we had not asked the associates to think about the strategy from their perspective — what did it meant to their job? What did it mean to their department on a day-to-day basis? By asking each department to present what they had to contribute to move the company forward each department and each individual had the opportunity to think about the company strategy in the context of what they did on a regular basis.

By allowing the departments to think on a more strategic level each department became focused on the key activities of the organization — many departments streamlined their activities as a result of this process.

Asking each department to make a presentation forced each group to think through clear objectives that could be presented so that others in the company would understand. This allowed other department's to better understand each other's role in the company's success and allowed for more coordination moving forward.

How do you develop a process for strategic alignment in your company? Here are some thoughts as to how you can engage each department:

  1. Strategy Review
    1. Start by reviewing the corporate strategy, goals and objectives. Make sure that the associates understand the big picture.

  2. Situation Analysis
    1. Hold a team meeting for each department. Start by reviewing the corporate strategy, goals and objectives.
    2. Ask the department who its customers are: internal and external
    3. What are the needs and preferences of the different customer groups?
    4. What are the technology issues?
    5. Are there any supplier issues?
    6. Are there any issues driven by the economy?
    7. Are there any regulatory issues?
    8. What are the departments' strengths and weaknesses?
    9. What new opportunities could the department pursue?

  3. Departmental Objective Development
    1. What are the 3-5 most important projects for the department to complete in the next 9-12 months?
    2. How do these objectives support the overall corporate strategy? (If they do not should they be departmental objectives?)

  4. Implementation and Planning
    1. Develop action plans for each objective.
    2. Are you dependent on any other department to achieve any of the objectives?
    3. Get approval to move forward with the objectives.

This process gains each department key objectives to accomplish during the next 9-12 months. It also enables the senior management team to make course corrections if they find that a department is not aligned with the company's strategy. It also allows the senior management team to adjust corporate strategy if a department uncovers issues that need to be addressed at the corporate level.

In addition, it will help each department and the senior management team resolves interdepartmental issues before they become problems.

Developing a strategy will help your company optimize its future. Ensuring that the whole company is aligned with corporate strategy will help you achieve corporate goals and objectives in a shorter time frame.

Denise Harrison is a consultant with Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc.
SHe can be reached via e-mail at ");

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