Ellen Auster was trying to type the words strategy and agility one day – common terms for a York University strategic management professor to use – when they blended into a lovely new creation, stragility. She has been using that word ever since, even adopting it as the title of her new book with consultant Lisa Hillenbrand, but warns it can lead us astray.
Strategy and agility are important but focus exclusively on them and you could undermine your grand, flexible plan. To make stragility come alive, you also need to embrace your inner politician. And, in a phrase the two authors increasingly find themselves using in their consulting with big companies, you have to "go slow to go fast."
"Leaders are so busy working on strategy they forget the people who implement it. We recommend you spend half your time on strategy and half on the people part. Leaders figure if it's a good strategy, people will love it. That doesn't happen," Prof. Auster said in an interview.
Just as a politician needs to know where the votes are – and build support for his party and platform – you need to map out the key stakeholders affected by the change and the key influencers. Take the notion of plotting your course literally, creating charts that illuminate what you face. In one chart shared in the book, stakeholders are divided into a matrix, depending on whether they are internal or external, formal or informal – yielding four groupings. As well, you want to list specific stakeholder groups on another chart, and the key influencers for each, by name.
But it doesn't end there. Our instinct is usually to reach out to those who support our strategy and ignore the less-enthusiastic. Prof. Auster and Ms. Hillenbrand offer a more broad-based approach, however, urging you to divide people into six categories – two for strong supporters, two for neutral souls, and two for skeptics – like so:
Sponsors: They keenly understand the value of the change effort to the company and its customers, and will actively push the program. Middle managers will often be gauging who is sponsoring the program and can be influenced by such backing.
Promoters: They are also initially receptive and help to build buzz, passion and confidence in the change. They mobilize others.
Indifferent fence-sitters:They are unsure about the change, but probably more importantly they are overloaded with other projects, so not paying much attention or taking the time to form an opinion. As well, the change may fall beyond their scope of responsibility.
Cautious fence-sitters: They are worried about the political consequences of moving too fast to support this effort. So they hold back. "They are looking to others to decide what to do," Prof. Auster said
Positive skeptics: They are inclined to oppose the change effort because they see flaws that need to be addressed. Maybe the plan hasn't been tested or details worked out. Learning about their concerns and working through the issues they raise will help the change effort to be more effective as well as bring them on board. "Often they can provide a wealth of information to prevent the change from being derailed," Prof. Auster said.
Negative skeptics: They are more emotionally opposed to the change, perhaps because they fear their skills are not up to the new strategy or they are angry their office would be moved. They can be brought on board, if you address their fears.
So, yes, at the start you need to work with the first two groups, sponsors and promoters, to get under way. But don't stop there. Spend time with the two kinds of skeptics, listening to their concerns, and addressing the issues and qualms raised. As you are doing that, you will be paving the way for the folks sitting on the fence to understand what's happening and see the benefits more clearly.
Don't rush to turn your plan into action. "Go slow to go fast. Take time to build support. It will improve your chances of success," Prof. Auster said. "Listen and learn."
Ms. Hillenbrand said this approach builds shared ownership. She compares it to a puzzle, which will only be completed when you get all the pieces in place. The pieces we usually fail to consider, killing our efforts, include not communicating a compelling reason for the change, not sharing ownership but simply trying to push the change through from the top, and not engaging skeptics. Get that right and you might find the stragility for success.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter