Organizations need purpose, focus, and vision to succeed. These high-level ideals set the stage for execution and all the tasks, processes, projects, and activities employees undertake on a day-to-day basis. But what connects the dots between the overarching organizational goals and all the effort and labor individuals and teams take on? The answer is strategy. But far too often, strategic planning overlooks some key ingredients for success. In this blog, we’ll cover the elements of an effective team strategy, how to translate that strategy into a plan with clear responsibilities and results, and how to hold people accountable to the strategy and plan.
What is strategy?
The simplest definition of strategy is how the ends get achieved by the means. In plain English, that’s what must happen to get the desired result. Today, many businesses define those ends using OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). The objective is a goal, such as shipping a new product, hitting a revenue target, or capturing a particular share of a market. Objectives can get set at the corporate level and broken down into group- or team-level goals.
Key Results are clearly defined and measurable success criteria. Each objective typically has three-to-five associated key results. They serve as indicators of progress toward reaching an objective.
OKRs and resources are the key. Returning to our original definition, the means encompasses all the resources available to achieve those OKRs. Resources include the people on the team and their knowledge and expertise. It also consists of the team’s purchasing power and budget, the tools at their disposal, and the data they have accumulated and can leverage.
The Missing Ingredient in an Effective Team Strategy
Some strategic planners may think their work plotting a path forward ends once the above is defined. For instance, here’s what we want to achieve, what we have to work with, and the measurable results for gauging success. But that’s not the case. They’re missing out on an essential part of the equation. It often dictates the ultimate success or failure of these efforts… the how.
The “how” of a strategy
Grab a bunch of amazing athletes. Give them great facilities and all the equipment they need. Then throw them out on the field. They might win a game against inferior competition based on their raw talent and some lay leadership amongst the players.
However, their chances of success increase exponentially when they’re coached up and given a game plan. Instead of everyone winging it and using their own best judgment, they’re now executing against a plan. They rely on their shared understanding of strategy and tactics, increasing their success odds. Figuring out the how isn’t particularly fun or sexy. Yet, the how is where they really come to life. But overlooking this essential element of any strategic plan presents a huge risk. Yet it happens all the time.
This is often due to disconnects or a lack of knowledge transfer between the high-level stakeholders setting the strategy and defining objectives and those folks on the ground who understand how the sausage gets made. Without those insights, it’s easy to set lofty goals that aren’t grounded in reality and assume everything will be a frictionless express lane to success.
Theory vs. Practice in Strategy
Taking the time to plot out the specifics and timing of how to reach objectives also helps break down the wall between theory and practice. In theory, if your team has the resources they need to hit a goal, they should hit it every time with no delays or hiccups along the way. But that’s not how things tend to work in the real world.
Instead of approaching the strategic planning process assuming everything will come off with a hitch, leaders should proactively seek out all the potential potholes, roadblocks, and other obstacles that may lie ahead. In general, projects tend to derail due to one or more of the following:
- Distractions: Teams may not be capable of predicting exactly what other demands may come along that involve resources assigned to strategically important tasks and projects. But it’s an inevitable eventuality. Things break, customers complain, economic conditions change, and personnel change. These aren’t always avoidable, but they can be mitigated with contingency planning and building a little buffer into timelines.
- Shifting priorities: Some distractions permanently alter the landscape, and the business must adjust. Folks may get yanked away for a more pressing concern, budgets may shrink, and resources may get otherwise allocated. Those moves may be justified, but the full impact of those changes on OKRs and timelines must be surfaced and agreed upon.
- Inadequate progress tracking: Assuming everything is going according to the schedule cad to some unnecessary surprises. Teams need a regular cadence for providing updates and consistent metrics to track how deliverables are coming and note any anticipated delays.
- Changing fundamentals: Strategic plans get made using a set of facts and assumptions. Since strategies unfold over months and years in most cases, those underlying factors can easily evolve due to factors within the company and the larger ecosystem. From losing a big customer to changes in interest rates to a competitor announcing a breakthrough technology, there’s no shortage of unsettling possibilities. When these occur, organizations are forced to rethink and reassess… or suffer the consequences of sticking with the status quo.
- Unmotivated stakeholders: Strategic plans are based on resources executing as expected. But people aren’t robots that follow orders unquestionably and always operate at maximum capacity. Without universal buy-in and a full appreciation of how their piece of the puzzle fits into the big picture, weak links can emerge, creating unforeseen delays by missing deadlines or diverting resources to other matters. Leaders also shouldn’t overlook any dependencies holding stakeholders back from going all-in.
An Example of OKRs in the Wild
To ground this theory a bit, let’s look at an example. A fast-casual restaurant chain has seen its growth slow, and its margins shrink. While not yet in a crisis, the company wants to get ahead and boost revenue growth without impacting profit margins.
To boost revenue, the chain sets an objective of increasing its gross revenue by 5%. This is a stretch-yet-attainable goal and highly measurable. To reach this objective the company identifies three key results:
- Increase transaction volume by 3% in six months
- Increase average transaction size by 10% in six months
- Add three new locations in an untapped market in 12 months
Achieving these three key results requires the involvement of many stakeholders within the organization. That means lots of coordination and communication to execute this plan. But if the above represents the sum total level of detail provided, the program has little chance of success.
For each of these key results, the business could pursue various tactics. For example, increased transaction volume could come from the current customer base by generating more repeat business, attracting new custcombiningination of both.
That puts some very different “how” options on the table for senior management and department heads to consider. For example, a loyalty program might generate more repeat customers, but those programs also come with quite a few costs ranging from setting the program up to funding the program’s rewards.
New customers strategy
Bringing in new customers could come from increasing advertising or offering coupons and discounts. These also cost money, so the team should be confident these tactics will achieve the desired results.
Adding new menu items or expanding the categories the restaurant serves, such as adding breakfast or dessert t,o the menu could help the business increase new and repeat visits, but that might also mean increased costs for raw materials, new equipment, or expanded hours that require more staff and higher utility bills.
And, since these three key results don’t exist in a vacuum, the business must also consider whether any of these tactics to increase volume work against the second more significant bigger transactions. Deals and discounts can boost volume while decreasing average ticket sizes. Breakfast might bring in more customers, but they’re probably spending less on a muffin and coffee in the morning than they will on soup, salad, and soda in the afternoon. Dessert wouldn’t be as expensive as an addition, but will enough takers move the needle?
As you can see, organizations must delve much deeper into the details than just setting on some high-level bullet points. This dictates the need to make tactical decisions based on broader facts.
Turning Your SWOT Analysis Into an Effective Team Strategy
Developing a realistic strategic plan requires a clear lay of the land. A SWOT analysis serves as a valuable tool for this exercise. SWOT analyses use four quadrants to realistically assess where the business is at by outlining its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. With these identified, leaders can map their resources to those quadrants.
Organizations can choose to build on a strength, overcome a weakness, capitalize on an opportunity, and avoid a threat. Any solid strategy will focus on one or more of those, such as leveraging a huge social media presence (a strength) to promote a new product offering or building out a field service network to support a global customer base that struggles with maintenance issues (a weakness).
Be careful not to overlook this next step
One often overlooked part of the SWOT process is boosting stakeholder participation at all levels. Some of those weaknesses and threats may not be on an executive’s radar, but salespeople losing deals to competitors and customer service reps continually seeing the same issues pop up can provide invaluable input.
Ideally, organizations should conduct the SWOT analysis prior to or in parallel with defining key results. This gives the team information early enough to select the right approach and propose realistically achievable key results.
Setting the Right SMART Key Results
Not all goals are created equal. They must all be milestones that, if met, advance the overall objective. Any proposed key result should meet the SMART goals criteria to ensure the attention and resources it consumes get spent wisely.
- Specific – The narrower the focus and more defined the result is, the easier it is to plan for. If it’s too malleable or vague, it’s difficult to articulate what’s needed to reach it and to reach a consensus on how to define success.
- Measurable – Metrics are great, but zoom in on leading indicators that point to an eventual successful outcome. For example, if the goal is reducing churn, there should be clear milestones tied to both dates and data.
- Attainable – Setting unrealistic goals is a recipe for failure, employee burnout, and diminished morale. So while they shouldn’t be too easy to achieve, stretch goals should remain rooted in reality.
- Relevant – Goals must align with the mission, vision, and values of the organization and its current focus. Tackling something no longer deemed critical or occurring too far into the future decreases the urgency and momentum for completion.
- Time-based – Goals should be ambitious yet realistic. Without any deadlines or milestones, resources will get diverted to more pressing needs, and the effort will flounder.
Creating an Effective Team Strategy and Plan Accountability
A strategic plan with OKRs sets off a flurry of activity across the organization. But the initial buzz fades over time. Everyone may not automatically pull their weight throughout. Leaders must lay some groundwork to boost buy-in and set the stage for on-schedule full groundwork.
Much of this revolves around giving stakeholders and contributors some autonomy and ownership, conversing with everyone involved with execution, not just the high-level stakeholders who are removed from the day-to-day.
These discussions show everyone how the organization is meeting its goals, even if they don’t agree with the overall strategy or the particulars of its execution. Ideally, team members can participate in defining the key results they’re responsible for so they’re believable, achievable milestones. This transparency and inclusivity also give people enough context to make real-time decisions since they now understand the overall objective and how they and their work fit into it.
Once the plan is firm, it must be continually socialized to build awareness and excitement about the strategy. This adds a little peer pressure to the mix, inspiring colleagues who don’t want to let their coworkers down.
By tracking and revisiting OKRs weekly, organizations maintain a steady cadence of accountability. If individual contributors or teams start lagging, the delays will get visibility quickly. As a result, you can avoid potential disasters and keep enough pressure on everyone to maintain focus.
3 Tactics for Creating Strategy Accountability
- Have each team member set (or collaborate on) the key results they will be responsible for
- Create fanfare around the strategy and for an official event
- Keep track of and speak to OKRs every week
How to Know If Your Strategy Was Effective?
As strategic plans meet their endpoints, moving on to the next thing is easy. But moving ahead without pausing to reflect on what’s transpired deprives the organization of a significant learning opportunity.
Organizations should analyze their performance versus the strategic as projects wrap up and things move into post-mortem mode. For example, how many key results were met? Were they reached on time? Did they meet, exceed, or fall short of the KPIs?
It’s also an opportunity to assess the overall return on investment of the plan. Did everyone stick to their budgets? Were other opportunities neglected to focus on this one? Did reaching those objectives have the expected results for the business?
Finally, open up the pipeline for qualitative feedback. How did execution go for various teams and stakeholders? Did they view it as a success? What learnings can be funneled back into the next strategic planning process to learn from the mistakes and unexpected twists and turns the team encountered?
Looking for more great insights into team management? Check out our free ebook on remote management.