Strategic (Re)Thinking: Is Your Approach to Organizational Strategy Holding You Back?

Making your organizational strategy an iterative, evolving priority can help you compete and adapt to rapid change. And conversations and communication may be the key.

March 22, 2024

Strategic (Re)Thinking

Illustration by: iStock/Eoneren

Successful organizations are intentional with their strategy. Integrate it with planning, allow for input, adjust as needed — and keep communication open — to help your company be effective.

Jesper B. Sørensen is the Robert A. and Elizabeth R. Jeffe Professor and Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Sørensen, who also teaches in Executive Education programs, specializes in the dynamics of organizational and strategic change and its impact on individuals and their careers. His work offers insights into how you can rethink your approach to developing and communicating strategy to create a more agile and resilient organization.

Flexible Strategies Are Effective Strategies

For Sørensen, strategy is how you secure a company’s economic prosperity. That might mean maximizing profits, or, for a nonprofit, obtaining enough resources to sustain the organization and carry out the mission. What strategy isn’t, Sørensen clarifies, is planning. Planning concerns operations and factors you can control, while strategy has to take customers, suppliers, and unknowns you can’t control into account.

That’s why your game plan needs to continuously evolve. Strategy isn’t a static blueprint; you have to adjust it to new product lines, supply issues, revised goals, or broader industry developments. A winning strategy keeps up. If you’re only setting a strategy once a year — or every five — you’re not adapting to changing circumstances, and may be missing opportunities that would help your organization grow.

Organizational Strategy Is Everybody’s Business

Importantly, strategy shouldn’t only come from the top down — Sørensen maintains that the best strategies are conversations, not issued commands. In fact, one of the biggest misconceptions about strategy is that it’s solely the CEO’s responsibility. This mindset disempowers managers and employees and keeps them from engaging fully with the strategy. “If you have any real responsibility in the organization, you’re doing strategy,” Sørensen points out.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Developing a flexible, relevant strategy is crucial, but it’s only half the battle. You also need to clearly communicate to your teams what that strategy is and get them on board. So how can you do that effectively?

First, construct a strategy argument — made up of a set of clearly stated assumptions that lead to a conclusion — that explains how you’re going to succeed. Then, create a compelling story around your strategy argument and “relentlessly communicate” it, advises Sørensen. Use logic to create a clear, coherent narrative that lays out the steps you’re taking to convince colleagues to buy in.

The more you can communicate your reasoning, the better off you’ll be.
Jesper B. Sørensen

“Letting people into your mind and saying ‘here’s what I’m thinking’ helps them do a better job,” he notes. “The more you can communicate your reasoning and what your logic is, the better off you’ll be.”

An added bonus? Leaders are often reluctant to delegate work, but when you know you’ve clearly communicated your strategy and the thinking behind it, it’s easier to depend on others to act in your place.

And note: Just as strategy should be both top down and bottom up, communication should also run both ways. Encourage employees to argue constructively and present their case for making a change. Leaders need to be able to listen, hear the logic behind the argument, and recognize when they need to change course.

Put Your Approach into Action

Here are some best practices to help you create — and effectively communicate — a winning strategy:

  • Review your strategy often and be flexible. Examine what’s working well — and what isn’t — and adjust accordingly, taking changes in the organization or industry into account.
  • Encourage everyone in the organization to offer feedback and input, emphasizing that strategy is part of their job. When team members have a stake in creating strategy, they’ll be more invested in implementing it.
  • Develop a coherent strategy argument that plainly outlines how the strategy applies to operations and broader goals. Clearly convey the thinking and the logical steps behind your argument to ensure greater buy-in.
  • Create a compelling narrative around your strategy and communicate it continuously. Anticipate questions and be ready with explanations.
  • Listen. Make sure frontline employees feel comfortable pointing out where current strategy might be missing the mark. They can offer a fresh, valuable perspective that might lead to the discovery of great strategies.

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