Most of us in our working lives have been exposed to what I describe as a trickle-down strategy process. Effectively, the work of baking the strategy starts from on high and flows downward rushing like a waterfall at the top, trailing off to a slow, ineffectual trickle at lower levels. This top-down strategy process fails to quench anyone’s thirst for context, relevance, or motivation to change.

While the ideas might be solid, no one where the work of change and business delivery takes place is sufficiently tuned-in or bought-in to the thinking. They haven’t had time to process on the issues and implications to bring the strategy to life in a substantive way. There’s nothing for them to consume or grasp, and subsequent meetings become abstract, events seemingly far removed from the daily work of the firm.

It’s Time to Re-Plumb the Trickle-Down Strategy Process

Unless you’re in a start-up or small business, it’s impossible to have everyone in the firm physically “in-the-room” for strategy sessions. However, using a strategy-as-a-continuous-process approach, it is possible and desirable to involve everyone in the work of strategy from ideation to execution. But first, you’ve got to re-plumb the trickle-down strategy process approach to something significantly more inclusive.

Where Trickle-Down Strategy Comes From:

This top-down method is widespread in large part because of outmoded or wrong-minded thinking of top managers on their role with strategy. Convention says the C.E.O. and senior executives “own” strategy. And while there is an ownership component, it’s less about defining strategy, and more about ensuring it is present, active, and living in the organization’s culture. Top management owns creating the environment for the strategy to come to life. They don’t own the process of defining strategy—that’s an inclusive activity.

Recognize This? Trickle-Down Strategy in Action:

The C.E.O. typically working with the management team plus a few contributors/experts cloister themselves in a series of meetings to create or refresh strategy. A high-priced consultant shows up, and vision is refined, the mission is affirmed, values reviewed and the situation and options S.W.O.T. ed around. Eventually, a consensus is reached on some lofty-sounding approach to growing the business, and words are thrifted and slide decks created.

Now, it’s time to roll the strategy out to the broader population.

Often, there’s some form of a company meeting to announce the new strategy. Then, the executives typically organize breakouts with their teams to trumpet the new strategy and answer questions.

Finally, department managers meet with their teams to explain what they know about the strategy from the slide decks and engage in a q/a that leaves everyone unsatisfied.

For the people doing the work and furthest away from the strategy baking process, they are left to revise their goals around some vague notion of strategy and provide yet additional updates on their progress.

Somewhere near the top of the organization, a cross-functional committee is established to ensure collaboration and self-report on progress.

Why Trickle-Down Strategy Approaches Fail:

This outmoded process effectively devalues the ideas and experience of the employee population. Ideas from individuals working the frontlines engaged with customers and dueling with competitors are mostly missing.

The people at the top who baked the strategy have had ample time to process and explore it from all angles. Individuals hearing it for the first time have zero context for the ideas and typically start with the elegant question/comment: “Huh?”

Strategy execution becomes a top-down driven mechanical process breeding work but not insight, ideation, and refinement.

It’s a bad process.

A Better Way—Strategy as a Continuous Process

Thinking about or rethinking where to deploy resources, how to compete, how to serve customers better, and where you might focus for new growth (to name a few strategy issues) must be part of the operating rhythm of an organization. Here are some approaches used by organizations who successfully adopt the strategy-as-a-continuous process approach.

5 Characteristics of Firms that Succeed with Strategy

1. Everyone is Involved in Talking About Strategy

For firms shifting from trickle-down to strategy as a continuous process, involving the broader population in discussions around what they see as challenges and opportunities is essential. The insights and ideas for bringing strategy-to-life are in the minds of the people doing the work.

  • Frontline employees understand customer pain points and competitor machinations.
  • Those removed from frontlines see process inefficiencies and execution problems as well as knowledge gaps on what’s important and what’s not.
  • Integrator leaders, especially product managers, see market and competitor issues as well as the internal complexities of bringing ideas to life.

All of these insights and the many others found inside organizations are part of the intelligence required for a clear strategy.

A process of engaging everyone and asking the right questions and then capturing these insights is priceless early in the process and mission-critical as the firm strives to implement new programs and approaches. People feel connected by providing input, and the work of figuring out how to do new things becomes relevant.

2. Emerging Thinking Is Widely Socialized, and Input is Valued

There’s always some group doing a bit of the deeper dive of strategy work. As much as inclusion is critical, some group owns the distillation of ideas and ultimate decisions. However, instead of doing this work in isolation, they socialize concepts and questions and look for near real-time feedback and input.

One management team sends core-team participants back to meet with their extended groups after every session. They cover the same ground, explore ideas, raise issues and questions, and the core-team members report back with insights and next-step suggestions.

Another group uses online tools to socialize strategy thinking and pose questions to the entire population. They effectively crowd-source input and approaches. By the time the strategy is adopted, everyone has had a chance to both hear about and participate in the work.

Of course, the key to engaging and involving others in the work of strategy is helping them feel comfortable in sharing questions, objections, and additional ideas. Management always owns creating this healthy working environment to support a free-flow of ideas.

3. Everyone Knows the Strategy.

Contrary to one firm I worked with where the C.E.O. kept the strategy locked in his office away from the eyes of competitors and employees, everyone in strategy-as-a-continuous process organizations must understand the strategy. Importantly, they must be able to connect their work and activities to the work of strategy execution.

Helping individuals understand strategy is part of on-boarding for new employees, and it is part of the regular dialog in one-on-ones, team meetings, and company events and communications.

4. People Learn to Time-Travel

Optimizing results in the short-term while creating the future is difficult in any circumstances. Firms with the right strategy-to-execution process help employees develop the skills and agility to balance today’s business demands while making headway on creating tomorrow’s new items. In consulting jargon, they become adept at flying the plane while simultaneously building the new one.

Management must provide the resources, systems, and support to enable and encourage this time-travel work. You build future strategies not by waiting until a moment in time and firing a starter gun, but rather running two races at the same time.

5. There’s a Learning Loop

One of the biggest mistakes in trickle-down strategy approaches is ignoring the need to create a vibrant, active learning loop. These firms typically roll out ideas, kick-off programs, and fail to build the systems and processes to reflect marketplace realities.

A robust learning-loop is essential for gaining marketplace experience and feedback and translating it into refinements to programs, methods, and approaches that work. Again, management owns ensuring this learning loop is alive and working.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The real work of succeeding with strategy transcends the deep-thought-thinking sessions typically attended by just a few players. The ideas, insights, and experiences of a firm’s broader population are essential for success in both developing and executing strategy. It’s time to say goodbye to trickle-down strategy approaches and start tapping into the energy, experience, and gray-matter of your entire firm.