Business strategies often fail to deliver, but what is the alternative? A focus on intention may hold the answer.
In this article, I explore why business strategies often fail to deliver, and how performance objectives can lead to decreased performance and disengagement. I propose a model for creating intentional strategies that engage the hearts and minds of employees.
Common strategy downfalls
Most people understand the importance of a business strategy. A good strategy brings a sense of focus. It creates forward momentum in the right direction.
While a good strategy is a great start, organisations must be able to deliver on their intent. Unfortunately, many organisations are not very good at this.
Common reasons for strategy failure include:
An overwhelming strategic plan
Lack of empowerment
Lack of communication
Getting caught up in the day-to-day
Lack of alignment
Overly complex strategies can disengage staff
Once a business strategy has been created, the task of translating strategy into actions starts. Benjamin Franklin famously said “by failing to prepare you are preparing to fail.”
In an effort to plan for every contingency many businesses over plan, imposing a huge admin burden on all concerned with little tangible return on investment.
Overly complex strategy documents spawn complex departmental plans, and team plans that can lead to excessive goals being set that employees have little or no emotional attachment to; or desire to undertake. This detachment can lead to mediocre outcomes and a lack of progress towards an organisations strategic intent. Despite the best initial intentions, by the time strategies reach many employees they can feel artificially imposed rather than engaging and inclusive. Business strategies fail to create collective intention, and are detached from individual dreams, aspirations and life intentions.
Performance management that fails to perform
Even if the strategy avoids all pitfalls above, the organisational planning and performance management that follow can be its downfall.
In most organisations business strategies inform departmental targets, which in turn shape team and individual performance objectives. In an effort to motivate staff and monitor the complexity generated, businesses invest billions in performance management systems. The intention behind these systems is to motivate staff and reward high performance. Unfortunately, many fail to do so, and worse still, they seem to be loathed by both employees and managers in equal measure. According to research:
Only 8% of companies think that performance management really adds value45 percent of HR leaders do not think they are an accurate appraisal for employees’ work.30 percent of performance reviews ended up in decreased employee performance.
A possible reason why companies continue to manage performance in this way is the deeply embedded business adage “if you can't measure it, you can't manage it”. Performance management is a relatively simple way to measure performance at all levels. The intention behind both business strategy and performance management systems is good. Unfortunately, they do not always live up to their intent.
Using intention as a driver for strategic intent
In recent years, I have been researching and writing about Intention. Intention underpins everything we do at both a conscious and unconscious level.
In Intention Matters, I define an Intention as “a deep sincere desire (DSD) underpinned by a belief (B) that it is possible”. Intention = DSD + B. An intention is something you want at a heartfelt level, and that you have full belief can be achieved in some way or other.
The difference between goals and intention
Intentions are very different to goals. In my latest book, I describe these differences at length. In a nutshell, goals have a less motivational impact on the brain than intentions. Goals are often not heart-felt or deeply desired, so less lightly to engender high performance
The word “strategy” originates from a military term, coming from the Greek words “stratos” (army or resources) and “ago” (leading). In literal terms, strategy can be translated as “to lead an army”. When leading an army or a large corporation, the troops need their orders. They need to know where they are going and what they will be doing. A good strategy fulfils this role.
Keep it simple
The active ingredient in a business strategy is not the words that form the document, but the intention that underpins it. Even if intention is the starting point for the strategy, the process of writing the strategy often detaches the strategy from its original intention. We over complicate things. Intentional strategies aim to keep things simple.
Implementing an intentional strategy
1: Start your strategy with clear intent.
Always start your strategic planning with an overriding ‘Core’ intention. The downfall of many strategies are fuzzy, unclear intentions. It is worth taking plenty of time to define this as, in my experience, once the core intention is identified the rest of the process flows easily.
Next, set some ‘Nested’ intentions – intentions that underpin the achievement of your Core intention.
The top team should start by identify genuine heartfelt desires for their company.Group these into ‘Core intentions’ (big picture) and ‘Nested’ intentions (intentions that contribute to the achievement of the Core intentions.Test your belief and commitment. Intention = DSD +B. If you get a niggling feeling that something is not right, trust your instinct and investigate it. Intentions are not mantras. Just because you say it repeatedly does not mean it is true. For intentions to work you have to have belief that they are possible – the “how” comes further down the line.Write a short strategy-working document – no more than five pages long. The purpose of this document is not to inspire shareholders and the wider world, but to gain employee understanding and buy-in.
2: Test and refine
Once the intentions have been refined so that they feel right at a gut level, the strategy can be written. The strategy document should fill five pages or less of A4 paper. This then needs to be briefed to all staff directly from the top rather than cascaded down, which can lead to misinterpretation. Use a video from the top team if face-to-face briefings are impossible.
3: Communicate simply and clearly
Communicate your strategic intent a collaborative manner. Start with the Core intention then explain how this shaped the strategy, which in turn shaped your initial ideas on how departments can contribute. Be ready to listen and refine if great ideas arise. Aim to gain engagement and discussion rather than “task and tell’.
4: Ask for commitment
Departmental and individual commitments follow. Many organisations still impose goals and targets on employees. Psychologically committing to something – giving your word that it will be done - is more powerful and engaging than a goal or a target. When setting departmental commitments, keep revisiting the core and nested intentions and asking yourself “how do these commitments contribute the intention(s)?”
By engendering an understanding of the core and nested intentions, individuals can then set themselves long and short-term goals – linked to intentions and aligned to departmental commitments. Avoid over planning and SMART objectives.
From school onwards we are taught that performance objectives should be SMART. Unfortunately, SMART objectives can quickly turn into a straightjacket, which narrows our focus and inhibits fresh thinking and creativity. It blinds us to the greater intention and disable rather than enable employee’s contribution to the greater intention
When asking individuals for work commitments, start by outlining the intention, organisational and departmental targets. Ask the employee how they can contribute to the achievement of this. Doing so is more likely to motivate and engage and ignites positive circuitry in the brain.
Managers should then keep a note of who has volunteered to do what by when to ensure that everything is in place to meet departmental targets. This should be done with a light touch.
5. Embody and embed
Once the intention is communicated, and the strategy refined as necessary – start to embody and embed the intention in everything you do. For example, frame meetings with the intention at the outset, linked to organisational and collective targets.
6: Continually check alignment to intention.
Communicate, communicate and communicate some more. Keeping it simple has its own pitfalls. If, for example, your intention requires better leaders and you task your L&D team with this, the L&D team should be keeping the top team informed of whats going on. When the leadership initiatives are rolled out their link to strategic intent needs to be clearly communicated. Whilst attendance of training at a top business school will easily tick a corporate box, could the intent be better served by giving employees stretching projects and secondments, or mentoring by a member of the senior team? The latter are harder to monitor, but proven to be more effective in developing leadership.
7. Monitor actions and achievements
As the desired outcomes start to materialise it is important to recognise and celebrate success along the way. When you celebrate, endorphins are released inside your body, and make you feel good. This feeling reinforces your success. It also reinforces the behaviour needed for future achievements and successes. Success creates more success and builds upon existing momentum, especially during events of celebration.
Current strategy planning processes often become detached from the original intention. They can lead to complex processes that can create an unnecessary admin burden that can be disproportionate to the benefits gained.Intention is the active ingredient that drives individual and organisational performance. Strategy documents should support the achievement of intention. They should be five pages or less.Keep things simple. Ditch complex and unwieldly performance management systems that demotivate staff, increase the admin burden, and detach people from the organisations strategic intent. Keep intention foremost in the mind when making decisions and creating systems and processes.Engender commitment rather than imposing objectives
A final world – don’t forget to be kind to yourself and others. As humans, we crave security. We are bundles of habits. Doing things differently creates a sense of insecurity in the brain. In a drive to feel safe and secure, the brain will try to default back to old tried and tested ways of doing things that may no longer be appropriate. Doing things differently may meet with covert or overt resistance. This is natural. The act of adopting a kind and accepting mind-set switches down the threat response rapidly, allowing you and others to think more clearly, be more productive and innovative.
Intention Matters! More detailed information on identifying intentions and working with them can be found in my book, Intention Matters.