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How to help your employees own your strategy

Shifting from cascading information to chartering teams can generate the clarity and commitment your new strategy requires.

A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of strategy+business.

If there’s one thing many of the leaders I’ve spoken with lately have in common, it’s that they feel pressured to roll out new strategies more quickly, with more impact. These leaders recognize the importance of communication — of getting the message out to employees about where the organization is headed and why. To do so, they often default to the “cascade” approach: holding high-energy town hall meetings, posting on internal social media, writing executive blog posts on intranet pages, hosting lunch-and-learn sessions. They work hard to craft a compelling message at the top and send it on its way.

A cascade is similar to the waterfall model in software development, wherein customers provide detailed specifications at the beginning, and developers build in a linear sequence, which they hope will hit the target in the end. A strategy cascade implies a one-time, one-way flow of expectations, priorities, and targets from the top to the bottom of the organization. Built on the mantra of “communicate, communicate, communicate,” it tends to focus on information, with doses of inspiration. The trouble is, even when employees are informed and inspired by the company’s direction, they may be left feeling unclear about exactly what they need to do differently to help the company meet its goals. As one professional recently said to me, “Our new corporate purpose and strategy are great, but they don’t change how I do my job.” And, like the waterfall, the cascade approach puts intense pressure on senior leaders to have everything figured out, which can cause delays or result in messages that do not have full executive buy-in.

As a result, the typical strategy cascade often fails to generate the level of clarity, commitment, and action required to move a new strategy forward. To take ownership, teams need more than information or inspiration — they need a specific, personalized license to act. Without clarity on what they are responsible for, which decision rights they own, what inputs they can count on, and who is depending on them to deliver, they cannot move confidently into action. That sort of clarity and commitment requires mutual information-sharing, negotiation, and problem-solving, none of which is the focus in a cascade. It is, however, the hallmark of what I call the chartering approach.

To take ownership, teams need more than information or inspiration — they need a specific, personalized license to act.

A chartering conversation feels completely different, because it is based on the premise that genuine commitment is a choice. Sharing information is still important, but the focus shifts from “nice-to-know” updates to providing critical context, so leaders and teams can craft mutual agreements tied to a common mission. As a concept, the process of negotiating a charter prompts managers to be clearer about what they are asking of their teams, and to listen more actively to what their teams need from them in order to deliver. Because chartering conversations are dialogues, they can be adapted to increase alignment and reliability between units, as well as between leaders and their direct reports. And finally, chartering focuses on an ongoing process of course-correction as conditions change, rather than a one-time transaction.

A manager at any level can adopt a chartering mind-set, whatever format their organization employs for communicating strategy and setting expectations — from OKRs (objectives and key results) to traditional annual goal-setting. In my experience, these four elements make the difference.

1. Build in two-way communication. The best mutual commitments begin with an open conversation, a shared understanding of context, and high-leverage actions. In chartering a team, make time for team members to understand the intelligence, intent, and inspiration behind the organization’s strategy. What are we gambling on? What breakthroughs will be needed? Team members can contribute insight into how their strengths can play a part, the early indicators of opportunities or threats, the impediments to progress, and the inputs needed to deliver.

2. Create a “commitment moment.” Whatever the message, things don’t truly become real until leaders ask for commitment. This is truly an art, for several reasons. First, people need an honest choice. If you corner them, you will usually get fake buy-in and miss learning about critical obstacles. But if you frame your request as an opportunity for employees to raise objections, then explore and negotiate solutions, you will see the team’s clarity, confidence, and engagement skyrocket. Solutions may include areas where the team needs you to break down barriers, delegate authority, counter disincentives, or allocate resources and support. In addition, it takes some back and forth to craft powerful, relevant commitments that translate the strategy into the work of each specific team. What does this particular team need to stop, start, or continue to most contribute to the organization’s goals?

3. Think comprehensively about the team’s responsibilities. The team is an ideal unit for chartering, because team members can leverage shared language or experience, track common metrics, help identify dependencies, enable individuals to figure out how they best contribute, and create a social environment for shared commitment. To be effective, the chartering conversation needs to consider the totality of their responsibilities at a given time. Otherwise, new strategic priorities will be bolted on to people’s day jobs, sidestepping the hard work of figuring out real ownership, commitment, and focus.

4. Make this a living process. Some companies use charters when new teams form, but few actively revisit or update the charters as conditions change. Yet these days strategies are so dynamic; every team needs to be able to adjust their goals and working arrangements quickly and easily. You can improve both continuity of focus and agility in response to change by using the team’s charter to work out what to start, stop, or continue. Of course, keeping the charter relevant means the format needs to be simple and flexible. The classic GRPI modeI developed by organizational theorist Richard Beckhard prompts a team to ensure alignment on goals, roles, processes, and interactions, which is a good place to start.

Chartering is based on the conviction that the real work of strategy execution lies in teams, not in the leaders. And that no organization can afford a single day in which employees do not have a working hypothesis about where they contribute most. It is easy to default into cascade mode — passing on information, and declaring priorities, insights, and expectations — and miss the opportunity to build the commitment and ownership the organization and the strategy require. But if you truly believe that your people are your greatest resource, taking a chartering approach so they can be their best is among the most important work you can do.

Elizabeth Doty

Elizabeth Doty is a former lab fellow of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, founder of Leadership Momentum, and director of the Erb Institute’s Corporate Political Responsibility Taskforce at the University of Michigan.

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