Everyone contributes to Vitality

In this article, I challenge the common view of strategy formulation and argue for a much broader scope. Here, the starting point is that involvement of all relevant stakeholders leads to a richer and better-supported, talkable strategic choice.

Strategy is chef-sache
Over the years, strategy and strategy formulation have degenerated into a game of economic forces analysis that takes place mainly at board level. Usually under the guidance of an external consulting firm. Once the board has laid its strategic egg, the thinking goes, we move on to implementation. That implementation then usually consists of telling the rest of the organisation, via a trickle-down process, what is expected of them. Structure follows strategy reads the already old dictum. Within this perspective, there are the thinkers and the doers. After the thinkers have done their work, the doers get to implement it. Change is sequential and is often perceived as disrupting “the real work”. With the logical consequence that change is slow to take off. All this as a logical consequence of Taylorist organisational theory. But is this way of working perhaps to blame for the fact that so many strategy documents disappear into the bottom drawer, weakly or not being implemented at all[i]? Does this do justice to the strategic vitality of a company ? Isn’t strategic vitality something that occurs at all levels of the organisation? Doesn’t strategic vitality require a different approach? Is a different perspective conceivable than: we think and they do?

Everyone is key!
As described in an earlier article, the purpose of strategy is: vitality [ii]. Vitality over time. Strategy is how we give substance to that vitality. That vitality does not reside in the top of the organisation alone, vitality arises in the breadth of a company. Every employee within an organisation is in fact involved in and responsible for the long-term wellbeing and vitality of the organisation within his or her role. Every day. By thinking about and implementing steps, activities that make the organisation better, more vital. The impact differs from role to role and so does the content but the principle is the same: regardless of role or task, every employee within the organisation is daily involved in and responsible for the long-term vitality of the organisation, the next logical step in fulfilling the Purpose. It is a fallacy to assume that strategic vitality resides at the top. Especially when it comes to the practical implementation of that vitality. In that sense, strategy cannot be reserved for “the happy few” either.

Involving others – Large Scale Interventions
As early as the late last century, research appeared showing that “strategy devised by…..”. works better than “strategy devised for…..”.

Among the first to use this to look for structured ways of engaging large groups of stakeholders in processes of direction choice and change were Katie Dannemiller, Bruce Gibb, Al Davenport and Chuck Tyson[iii]. Their efforts led to what is today referred to as Large Scale Interventions. A collection of techniques that allow large groups of stakeholders to simultaneously work an issues of direction choice and change. Often, within these techniques, not only thinking is done but also direct action. A connection of thinking and doing that further strengthens the effect of this approach. Large Scale Interventions all rely on a number of principles:

  1. Past, present and future together and inextricably form organisational reality
  2. Organisational reality is larger than our immediate individual perception
  3. Active participation increases involvement
  4. Change never stops[iv]

Think about it, which customer-friendliness really contributes to vitality, the one devised by the CEO or the one devised by the cashiers of a supermarket chain? Which punctuality is more effective, the one conceived by the top railway company or the one pursued by the train drivers? Which international cooperation will get off to a better start, the one prescribed by the Executive Board or the one coloured by those directly involved? Which organisational change will take hold better and lead to actual different behaviour, the one devised by the HR department in collaboration with a consultant or the one that comes about thanks to the professionals taking responsibility of how they organise their work as effectively and efficiently as possible? There are plenty of examples of strategic changes of direction that come to fruition only to a limited extent because they arise from the “we think and they (should) do” paradigm.

Starting point 1 aligns with the idea that strategy is not a revolution but rather there is Evolution[v]. See also VIBRANT STRATEGY is Evolution on this site. The idea that meaningful strategy builds on the organisation’s strategic past. Strategy as a continuum not a Tabula Rasa.

Principles 2 and 3 form the basis for the thinking as presented in this article. To (comprehend) the entire organisational reality, a broad reflection of the organisation should be involved in strategy and change processes. That makes strategy better, richer. To achieve actual implementation, the involvement of many is a prerequisite. That gives choices support.

And premise 4 implies a continuous dialogue. A continuous strategic orientation and choice process. Strategy not as an end-state but strategy as a continuous development process. A continuous building of vitality.

All Large Scale Intervention techniques, or actual conferences and practices, have 3 things in common:

  1. Starting point
  2. Programming
  3. Group size and scope

Underlying all Large Scale Intervention techniques and methods is the following formula: Dissatisfaction X Vision X First Steps > Resistance to Change. Here, Dissatisfaction stands for discomfort with the current situation, Vision stands for a perspective on a possible solution, also known as an attractive picture of a possible future, First Steps stands for the first steps people can take towards that possible attractive future and Resistance to Change stands for the natural resistance to change. Only when D x V X F is greater than R can there be Real Time Strategic Change.

All Large Scale Intervention techniques have similar programming, a similar structure. Which starts with building a shared knowledge of the current situation. Also called a “common database of strategic information”. That database is metaphorical of the participants’ shared knowledge. That shared knowledge underpins the sense of Dissatisfaction but also provides the stepping stone to the next programme phase of developing an attractive picture of a possible future. This is where the Vision aspect of LSI comes in. Finally, the conference moves on to the final component. In it, work is done on developing first steps.

Finally, all LSI techniques are characterised by involving “many”. Many as in many people but also as in many themes and issues and, finally, many different conference techniques. When it comes to involving many people, the literature sometimes refers to “critical mass”. That “critical mass” possesses knowledge that can help bring the situation into focus, and contribute to future success. In addition, these kinds of techniques depend heavily on the extent to which the “critical mass” takes responsibility for implementing change. In addition, it is essential that there is room for a multi-topic, multi-issue approach. In the complexity of the current context, we must not oversimplify. There must therefore be room to discuss and address all kinds of aspects and themes. Narrowing down too quickly leads to denial of real complexity and thus an inadequate approach and follow-up steps. Finally, Large Scale Interventions use many different working forms depending on objective, theme, group size, etc. From brainstorms, expert inputs and individual coaching to small and large group diallog and plenary sessions. To ultimately bring about change at all kinds of levels.

Advantages of “involving more people”
The application of Large Scale Intervention techniques in strategic choice processes has a number of advantages over the classic “we think, they do” principle. Three of these I would like to highlight in the conclusion of this article:

  1. Quality of strategy
  2. Implementability of strategy
  3. Speed of implementation

1. Quality of strategy

Kathleen Dannemiller once said “organisational reality is bigger than our direct individual perception”. This implies that each stakeholder or employee sees only part of the organisational reality. We all live within our own narrow frame of reference. If strategy is based on the narrow opinion of a small group of people, choices will always be made from a narrow, inadequate or one-sided (think group think) perspective. The choice is thus by definition “shabby”, in the sense that it relies on a narrow view of reality. Allowing multiple realities into the strategic dialogue will enrich, deepen the quality of the choices made. We choose based on a more complete picture. Several studies also show this: the quality of strategic choice calls increase with increasing diversity of opinions and perspectives brought in.

2. Implementability of strategy

Broadening the strategic dialogue outside the boardroom has two advantages that contribute directly to the implementability of strategy. The first concerns the practicality of strategy. Contrary to the common assumption, “strategy is difficult and you shouldn’t tire working people too much with that”, a broad stakeholder approach leads to colouring of strategy on a practical level. And that is valuable because strategic vitality only takes shape in the concrete in the practical. How relevant is customer friendliness when the cashier snaps at you. What does international cooperation get us if political games between international teams lead to paralysis? Vitality is practical, concrete and real. Not abstract and lofty. But in addition to practicality, support is also essential when implementing strategy. And let’s face it, surely strategic choices you have participated in are much easier to understand and implement than strategic choices imposed on you. We think and they do, in that sense, is a long-forgotten principle.

3. Speed of implementation

For years, we in the West have marvelled at the nature and manner of Japanese decision-making. Long-winded, tough, takes forever are classifications that are then deemed applicable. Equally, we are then amazed at the speed with which strategy is brought to implementation. And to this day, our double surprise rarely leads to a new insight: by involving many, the choice process may take longer, but the execution phase is much smoother. We remain stuck within our familiar model of “we think and they do”. That thinking goes relatively quickly and in “petition committee” the implementation process that then follows is drawn-out and tough. Involving many in working on Vitality has the great advantage that through ownership and commitment, the implementation of choices made often goes quickly and smoothly. In that, involving many through Large Scale Intervention techniques contributes to speed of strategic action.

Finally – no pancee
The perspective described applies above all as long as an organisation proactively works on its vitality. As long as it has the luxury of working from a healthy starting point, from relative forward momentum. Of course, the perspective presented here loses its effect in those cases where an organisation finds itself in crises. That is when action has to be taken quickly and there is no time for Large Scale Interventions. Then strategy becomes chef-sache again. Let’s hope you get the right chief then.

[i] Several studies over the years show that few strategy projects lead to successful implementation, The Evolution of Strategic Management: Challenges in Theory and Business …, By Tomasz Kafel, Bernard Ziębicki, Journal of Entrepreneurship, Management and Innovation, p.100, JEMI, 2021
[ii] The Sole Purpose of Strategic Thinking: Strategic Vitality
[iii] INNOVATION IN WHOLE-SCALE CHANGE: PAST, PRESENT AND FUTUR by Kathleen D. Dannemiller and Sylvia L. James,  Dannemiller Tyson Associates, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA,  Profile 3, March 2002, a journal by Edition Humanistische Psychologie
[iv] See also: De Large Scale Intervention, Het organiseren van duurzame verandering met conferenties, Rob de Wilde, Annemieke Geverink, 2001
[v] See also: Strategy is Evolution not Revolution