Struggling with strategy? Four ways to evolve top down initiatives into bottom up engagement

Strategic planning touches every corner of an organisation, though historically it’s been the responsibility of the C-suite to create and communicate the organisation’s strategic plan. Certainly, this makes sense - top-level executives have far more understanding of the company’s long-term vision, market pressures, outside influences and overall direction.

However, the creation of a solid strategic plan does not readily translate to flawless execution. The latter requires understanding and adoption from many different levels within a company, and the larger the organisation, the harder it becomes. Too many times well-crafted and thoughtful strategic plans never see the light of day because those in a position to execute fail to truly understand.  

No matter the size and scope of the organisation, the problem of achieving strategic success is often the same: businesses today need less knowing, and more doing.

In over ten years of helping companies to better organise, visualise and execute strategy, we’ve determined four critical components to transitioning innovative thought leadership into actionable operational success.

Dodge the dreaded disconnect

Strategy starts at the top. It is the C-suite and the Board of Directors who bring the insight, experience and expertise necessary to create a targeted strategy. Yet these are rarely the same people who are in the day-to-day trenches of managing business operations. Perhaps that is why, according to PwC, 78 per cent of business leaders believe they have defined the right purpose, vision and ambition to reach their full potential, yet only 54 per cent believe they are executing strategy well.

These business leaders recognise that when a company isn’t careful in communicating its strategy, it can soon build a great chasm between executives, management and employees.

Successful strategic implementation requires ownership at all levels throughout the organisation. Execution is a key responsibility of executives and managers, just as insight and planning can be enhanced through employee involvement. And as strategic execution almost always involves change, it is vital that all levels of the organisation are prepared to manage new activities, implementations and agendas.

For a strategy plan to truly be dynamic and agile, it must close the gap between executive vision and employee execution.

Broaden your field of vision

Fixed metrics such as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are incredibly valuable for measuring results. Yet they are just one tool in a strategy toolkit. Relying only on performance management or a balanced scorecard can leave your team frustrated - particularly if set KPIs aren’t making sense for real-world execution.

Strategy should tell a story, something not easily done when focused solely on performance metrics. While the structured data embedded within KPIs is critical to the proper development and execution of strategic initiatives, so also is unstructured information that comes from bottom-up feedback, internal documents such as spreadsheets, and informal discussions. However much of this data is not well communicated or tracked, making it impossible to measure or incorporate into a wider strategic plan.

Strategy is always more successful when KPIs are met. However, the strategic plan must be fully visible and highly agile to determine the best metrics to measure, yet flexible enough to recognise when those KPIs may need adjustment. When both structured and unstructured data is shared via the right collaborative tool, it provides structure and real-time insight, helping contribute to the broader strategic vision across the organisation. 

It is important for business leaders to recognise that KPIs and other performance metrics are reactive indicators, and by their very nature, out-of-date upon delivery. It is the linking of subjective data and employee output with KPIs that help highlight an organisation’s progression toward achievement. For this reason, KPIs should serve the overall strategy, not the other way around.

Clearly communicate

You may find it surprising that only 14 per cent of employees understand their company’s strategy and direction ( This lack of understanding isn’t because the strategy itself is too high level, it’s because it is often not well communicated. Sharing the strategic plan with management is one important step, but it requires follow through to ensure the plan was understood and shared.

One critical step to communicating strategy it to ensure it is presented in a visual, holistic way. Research shows people more readily understand something when they can see it because words are processed by short-term memory, while images go directly to long-term. So when a relevant image is coupled with words, for example, people retain 65 per cent more of the information.

What’s more, seeing strategy laid out visually helps to bring it into focus, allowing various departments to more clearly see their role and better determine what issues need to be addressed. The right visual layout makes goals, and the steps put in place to meet them, easier to track, report and measure.

Embrace ongoing insight

A pivot is a change in strategy, not vision.

Eric Ries, Lean Startup pioneer

Proper execution cannot exist in a static state. While a strategic vision is often a fixed goal, the ways in which you achieve that vision must be dynamic and adaptive. In order to achieve true agility, ongoing insight is critical not just for the C-suite, but for anyone within the organisation responsible for helping to achieve the strategic vision.

Various methods exist to encourage regular insight, yet they are ineffective unless they can adapt to the workflow and processes best suited to the organisation, the department and the individual. A platform dedicated to strategy that can seamlessly merge with an organisation’s existing technology structure is the smartest way to ensure the strategy plan maps clearly to goals, initiatives and activities.

When ongoing insight is properly achieved, executives can take advantage of the reporting and accountability required from the top-down perspective, while management and employees can weigh in to help maximise bottom-up engagement.

In today’s modern enterprise, strategy can no longer afford to be created and assigned inside the boardroom. A truly agile and adept organisation incorporates the strategic vision at every level, encouraging a measure of collaboration and transparency that enables better visibility, control, and ultimately, results.

Craig Catley is managing director of StrategyBlocks, the leading SaaS-based solution for strategic planning, management and execution. His expertise includes enterprise performance management, BPM, document management and systems integration.