Many companies focus on creating great change programmes. But there are three critical factors that are the key to successful implementation and execution.
The business world is experiencing rapid, unpredictable change and uncertainty. One industry after another has been turned upside-down by a new app or startup, changing the dynamics of competition and profitability. Even markets left relatively undisturbed still face changes to information available to consumers, the priorities of regulators, or changes to global trade relationships. Key to surviving large competitors and nimble upstarts alike is a well-designed and well-implemented strategy that allows both flexibility and clarity of purpose.
Strategy consulting, the most prestigious segment of management consulting, has become a $31 billion dollar industry, forming a cornerstone of the professional services market. But while most projects focus on implementing new strategies across the organisation, less thought is given to what happens when firms leave and the organisation is left to implement and execute on its own.
This is a mistake. A recent article by the Harvard Business Review’s blog identified execution as even more important than strategy development: “….a poorly-executed strategy, no matter how clever, is worthless.” The results are ultimately reflected in performance, with a McKinsey survey finding that companies with successful change implementation programmes may see as much as 30% better financial performance. Yet this hasn’t filtered through: just 25% of companies have a process in place to ensure that implementation is people-centred and thorough, which may explain the results of a 2005 study by Marakon Associates and the Economist Intelligence Unit finding that most companies realise only 63% of their strategies’ potential.
Good execution then, is even more important than good strategy design. And three critical areas, if managed effectively, can mean the difference between success and failure.
Step 1: Embedding strategy throughout the organisation
A strategy isn’t fully implemented until it’s understood and accepted at all levels. But this requires time and coordination to put in place.
The first step in successful strategy execution is making sure that the strategy is ‘embedded’, or understood and agreed throughout the organisation. A 2012 paper by Insead professor D. Charles Charles and Bertelsmann executive Immanuel Hermreck identified embeddedness as key to strategic success. And embeddedness, in turn, depends on how much senior managers take their message directly to employees. Relying on middle managers to cascade the strategy simply isn’t enough. The strategy needs to be communicated at all levels, in ways that are easy to understand, and linked to each person’s job requirements. However, this direct approach demands quite a bit of senior management’s time and resources.
This is where independent consultants can play a key role. By working closely with senior management, they can act both to support management and to feed back how the strategy is being understood and implemented at lower levels of the organisation. As the eyes and ears of the senior team, an independent workforce can do the work of interpreting and explaining initiatives that are complex or difficult to understand.
One area that is especially critical is decision-making and accountability. An in-depth Harvard Business School study identified decision rights as the most important element to successful strategy execution. Understanding who has responsibility for which decisions helps prevent management overreach as well as low accountability. The key is to strike the right balance of accountability and control: execution works best when managers up and down the line are involved at the right levels, decisions are rarely second-guessed, and senior management supports rather than commands. Getting to this level of clarity, however, only happens when employees both understand the strategy as well as their role in it.
This level of communication and support requires a significant amount of coordination, particularly if the organisation operates across multiple segments and markets. Given their experience with change programmes and flexibility working across sites and teams, independent consultants are a natural fit to address this. A team of independent professionals can help ensure there is greater clarity of roles and responsibilities, listen to concerns, and help employees course-correct.
As outsiders, independent consultants are more likely to get honest feedback on how things are going. For example, staff may confess limiting dynamics or criticism that they wouldn’t disclose to a member of the executive team. This can help independent consultants be more effective navigating challenges.
Resistance remains a reality for any change programme, and companies need to be prepared for it. Anxiety over new change programmes is to be expected. As employees see the organisation change, they may question their role in the transformed company or wonder how their jobs will continue to evolve. Others may simply disagree with the decisions made. These attitudes aren’t likely to change quickly, and are especially common in teams most affected by the change. This is a difficult hurdle for an executive tasked with ensuring a new strategy is implemented properly at all levels.
A paper by Deloitte recommends breaking through resistance by allowing employees to air their grievances and concerns, but bring solutions to fix problems. This process can be both cathartic and constructive, but will require managers and ambassadors equipped to run and manage these meetings. A team of independent professionals can work closely with senior management to ensure that solutions are aligned to the strategy. Done right, this can help turn resistors into ambassadors, motivating employees to implement the strategy and in turn contribute to its success.
Step 2: Changing culture by changing behaviours
Good change programmes require culture change. Independent consultants can lead the charge and model what’s expected.
A key element of any change programme is culture change. Without it, companies revert back to old ways of doing things, even with a clear strategic structure in place. Considered the ‘toughest task a manager will face’, changing behaviours is nevertheless critical to ensuring that a change programme is fully implemented.
And yet, it’s difficult to persuade people who have been working together a long time to interact in new ways. According to Wharton management professor Larry Hrebiniak, effective culture change requires “fresh blood and thinking” . Outside consultants can trigger the kinds of behaviour changes that are required for full implementation of a change programme, demonstrating what’s required as well as supporting managers implementing changes in their department.
In their book Blue Ocean Strategy, W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne cite the importance of managers focusing on institutional politics and finding change ambassadors to trigger culture change. With a professional, independent workforce that has deep experience in change programmes, this process can get fast-tracked. Independent consultants help reshape the culture by focusing on creating new norms of interaction, modelling desired behaviours and making new values the norm.
Culture is both a cause and result of behaviour change. As employees see new behaviours and interactions in place and achieving results, the culture gradually shifts to make this the norm. Similarly, as a new set of values is shared and agreed, behaviours that reflect this gradually follow. This process is also influenced by other elements in the corporate environment such as incentives, structures, reporting lines, and restrictions. Paying attention to these outside influences can help ensure that culture change can happen in line with expectations.
Step 3: Mobilising an On-Demand Workforce
Independent consultants can be a powerful tool to successful strategy execution. But they must have the right mix of experience and expertise, and come from outside existing networks.
Never before have there been so many skilled professionals working as free agents. A McKinsey Global Institute report identifies as much as 162 million people across Europe and the US alone as doing some form of independent work. And they’re being hired by companies that are hungry for expertise and eager to save money on costs. One study by EY found that 56% of companies used contract professionals to complete projects that were beyond the expertise of their existing workforce, and 55% cited cost considerations for this decision. And this trend is only likely to continue: Deloitte Consulting’s Human Capital Trends 2015 study found 51% of HR managers planned to increase their use of contract workers over the coming years.
This trend has taken off with the help of large digital platforms that aggregate talent and facilitate connections. Ranging from project values as low as $5 to multi-year projects, nearly any kind of consultant can be found. But while much of the focus has been on platforms at the lower end of the economy, the most notable rise has been in highly-skilled professionals who prefer independent work as a way to tailor their careers. Platforms such as Talmix feature highly-skilled career professionals with deep expertise in strategy and change programmes.
Using independent consultants effectively means assembling an on-demand workforce that is structured around project objectives and requirements. For example, change management implementation may require a team of professionals with industry or functional expertise. Consultants with backgrounds in finance, operations, or strategy can help provide both deep expertise as well as a fresh perspective. Professionals who have worked across multiple industries and companies in their corporate life may be especially valuable to help translate strategy into everyday activities.
Thinking about hiring an independent consultant?
Companies that are ready to start a new project need simply to contact a dedicated platform like Talmix.
These days, finding the right independent consultant has never been easier. Aggregated platforms such as Talmix connect talented professionals to relevant projects in a seamless way. With a workforce specialised in strategy, consulting, and major change programmes, Talmix is an effective way to match independent business talent to company needs. The rigorous application and resume submission process helps consultants screen themselves to ensure they are a good fit, and to demonstrate that they are experienced, knowledgeable, and committed to success. By the time an executive reviews applications, a selected number of qualified candidates are screened and prequalified. While Talmix’s platform contains over 27,000 independent consulting professionals, the screening and application process favours a good match over a high number of applications.
The Roman philosopher Seneca said "If a man does not know what port he is steering for, no wind is favourable." Similarly, a company can have the best products and services, but without a clearly-defined strategy it can all be meaningless. And while endless case studies and management consulting firms focus on designing a strategy, implementing it is even more important.
But with the complexities and uncertainty that comes with a change programme, senior management needs as much support as possible to ensure the message is clear and understood. A team of talented professionals can be their secret weapon. Communicating strategy at all levels, identifying areas misalignment, modelling desired behaviours and lending implementation expertise are all ways that professional consultants can add value to the organisation. And while finding the right mix of talent may have been a challenge in the past, platforms like Talmix make it easier than ever.
To find out more about Talmix and see a demo of how to post a project, get in touch.
About the Author
Kia has over 15 years in corporate and small business strategy, working closely with CEOs, business owners, investors, government agencies, and NGOs around the world on high-impact growth projects. With a focus on customer-centric strategy and innovative growth, Kia has published thought pieces on the role of disruptive technology in the future, and recently authored the strategy book Flashpoint 100: Radical Business Growth in 100 Days. Kia holds a BA in consumer psychology from Yale University and an MBA from Insead.More Content by Kia Davis