Setting The Scene

I can remember it like yesterday. It was the most important day of my life. I of course did not know this then…

I sat nervously in the luxuriously decorated reception of an iconic old-school merchant bank, mentally running over my presentation, ensuring I had the key messages firmly fixed in my mind. I’d not slept for two days; a heady mixture of excitement, adrenaline and coffee keeping me going – today was a big day for me!

I had launched my consultancy just over a year ago and was yet to make my first sale. As good as I felt about the groundwork put in place the past year, the growing sales pipeline had not yet converted and my finances were starting to feel the strain. Alongside all this, my wife and I were blessed with the arrival of a beautiful baby girl – whilst being a new father was without doubt a wonderful experience – the new parental responsibility at this time was sobering.

The buzzing of my mobile phone interrupted my thoughts. When I pulled the mobile out, Jon Daniels name was flashing on the display. It was to Jon [not real name] that I was due to present this morning. As soon as I answered the phone, Jon launched into a massive change of plan…

“Hi Ian, listen something has come up and I’ll have to reschedule this morning’s meeting. What are your plans for the rest of the day? We are hosting a corporate four-ball at our (golf) club this afternoon and my team are one (person) down. Can you join us to make up the numbers? You could walk me through the salient points of the pitch over the front nine (holes).”

I was an average golfer at best – and the prospect of walking Jon through my proposal whilst attempting to hit a tiny ball with a very long stick terrified me…

It’s All About Execution

Sorry to pull you out of the story so abruptly! There’s no better way to illustrate the effect of a story, than by telling one.

Hands up! I confess that I love a good story. But in this case, there is an excellent reason…  Story – or corporate story – otherwise known as strategic narrative, is a crucial transformational tool that my team and I use to help senior teams visualise and bring corporate vision to life. We use strategic narrative because it acts as a highly effective vehicle for in-depth collaborative exploration; it also provides a highly effective lens to land the vision onto the ground in the real world.

I take the view that organisations are built for people. I also take the view that the purpose and role of corporate vision is to rally, galvanise and align a work population (and external stakeholders) behind the new direction and way – its purpose is all about execution.  Moreover the more meaningful, collaborative and inclusive the development methods used; the more effective and transformational the corporate vision will be.

Throughout the following article, I will endeavour to share my practical experience of what it takes to connect corporate vision and strategy to the daily running of the business. I will also do my level best to unpack the thinking in a practical and accessible way.

What Is An Effective Corporate Vision?

When working with leadership teams, I often find it is valuable to get everyone on the same page quickly. One technique that I find useful is to get the team using a commonly understood and agreed language to express the ideas and technical concepts likely to bubble-up during visualisation activities. Similarly with this article, I should first clarify my use of the term ‘corporate vision’ and what I mean when I use the phrase ‘effective corporate vision’ in this context.

For corporate vision to qualify as being ‘effective’, it should be considered within a broader context than the too narrow, stale and ambiguous vision statements that we are all familiar with and regularly use today. My problem with these kinds of statements is that they fail to fulfil the real purpose and nature of corporate vision – which in my view is to provide clear meaningful direction and guidance – similar to how a compass and map work together.

When giving instructions, it’s not enough to just say “climb the mountain”, people need to understand which mountain to climb – why it is worth climbing – what is expected of them during the climb – who else is involved – what climbing kit and training they have available – and what’s in it for them when they reach the summit.

To be considered effective, experience has taught me that the vision should inform and explicitly connect with strategic delivery planning and the operations day-to-day. The vision should be clearly understood by all who have a role in making it happen (i.e. it must be realistically implementable) and the vision should also encapsulate the envisaged aspired future state. Framed in this context, the vision must be capable of overarching and informing all follow-on delivery activity with clear and meaningful direction and guidance provided.

Similar to a ‘north star’ the vision must provide clear direction to help people and teams successfully navigate change even in the most complex and challenging environments, keeping them on track at all times. With this definition, there is no room for abstract or ambiguity in the messaging.

A carefully constructed vision with the right characteristics (vision architecture) can also be a very flexible mechanism for change. It is literally capable of being what you want it to be and will be effective so long as; (1) you remain crystal clear what the vision is intended to achieve; (2) you are clear how you plan to use it; and (3) you are clear who will use it (i.e. clearly targeted stakeholder audiences).

Corporate vision is capable of visualising what success looks like, defining functional and technical capability and articulating organisation values and associated ways-of-working. It is also capable of meaningfully crystallising the nature of customer relationships as well as the customer experience. With its flexibility, a corporate vision can also target specific areas of an enterprise; such as a business unit, function or discrete team. When the vision is used in this way, it must consider and align with the broader organisation agenda. For more detailed information on vision-led organisation design, click on the following links:

A Working Definition Of Corporate Vision

The working definition of ‘corporate vision’ that I use is as follows. A corporate vision:

  • Provides clarity, focus and energy to the leadership as well as providing direction, hope and belief to the wider work population.
  • Provides context for alignment across the organisation – joining-up strategic performance indicators, structural capabilities, business activities, ways-of-working, decision-making, prioritisation, behaviour et al.
  • Provides a behavioural framework that leadership can embed.
  • Serves as a foundation for a broader strategic plan.
  • Articulates differentiation and/or an organisation USP.
  • Acts as a high-level roadmap, articulating what the organisation wants to become – guiding transformational initiatives by articulating strategic intent and setting a defined clear and understandable direction.
  • Behaves similarly to an Ikea instruction guide, providing practical, clear and meaningful guidance and instructions.
  • Provides an aspirational description of what a company would like to achieve or accomplish in the mid-term and/or long-term future.
  • Serves as a clear guide for choosing current and future courses of action – designed to both inform and direct decision-making, behaviour and prioritisation.
  • Promotes supports and enables successful execution of the organisational game plan – articulating what it wants to do, how it wants to do it, where, when, who-with and who-to.

Example corporate vision traits include:

  • Inspiring: motivates and engages employees and is something that employees view as desirable and useful.
  • Generic: general enough to encompass all of the organisation’s interests and strategic direction.
  • Challenging: not something that can be easily met and discarded, but realistically achievable.
  • Concise: able to be easily evangelised, remembered and repeated.
  • Clear: articulates goals and objectives in a plain understandable (accessible) way.
  • Time horizon and maturity: defines a timeline and the corresponding maturity of the organisation over time.
  • Future-oriented: describes where the company is going from tomorrow, this assumes that everything that is working today and applicable in the future (tomorrow) will be carried forward/continued.
  • Stable: offers a long-term perspective and is unlikely to be impacted by short-term environmental trends or changes.

Please note: the above definition is intended for guidance purposes only; it is neither definitive nor exhaustive. The most important thing to bear in mind is to have your own organisation definition readily available in your back pocket when building your vision.

The Value Of Vision-led Execution

Research published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) in 2009 resonates with my experiences of the challenges and opportunities my clients regularly face when they have attempted to build their corporate vision.

“Being forward-looking, envisioning exciting possibilities and enlisting others in a shared view of the future, is the attribute that most distinguishes leaders from non-leaders. We know this because we asked followers.”

The HBR research I reference was validated through nearly 1 million responses. Below I have listed a few summary findings as well as my personal notes alongside for good measure.

“People want their leaders to be visionaries that ask the following questions. What’s new? What’s next? What’s better?”

  • Side Note:Visionaries that ask these questions tend to be people-oriented leaders, as opposed to task oriented. People-oriented leaders engage, empower, energise, excite and rally (I ran out of e-words!) their people behind a meaningful cause – and compelling story of the future.

“People want a shared vision of the future that reflects the aspirations, dreams and reality of the wider population (not just the personally imposed views of the very few).”

  • Side Note: People can feel a sense of powerlessness or isolation and react with fear, hatred or injustice to change occurring around them. In order to engage and galvanise people to the cause, the vision needs to articulate a promise of change that people can relate to. In small measure at least, people need to be able to recognise their own working reality within the image that is being shared.

“Leaders struggle to communicate an image of the future that engages, connects with and draws others in – that speaks to what others see and feel in a meaningful way.”

  • Side Note: Too many leaders’ images of the future rely on inaccessible language that is made up of corporate jargon and words that confuse, frustrate and turn people off. The future needs to be crystallised in a plain understandable way – through the articulation of clear meaningful outcomes that everyone can easily visualise and work towards.

This research really connected with what I have personally observed. When I canvass for feedback during change initiatives, common themes of similar nature surfaced repetitively. I found that people wanted to understand:

  • What the vision would achieve
  • How their leadership got to the vision
  • Why the vision initiative was important
  • How and where they fitted in the vision

They wanted to connect with the vision on a personal level – to see a reflection of themselves within the vision. They also wanted to walk beside the leadership while the goals and vision were being shaped. Without exception, the only visions that I have seen take hold and deliver meaningful results are visions that were shared visions – and these can only be created when the broader population are listened-to very, very carefully.

Modelling Strategic Intent With Execution In Mind

When modelling strategic intent, everything that my team and I do is ‘built to be used’. Translated this means that the corporate vision visualisation process is geared to develop and model the upfront thinking in a user-friendly and accessible way, so that it informs, directs and guides all follow-on transformation activity. This approach ensures that high-order thinking is central to all follow-on design, planning and delivery activity – providing a mechanism that ensures activity is joined up with the senior strategic intent front-and-centre at all times.

When modelling strategic intent, one of the primary objectives is to build a cohesive leadership consensus around a compelling and clear vision for the future. To achieve this I implement two parallel processes working in harmony together. A visualisation process provides a virtualised environment geared to support collaboration, co-creation and in-depth group exploration, with an additional sprinkle of group therapy to tackle roadblocks that would not otherwise be addressed back at work. An interconnected cognitive process also enables me to visualise, simulate, shape and land the senior leadership thinking onto the ground in a clear, meaningful way (aka strategic thinking, technical concepts and creative ideas).

A blend of left and right brain creative techniques enables me to model the senior leadership thinking in a similar way to how architects and engineers work. If you picture how an iconic engineering organisation such as Rolls-Royce produces visual blueprints to build their turbine engines (see Fig. 4), you will not be too far from imagining how my team and I go about modelling the strategic intent that forms a corporate vision. The uniquely creative process is designed to involve select stakeholders that are not directly involved in the visualisation activities/workshops – in particular, key business stakeholders and the non-technical user community – leading to a better-designed and business-ready vision geared to support and enable follow-on planning and execution.

The Visualisation Process Unpacked

The corporate vision is iteratively explored, developed and honed through a series of highly collaborative visualisation activities. The activities are geared to generate outcome-based thinking that is rich in meaning. This thinking is captured in multiple formats as well as consolidated into briefing packs to support and enable the briefing and onboarding of people not directly involved in the iterative process (aka workshop activities). The ability to engage a broader base of stakeholders in the development process ensures that the vision is grounded in the business reality (i.e. not built on biased or inaccurate thinking) – manifests as a shared vision that is understandable and accessible – and is recognised on a personal level from the board down to the frontline.

The visualisation activities integrate creative and collaborative techniques and environments to engage stakeholders, provide big-picture understanding, ignite group genius, build consensus, accelerate implementation activity and deliver business value quickly. During the visualisation activities, experienced facilitators often employ accelerated learning and high-performance team techniques to create an environment where serious business thinking and unrestrained possibility thinking co-exist.

The visualisation activities are specifically designed to engage and harness the skills and knowledge across the organisation to produce a corporate vision that is clearly understood, identified with and believed in (see Fig. 5 below).

 

Cognitive Process Unpacked

The cognitive process relates to all human intellectual activity such as thinking, reasoning, imagining, remembering and learning. As human beings, our understanding of our surroundings (reality, context, and how things connect and work together) are represented by visual imagery, story and metaphor – all of which animated by our personal and collective experience.

To catalyse deep interactive engagement that leads to high levels of group creativity, innovation and breakthrough thinking, I have developed a portfolio of techniques that address how people think, how they work in groups and how to get them to think more clearly, more deeply, and more productively together.

  • Narrative Transport

When developing your corporate vision it is important to remember that the battle for hearts and minds starts with the heart. Storytelling influences how human beings think and behave, we are all hard-wired to respond to stories.

Individual stories are more convincing than data… nobody ever stormed a castle because of a pie chart. People accept ideas more readily when their minds are in ‘story mode’, rather than ‘analytical mode’.

The viral marketing of ideas depends first and foremost on stories… for an idea to pass from one person to another; it must be contained in something that can be easily transmitted, just as a disease will spread within a human population via a highly contagious virus. A good story is precisely that kind of container.

  • Structured Thinking

To enrich and accelerate group collaboration I use a range of thinking techniques that frame, structure, organise, develop and test executive thinking (mostly in group/team environments). Example exploratory techniques I apply include; defining context, comparing and contrasting, classification, relationship mapping (part/whole), sequencing, cause and effect, use of metaphor and analogy. I also use a range of classic strategy exploration techniques such as environment scan (aka pestel) and swot analysis. Also, I have developed a handful of my own methods; one example is called ‘decision value chain’ which is a twist on Porter’s value chain analysis. If you would like more information on how I explore and map the decision value chain, this is available in a previous thought piece here…

The ‘classic strategy techniques’ are integrated into a narrative format to avoid bullet-point output thinking that lacks meaning. The prime mechanism for collaborative exploration is via a series of smart questions that tee-up group discussion with the output thinking captured in varying forms of story format that leads to a clear understanding and insight.

  • Pure Language

Language is the everyday tool for thinking, communication of ideas and collaboration, with words used as the vehicle for transport between people. When words lack meaning, are too abstract or ambiguous, this can create confusion, misinterpretation and misunderstanding. In a strategy execution context, the lack of shared meaning can often lead to significant frustration, cost and risk. As human beings, we all think slightly differently. Our individual life experiences also alter our personal understanding of the language and words used. Our mental models are highly visual and are in the majority communicated through language. The challenge is that quite often our mental models of language often differ from each other. Different people can use even the same word in different ways. This creates a risk of misunderstanding and misalignment that can severely impact business performance. Particularly, when articulating a strategy and expecting everyone to understand, and act on it.

When modelling the corporate vision – via a series of visualisation workshops – to overcome the risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the language used, I ensure that ambiguity, abstract as well as management and technical speak are avoided. Where appropriate, I even ensure that keywords, terms or phrases are defined to ensure everyone is clear and working on the same page with the exact same understanding.

  • Visual Thinking

Drawing on the research of how humans see and understand the visual world around us, visual thinking spans visual perception, neuroscience, colour theory, graphic design, media theory, visual storytelling, and information design. The visual thinking techniques I use, focus on improving ways for people to work better and more effectively together. The visual thinking approaches I apply are inspired by how architects and engineers work. The evolution of computer graphics and social media has been folded into my approach, with the addition of the latest thought leadership on systems thinking (how natural systems organise and connect to each other).

We are all hard-wired to think visually – capturing complex issues in visual form; using models, mind-maps, tables, symbols and pictures enable individuals and groups of people to understand and engage more effectively together. Visualisation is a powerful way to resolve confusion in groups that arise from inadequate or conflicting mental models. This is crucial when those models involve our ideas of how work gets done, how teams cooperate, how to make decisions, how to organise and how to learn. A considerable amount of time in meetings is spent working out these differences. A picture up on a wall or a computer screen creates a visual target for groups of people to explore, debate and challenge – this makes problem-solving very much easier as it is collaborative and effectively draws on the group genius – while also creating a cohesive single perspective and team. Much of our understanding of systems and how things work together is represented through visual imagery. When helping senior teams to develop their corporate vision, I apply cutting-edge visual techniques to help ground and test the business thinking in a real, meaningful and whole-system way.

Strategic Narrative – Mechanism For Building A Shared Vision

A strategic narrative (aka corporate story) is the ideal mechanism to collaboratively identify and shape strategic intent into a coherent vision capable of informing and framing policy.

I have found the process of developing a strategic narrative the most effective way to get a group of senior leaders working on the same page. The story creation process provides an element of group therapy, providing space and quality airtime for the senior leadership to work through conflicting perspectives – that otherwise might never have been addressed in the workplace.

I have also found that strategic narrative is the optimal mechanism to support and enable vision-led design. It addresses a range of critical elements that need to be tackled when translating strategy into meaningful execution. For brevity reasons I will list the top three benefits gained from a strategic narrative:

  1. The strategic narrative is a powerful mechanism to generate a shared senior leadership consensus view of the future state. Gaining an on-message senior team always accelerates follow-on delivery because everyone is working on the same page with a clear agreed mandate to proceed.
  2. The strategic narrative places a practical container on the strategic intent. Providing clear and meaningful terms of reference wired to inform follow-on delivery.
  3. The strategic narrative is capable of articulating the new strategic direction to the organisation and vital external stakeholder audiences in an accessible, user-friendly and richly meaningful way – connecting the head and heart to the new initiative in equal measure – providing a clear ‘north star’ for everyone to align behind (see Fig. 7).

The Strategic Narrative Value:

A strategic Narrative is a powerful tool that captures strategic thinking, complex technical concepts and creative ideas in a way that everyone can understand, identify with and believe in. It is also capable of:

  • Translating strategy into meaningful execution;
  • Generating a mandated consensus leadership view – with full executive sponsorship;
  • Providing clear leadership direction. Enabling the leadership to implement effective joined-up oversight across the organisation in a practical and engaging way;
  • Providing a governance framework (with decision rules) that describe what success looks and feels like – informing and guiding decision-making, ways-of-working and behaviour;
  • Providing clear terms of reference for the project and business design teams to unpack;
  • Positioning and facilitating the change in a respectful way;
  • Accelerating engagement by helping leaders appear more human when communicating the story;
  • Creating an inclusive environment;
  • Reinforcing important strategic messages and company values; and
  • Assisting employees to retain the critical information required to execute the game plan.

Bridging The Chasm Between Strategy & Execution

The corporate vision approach that I describe in this article has been developed since 2002. During this time, I have cherry-picked, blended and road-tested thought leadership from a wide range of experts in the fields of strategy, change, psychology (including sports psychology), anthropology, sociology and philosophy. The many theoretical nuggets of wisdom were put through a ‘can it be practically applied’ test, with only the successful concepts that I could apply in the real world adopted.

With all the thought leadership that I have drawn-on over the years, I think there is real value in name-checking a particular book written by Morgan, Levitt and Malek called ‘Executing Your Strategy: How To Break It Down & Get It Done’. The thinking within this book, published by Harvard Business School Press in 2008, provided an immensely helpful lens that helped frame and join-up my practitioner ideas and concepts into this uniquely fresh approach. Some of the concepts from the book are referenced in the following section – in particular, the ‘Stanford Execution Framework’.

For brevity reasons, I have sketched a selection of concepts that I have experienced are required to successfully ‘bridge the chasm’ between strategy and execution:

  • Connecting Strategic Intent To Delivery

Michael Porter previously stated; “the essence of strategy is in the activities – choosing to perform activities differently or to perform different activities than rivals. Otherwise, a strategy is nothing more than a marketing slogan that will not withstand competition.” Similarly, Dr Lawrence Hrebriniak, a highly respected professor on strategy and strategy implementation at the Wharton Business School likewise stated; “execution is a process. It is not the result of a single decision or action. It is the result of a series of integrated decisions or actions over time.” In this context of strategy execution; activities, integrated decisions and actions are all delivered through projects. When translating vision and strategy into meaningful implementation, we need to make the explicit connection between ‘strategic intent’ and ‘project delivery’.

Vision: The language of strategy formulation covers high-level concepts such as organisation purpose, vision, mission, intent and identity. It connects this collective who, what, and why with the corporate culture and appropriate structure, and with the goals and metrics that will be used to measure strategic success.

Action: The language of the project portfolio covers the specifics of getting things done – who, how, when, and with which resources. It links the strategic project investments with ongoing operations and supports the transfer of new capabilities to the frontline.

Connecting Vision To Action: In the human brain there is a clever piece of kit called the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum has the very important job of linking the two brain hemispheres to align a person’s actions with their visions and intentions.  Similar to the corpus callosum, a strategic narrative connects an organisations vision and strategic intent to action.

  • You Need To Get People To Care First

It is my experience that you cannot execute without active engagement. ‘How’ collaboratively and inclusively you approach the development process is just as important as ‘what’ activities you choose to do. I am not suggesting that you adopt a management by committee approach – far from it. However, I do advise that a broad base of the right stakeholders are included to ensure the thinking that underpins your corporate vision is business ready – i.e. robust, clear, meaningful, precise, concise, accessible, user-friendly, useful, inspiring et al

“I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.”

From extensive experience helping people and teams navigate change, one of the biggest lessons that I have learned is that you first need to get your people to care if you want them to engage actively. It is my experience that even the most precise and polished strategy will not achieve its potential if the staff responsible for making it happen are disengaged… they won’t bother reading or owning the strategic messaging or guidance material they are handed. The need for meaningful engagement is one reason why storytelling is a valuable part of the corporate vision development process.

  • It’s Not Magic. It’s Neurology.

In a study at Princeton University, scientists found that when we listen to a well-told story, our brain responds as if we are inside the story ourselves, we also feel a powerful connection to the storyteller.

I’m sure you have all heard that storytelling is essential in business. That it’s a powerful tool that can generate a lasting impact. Why is this?

Have you ever been in an audience when someone is telling a story on stage? Maybe at a theatre or TED-style talk. Notice how it feels like there is magic in the air? It’s not magic. It’s neurology. If we were to put you in an MRI machine and tell you a story (like at the beginning of this article!), the parts of your brain that would light up are called Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. They are the data processing regions of your brain (see Fig. 9 below).

Storytelling has the power to engage, influence, teach and inspire listeners. When applied in the right way, storytelling can be a highly useful tool to develop, evangelise and execute the corporate vision.

We’ve all listened to (and suffered through) long PowerPoint presentations. Even if the presenter is animated, when we hear information being ticked off in a dry transactional way, the language processing parts in our brain get to work translating those bullet points into story form where we can find our own meaning. The problem with this, however, is that the story we come up with in our mind may not be the same one the speaker intends to convey (through data) – in the context of strategy execution this presents a significant risk. Conversely the more a speaker expresses information in story form, the closer the listener’s experience and understanding will be to what the speaker intended.

Perhaps most importantly, storytelling is central to meaning-making and sense-making. It is through the story that our minds form and examine our truths and beliefs, as well as discern how they correlate with the realities and beliefs of others. Through story, we gain new perspectives and a better understanding of the world around us. We challenge and expand our knowledge by exploring how others see and understand the world through their lens.  This enhanced collective intelligence and increased team cohesion – on an organisation-wide scale – feed through to stronger, more consistent and more effective execution.

It is my experience that when we listen to a good story – rich in detail, full of metaphor, expressive of character – we tend to imagine ourselves in the same situation. Can you think of a better way to help people understand, buy-in and eventually, hopefully, own the vision as if they came up with the idea themselves?

Ultimately, storytelling is about the exchange of ideas. A corporate vision is the ultimate enterprise idea – articulating an organisation’s future state – what success looks and feels like – and in a richly meaningful way that everyone can clearly understand, identify with and believe in.

  • Maintaining Momentum By Walking The Talk

While eating lunch with my team in the company cafeteria, I recall watching our very animated CEO being interviewed by CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The interview was fascinating, and our CEO was both visionary and immensely engaging when sharing what our organisation was focused on. Heck, the message my CEO was evangelising was great! If I had not been part of the organisation already, I would have signed up immediately!  Unfortunately, and much to my surprise and dismay, when comparing my personal (real world) work experiences and the company messaging I had been receiving, I did not recognise an awful lot of what our CEO shared with the CNBC news anchor that day – suffice to say that I found this profoundly troubling at the time.

The disconnect that I experienced above is much more common than many executives realise – it is incredibly demoralising for a workforce and a significant threat. If the corporate messaging does not congruently align with the real world – aka critical activities, projects and initiatives – successful execution is impossible.

When translating strategy into meaningful execution, a fundamental question we need to ask frequently is “how do we know when we will get there?” It is no good having a great sounding corporate vision if the vision does not connect strategic intent and direction to future outcomes. To clearly understand whether ‘everyone is walking in the same direction’, I advise you to take an enterprise-wide look at what the organisation is doing, rather than saying. A good start would be to take a good look at the previous two years investment and project activity.

  • Clear Direction With Decision Rules

I also recall a conversation when presenting to a significant client prospect. My audience at the time was a new-in-post COO who was shaking things up and seeking a fresh approach to strategic engagement. To illustrate an important concept I told the COO the following story…

To set the scene… I was a middle manager in a large listed organisation. At this time, market analysts were hammering my CEO because they took the view that he did not have a firm grip on the company’s margin. Unsurprisingly this hammering filtered down to our fortnightly all-hands call that our CEO regularly chaired. Month-after-month we were repeatedly told that we needed to ‘execute better’. While I clearly understood and completely agreed that it was our collective role to interpret and make this instruction happen, it struck me that after a year of our CEO demanding that we ‘execute better’; he never took the time to explain in a practical or understandable way what ‘execute better’ meant to him.

At this point in the story, the COO interrupted me by saying; “it’s not the CEO’s job to unpack the strategic direction, it’s down to his leadership team and you!”

My gentle response to this was; “if after a prolonged period the organisation still does not ‘get it’, a different more meaningful message is required for people and teams to unpack. Doing or saying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result does not work.”  Suffice to say that my response was not received well and the presentation ended shortly after.

In the absence of clear direction, people will apply their own decision rules – which can prove fatal for corporate performance (see Fig. 11 below).

Translating Vision Into Valuable Frontline Delivery

The process of translating corporate vision into strategic initiatives, then into a portfolio of projects, is more straightforward when there are clear and meaningful terms of reference to inform and guide the design and planning process.

Alongside clear direction, companies need to be responsive and disciplined when executing the game plan.  Translated, this means effectively monitoring and aligning project-based work to match the shifting change environment (both internally and externally). This is because the clean and stable logic of strategic delivery gets messy in the real world. To successfully navigate, the planned project portfolio and the actual project portfolio need to be ready to change as-and-when required.

In the heat of complex and challenging transformation delivery, companies need a well-defined, coordinated and transparent process that connects thinking to doing. With this in mind, I have listed some of the things that help ensure the corporate vision is front-and-centre to all follow-on delivery:

  • Key Building Blocks Of A Successful Transformation (Focus & Priority):
    • Gain leadership buy-in and consensus – without this the transformation won’t go anywhere.
    • Achieve a mandate with effective governance – without this you won’t get anything done.
    • Develop clear direction (terms of reference) with aligned target operating model – without this you won’t know where your going and why.
  • Essential Transformation Elements:
    • Governance – an essential element involves agreeing how decision-rights and accountabilities are communicated and assigned to the project teams and executives. An equally important aspect touches on the relationships between the organisation’s leadership, the leadership and project teams, and other stakeholders within a structure through which the objectives of the organisation are set and delivered – with performance monitored.
    • Assurance – effective assurance helps us understand what’s really going on with our projects (aka meaning). Project Managers need a clear view of what’s happening on their projects so they can manage them effectively. Executives need a clear picture of what’s happening across the project portfolio, so that they can make effective decisions. Both Project Managers and Executives need to see what is really happening so they can learn quick lessons about what is working and isn’t working.
    • Reporting – ensuring communication flow, the accuracy of information and the information goes to the right people at the right time. Providing oversight of project progress, project activity accomplished and project health (ideally in a user-friendly format).
  • Strategy Development:
    • Execution Framework – effective strategy execution requires a system-wide approach that consistently drives the company to do the right things – and do those things right. Such an approach helps identify, map out and prioritise the necessary project investments so that everyone understands what he or she must do to execute effectively.

Executives often speak of high-level strategy outcomes, rather than specific ‘Project Outputs’… moreover too often they fail to link the two. To help executives connect vision and strategy with meaningful project delivery, I apply design principles taken from the below ‘Stanford Execution Framework’ (see Fig. 12 below).

Unfortunately, for client non-disclosure reasons I am unable to share client work examples of the strategy development framework on public channels. If however you would like more information on the strategy development framework approach that I have developed, please feel free to contact me. There is also some additional information that can be found here…

  • A Practical Approach To Governance & Delivery

To ensure the corporate vision and strategic intent is central to all design, build and embedding activity I simultaneously utilise three transformation tools (see Fig. 14 below). The tools provide a practical bridge between strategy and execution and include:

  1. Strategic Narrative – production of a corporate story wired to engage the organisation as well as inform design, build and delivery of the journey of change. This is also a key mechanism that gains a mandated leadership consensus on the future direction (see Fig. 13 below).
  2. Strategy Development Framework – to connect strategic intent to project delivery explicitly. This ensures intent is front-and-centre of all design and delivery activity.
  3. Hi-Level Visual TOM – production of a multi-dimensional future state model of the organisation, utilising collaborative visualisation techniques with an emphasis on simplification through visual design.

Alongside the aforementioned transformation tools, there is a need to provide focused oversight to ensure decision-making aligns with the business direction and strategic imperatives/objectives. To ensure the appropriate oversight is in place with all transformation activity joined-up and aligned with strategic intent, I advise that a special ‘Linking Role’ is put in place. This role typically takes on a TOM Director or Manager title with the responsibility of providing focused support to both the Executive Sponsor and Programme Director, ensuring all design, planning and delivery is fully aligned to the vision and strategic intent. The following governance model illustrates how this approach works (see Fig. 14 below).

Final Thought

If by this point I have still managed to keep your attention, you might be wondering how the introductory story at the top of the article ended (and my round of golf went).

Well it went both terribly and wonderfully! …my golf was pants (no surprise there) – and I eventually won the contract.

After successful delivery of the contract, I enquired why I had been selected. Being a small SME I was by far the riskier choice on a vendor shortlist that included representation from the Big-4.

The reason for my winning was that I had been accurate and succinct when explaining the challenges – I had also painted a compelling vision of the solution that I was proposing to lead. What sealed my selection was the simple fact that I achieved this whilst navigating trees, ponds and bushes whilst hacking terribly at a tiny ball.

The ability to download complex concepts while in a challenging environment – and in a way that was clearly understood, identified with and believed in – was the determining factor that led to my succeeding. Is this not what corporate vision is fundamentally about …the articulation of a big enterprise idea that helps you and the organisation succeed.