Bridging the Gap: From Strategic Vision to Operational Reality

by HPA Senior Advisor Alex Nesbitt

The gap between a business’ strategic vision and its operational reality is a persistent challenge. Even when organizations meticulously craft airtight strategies, they frequently struggle to translate them into tangible results. This disconnect isn’t a reflection of inadequate effort; it stems from a flawed approach to strategy development and implementation.

The Flawed Waterfall

Traditional strategy development frequently resembles a top-down waterfall. Plans are formulated at the executive level, translated into broad initiatives, and then disseminated through the organizational hierarchy. But this approach suffers from a critical oversight: a lack of grounding in the experiences of frontline employees. Lofty and abstract strategies conceived in executive suites often fail to account for the day-to-day realities encountered by those responsible for execution.

Consider, for instance, a company strategizing to optimize sales by leveraging all its inventory across disparate business units. On paper, this sounds like a great idea. And yet, what if these units operate on incompatible Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems? This critical detail, often overlooked in the top-down approach, can render the strategy a non-starter.

In our experience, this kind of common disconnect manifests in several ways:

  • Communication silos: Like the outcome of the childhood game, Telephone, complex strategic narratives become diluted and distorted as they cascade down the hierarchy. Key messages morph into ambiguous directives, leading to confusion and a lack of employee buy-in. Can you blame them?
  • Psychological impediments: Fear and uncertainty are already present when it comes to big change, but a poorly communicated strategy can amplify these very real emotions among employees. And sometimes it’s not just a communication problem; your strategy may inadvertently be asking your employees to do something that feels unsafe to them but is unseen from the executive suite.  This disconnect can leave them with a justified feeling of a lack of safety.
  • Implementation: Even the most well-intentioned strategies can fall short in the face of practical rollout. Employees might lack the necessary tools, training, resources, or flexibility to effectively implement the plan. When you look at it from the employee’s perspective, are you asking them to scale Mount Everest without the proper gear and preparation?

A Paradigm Shift: Strategy as Service

To bridge this persistent gap, a fundamental shift in perspective is necessary, one that views strategy as service to your employees. In this new paradigm, the strategy isn’t a top-down decree. Instead, it serves the employees, empowering them to become active participants in its success – and their own.

Here are some core principles to guide you through this new approach:

  • Treat your employees like customers: Just as you develop a valuable offering for your end customers, your strategy should serve your employees. They need to buy in, so show them the value. Sell the strategic vision. Help them understand how they can contribute. Demonstrate how the strategy empowers them to make decisions consistent with the strategy.
  • Understand the employee experience: Before launching a strategy, take time to gain a thorough understanding of its impact on employees across all levels of your organization. When Hubert Joly became CEO of Best Buy, he took an unconventional approach, donned the iconic blue shirt, and immersed himself in the daily operations of a store. He got to experience firsthand the challenges faced by in-store employees and was better equipped to develop grounded and impactful strategies based on those insights. In fact, this experience helped drive the company’s massive transformation from retailer to brand showroom.
  • Connect strategy to behavior: Moving beyond vague aspirations and goals is essential. Strategies should be simple (not simplistic) and rich: clear, actionable, and explicit about the specific behavioral changes required for success. This shift from pronouncements to actionable behaviors provides a roadmap that fosters ownership and fuels a collaborative journey towards achieving the strategic goals.
  • Segment communication: Your employees are all starting from different places, making a one-size-fits-all communication strategy a recipe for disaster. Instead, approach messaging to employees like you would marketing to customers. Targeted messaging towards specific employee segments based on their perspective will foster deeper comprehension and connection to the change.
  • Recruit ambassadors: Identify local leaders who are early adopters of the strategy and recruit them to your cause. Their perspectives and experiences can help alleviate anxieties (both real and imagined). Engage them in building specific plans that translate strategy into action. By nurturing these early adopters and providing them with the necessary support, you create a core group of strategy advocates who can answer questions and build engagement and momentum among their colleagues. This internal network of local leaders can pave the way for a far smoother transition.
  • Implement with intention: Executing the strategy should feel achievable and manageable. Equipping employees with necessary tools, training, resources, and flexibility empowers them to overcome challenges and will ultimately make it more likely the strategy will succeed.
  • Leverage and replicate small-scale pilots:  Rather than trying to roll out strategy to everyone everywhere, look to build small-scale pilots that demonstrate the strategy in action. Give people something to see and touch. Then replicate your way to success.

Remember, the goal isn’t the strategy.

The outcome of the strategy is the goal. That’s why taking the perspective of employees from all levels of your organization, then fostering understanding, addressing apprehensions, and streamlining execution are fundamental. Taking these steps will make it far easier for organizations to translate their epic visions into tangible outcomes. But keep in mind, this shift in perspective isn’t just about flawless execution; it’s about unlocking the full potential of your workforce to achieve your business’ full potential. When strategy becomes tractable and employees feel empowered and equipped to contribute to a shared vision, the strategy gap ceases to be an insurmountable chasm.

ALEX NESBITT is an HPA Senior Advisor with 30+ years of management consulting experience and a strong track record of partnering with CEOs to tackle issues related to strategy, organizational and operational effectiveness, and performance improvement. Alex is a former BCG Managing Director who led the firm’s West Coast Industrial Practice. After leaving BCG, Alex founded a third-party logistics firm, which he later sold to Ryder Logistics.