I Can’t Get No Satisfaction. Maybe It’s the Implementation.

I can't get no satisfactionYou’ve tried and you’ve tried and you’ve tried and you’ve tried but you can’t get no… OK – enough Stones. The dilemma remains, though. The organizational changes so carefully and artfully prescribed in a tome by an outside consultant, or developed after months of meetings by a board/staff leadership task force sit gathering dust on shelves? Or perhaps they are in long ignored PowerPoint files?

How is it that the brilliantly conceived Venn diagram, identifying the ideal sweet spot for your organization or foundation, seems to leave you more in the margins than in the center? How is it that the staff/board/clients/stakeholders don’t get it? Why is it that people mouth the words, but their actions belie them?

Of course, there are many possible explanations [see “Why Strategic Plans Fail – and Why They Don’t Have To” – consider this an addendum]. The odds are pretty high, though, that the missing ingredient in your strategy plan is “implementation.” What changes will make it work, make it stick, make it believable, make it convincing?

About a quarter of a century ago, I was approached to join one of the major consulting firms. We came close, but our discussions fell apart on the issue of implementation. My position, having been honed by having experience as both a strategy consultant and an organizational executive, was that there is nothing magical about a strategy plan – even the most insightful and brilliant one is meaningless if no one uses it. Their response – “We do strategy; it is up to the client to figure out how to implement it.” [I have no idea if that firm would say the same thing today; I can only report that over the years we have had numerous clients who have complained about the dusty unused reports from some of those same well-known firms.]

Why are strategy plans so hard to implement? Here are a few suggestions that might help get to that “satisfaction.”

1. Short-term wins

Sometimes the goals seem too elusive or distant. A good implementation plan has some short-term wins built in. If stakeholders can see some positive and responsive changes quickly, they are more likely to take the harder and more long-term ones seriously.

We once had an organizational client in need of a major programmatic overhaul on all levels of their operations. In the midst of our interviews and focus groups, we discovered that, of all things, there were some bathrooms only opened on special occasions. It was a source of irritation, but most people had been reluctant to raise it publicly because they thought it would come across as too trivial. The CEO had his own executive bathroom and was totally unaware of the issue. When we pointed it out, it was corrected over-night. The next time we visited that site, the CEO proudly showed us the open bathrooms and many of the stakeholders pointed to it as evidence that they would be listened to. It created the necessary opening for folks to be willing to put the harder questions on the table. Small win – larger opportunity.

2. Early and consistent involvement by all relevant stakeholders

In the nonprofit/volunteer governed world, there are lots of stakeholders who can make or break a strategy plan. Contrary to what many may think, it typically isn’t the number of informants who need to be consulted but the inclusion of the right ones.

Any of us who have gone through this process is accustomed to skeptics arguing that we didn’t talk to enough people. Unless it is a small group such as a family or foundation board, any organization will have much too large a stakeholder population to talk to everyone. Regrettably, sometimes leaders hope to limit turmoil by precluding certain groups, individuals, or stakeholders. Or sometimes the process takes so long that those initially committed to the process have moved on to other committees or commitments.

Not long ago, I got a call from the chief professional grantmaker of a large public charity. Her concern was that, despite the fact that there was a very carefully developed strategic plan, the volunteer grants committee never seemed to feel bound by it when making grant decisions. The professional asked me how they could persuade the committee to follow the ground rules. When I asked if any of the committee members had actually participated in establishing those priorities, the answer was “no – all of the current committee folks came on board after these priorities were established.”

Is it any wonder that they didn’t feel any sense of ownership of those priorities? By not continuing to invest in the buy-in process, even these insiders felt no sense of commitment. Just imagine how disoriented the grantees or applicants felt.

Similarly, many organizations are concerned that there are swaths of the population they want to serve who don’t attend, join, use their services, take them seriously. Yet instead of finding ways to actually hear those people, they do top down planning – often based on what they heard at the most recent conference. In the process, they may overlook crucial undercurrents of the reputation of their organization which transcend their programmatic initiatives. Planning for and not with is not a formula for successful implementation. Which brings us to

3. Aligning the culture with the strategyand vice versa

Any who have used my philanthropy strategy method know that I am a big believer that the starting point of successful strategy planning is not “mission/vision” but is an understanding of organizational culture, and the diversity of cultures/styles among decision makers and relevant stakeholders.

Some of this should be fairly obvious. An organization that supports or works with innovators is probably going to do better with a lean decision making process. An entity which has facilities for older folks is likely to have, and emphasize that they have, easily accessible facilities. A large community based organization which funds lots of subsidiaries and raises money from the broader community is most likely going to have a consensus and risk averse decision-making process. One would be surprised to learn otherwise.

In each case, it also defines who are not likely to see themselves as primary stakeholders. Start up entrepreneurs are not likely to look at “stodgy” consensus type organization as being a productive address. Millenials are unlikely to assume that an organization which emphasizes its physical accessibility for seniors has core competencies in attracting their peer group. Those who believe that we are living through a transformational and revolutionary time in history are not likely to assume that the large long-established multi-service address is going to be the most gratifying fit for them.

Culture is NOT the surface affect. Many organizations seem to forget: style is not a facebook page and culture is not a twitter handle. And a brand, no matter how much one invests in shaping it, is only what others think it is.

This is not to argue against the possibility of change. There are many examples of companies and organizations that have done so successfully. But successful change only can happen when there is no pretense that cosmetic changes alone are credible to new audiences and disaffected stakeholders.

4. Internal organizational culture matters at least as muchthe role of leadership

Some years ago, a manufacturing company contracted with me to try to understand why there was so much resistance to the organizational changes proposed by a previously utilized strategy company. That plan recommended moving operational decision-making to work groups throughout the company including the factory floor. It was a very reasonable plan. The CEO couldn’t understand why the work force was so reticent to make these changes. When asked, the foremen reported that the groups didn’t feel that they had real decision-making authority despite what the CEO claimed. It turned out that the CEO would choose to overrule the groups, which he himself acknowledged, but, he said, he didn’t do it more than 10% of the time. No one knew when he would intervene so no one felt that they really did have the authority he claimed they had. That cultural divide was proving very counterproductive between top management and those who needed to implement the plans. As the independent outsider, I was able to help implement a change which enhanced operational effectiveness almost immediately.

Another example, this time in the nonprofit realm: the CEO espoused a culture of creativity. It turns out that not all “creatives” were created equal. The CEO’s own ideas always were the ones considered creative. Those of others were almost always belittled. How creative do you think that culture proved to be?

What these two examples underscore is the central role of leadership in implementation. If the top leadership isn’t walking the talk, it is very unlikely others will choose to implement very many strategic realignments.

5. Alignment of resources with the desired changes

Especially in the nonprofit world, people are the resource. Sometimes an organization may have developed great competencies in a field no longer demographically appropriate. Early childhood staff are not trained to be teen workers or to run film series. If there is not re-training of existing staff or investments in new staff, it is going to be quite a challenge to implement a strategic change from one field to another.

Similarly, facilities are not always easily adaptable. Early childhood spaces are not likely to serve adult lecture series. If all the “millennials” are living downtown, a suburban location isn’t likely to be appealing.

An example from my own teaching experience: because of space limitations, NYU regularly rents high school facilities for its evening courses. To put it kindly, not all of those spaces are consistent with a message of serving the population I teach: philanthropists and foundation professionals. To be credible to this target market, and to implement the purposes of the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education required that the courses be offered in more professionally suitable settings. [I am happy to say that this did happen.]

Needless to say, implementation requires as much sensitivity, flexibility, and more long-term commitment than the initial development of a strategic plan. – and recognition that conditions sometimes require agility in adapting/modifying those plans as well. But with attention to these five components, there is a much greater likelihood that your own carefully wrought planning can be implemented successfully. And maybe you’ll be among those who will try and you’ll try and you’ll actually get some of that hard earned “satisfaction.”

Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.