It’s no secret that top leaders and their management teams struggle with strategy. After all, choosing a direction, saying “no” to other opportunities and then creating a blueprint for organization-wide involvement is one of the most difficult challenges of organizational life.

Many firms fill their strategic planning sessions and breakouts with consultants drawing upon the latest framework or fad popularized by other consultants in their books. Invariably the output of putting smart people together in a room talking about direction and choices is interesting, but it often lacks two critical attributes for success: coherence and emotional connectivity. In this article, our focus is on the importance of creating the emotional connection to strategy essential for success.

Strategies Don’t Have Emotions, but People Do

It’s true that the idea of emotion isn’t often discussed in strategy work, yet the people responsible for bringing it to life must feel an emotional connection for the issues demanding change and experimentation to gain interest, support, and traction.

Yawns and Confusion—Problems Start with the Process

In many settings, top management and a select group of contributors work with a consultant for weeks or months and do a solid job of boiling blue oceans, identifying chasms to cross and looking at opportunities for disruption. When they finally emerge after having spent untold hours processing on the issues in discussions with a small group of colleagues, they are convinced of their direction. They proudly present the strategy ideas to the rest of the organization, and instead of trumpets and accolades, they get at best a big yawn and at worst, a fear-inducing reaction.

The yawns occur when the strategy sounds like more of the same, or it so incoherent as to suggest it’s just another programs-of-the-month that will eventually disappear. The meeting ends, and people go back to their desks and jobs wishing they could have that wasted time again to focus on more important matters.

Confusion followed by fear is the more toxic reaction to new strategy pronouncements, and this occurs when the prevailing theme of the strategy is, “Everything must change.” This theme and tone ignite the dark side in people’s minds with everyone simultaneously asking themselves: “What does this mean for me?” This strategy is doomed moments after it is unveiled.

The situation grows worse as the company-wide strategy presentations are followed by a series of smaller group activities where employees discuss the strategy, raise questions, and are expected to begin thinking about doing something different. Unfortunately, the lack of positive emotional attachment that comes from long consideration and deep understanding of the factors surrounding the strategy translates to half-hearted and extra credit attempts at implementation that prove spotty at best.

The Flip-Side—When the Process Embraces the Need for Emotional Connectivity

With some adjustments to the broader process of forming and then bringing strategy to life, the outcome improves dramatically. The primary change in approach involves bringing the entire organization along for the strategy ride in real time.

A Case Study in Creating Emotional Connectivity to Strategy:

One organization struggled for several years to define a way out of the morass of a legacy market—an issue faced by many established and long successful firms in this era of change. It took a new CEO promoted from within the ranks who understood and respected the legacy, but who had a fierce commitment to setting the organization up for new successes to get it right.

The CEO’s approach to strategy was one of full-scale involvement in understanding the situation and framing the challenges facing the firm in upcoming years. While there wasn’t universal agreement on the need to move away from the legacy market—many had creative ideas for benefitting from this cash cow—there was agreement across the organization that a new direction was needed to secure the firm’s future.

As the core strategy team processed on ideas and approaches over the months, each member was chartered with the task of bringing the ideas back to their respective teams and gaining additional insight or identifying fresh questions. This organizational iteration proved essential in thinking through the issues of change and recognizing the need for new talent and new skillsets—both critical components of the eventual execution plan.

When the final pieces of the strategy puzzle were identified, the CEO eschewed the typical company-wide powerpoint and tasked top managers and strategy team contributors with educating the broader organization in a series of small-group sessions. Instead of telling how people had to change, these groups left that choice in the hands of the people responsible for implementing the change. Each breakout group was responsible for answering, “What does this mean for us?” and “How do we bring this to life?”

Ultimately, a series of projects emerged around self-managing teams accountable for creating the approaches, systems, and structures needed to implement their part of the strategy work. A centralized strategy execution team with members drawn from the working groups provided oversight and facilitated learning and adjustment. Within eighteen months, this entire organization looked and acted differently as the pieces came together to form a coherent way forward, propelled by individuals deeply invested and attached to their role in the new strategy work. The emotional connection between the need for success with the new strategy and the individuals in the organization was strong.

12 Ideas to Help Strengthen Employee Emotional Connection with Strategy

While no laundry list of actions reasonably captures the hard-work necessary to gain widespread buy-in to strategy, this is a great set of starters drawn from our case above:

1. Assume no one understands why a new strategy or strategy refresh is needed. Engage everyone in creating a shared understanding of market drivers demanding change.

2. Frame the challenge of “What next?” as an organization-wide challenge.

3. Draw liberally from all levels of the organization to create your core strategy team.

4. Keep the process transparent and make certain strategy team members actively share thinking and ask for help from their teams.

5. Involve customers and ecosystem partners in the process.

6. Involve objective outsiders to challenge assumptions and your firm’s dominant logic.

7. Task employee work groups with running down different strategic hypotheses.

8. Give people a chance to voice ideas and concerns over new directions.

9. Give control over implementation to the broader employee group by creating a project portfolio.

10. Embed and continually reinforce the need for learning and adaptation. There should be constant fine-tuning of strategy as it moves from idea to implementation to market action.

11. Use the 3W’s questions regularly! What’s working? What’s not? What do we need to change to succeed?

12. Celebrate the successes and make heroes out of the strategy participants.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

When people are respected and invested in the process of strategy, they feel connected to the work. This emotional connection ultimately translates into commitment and raw determination applied in pursuit of success. It turns out, you don’t need to solve for the unifying theory of physics in your strategy work, but you do need to harness the locomotive power of the group. Forging an emotional connection with the work is an essential step down the road to success.

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