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Strategy from the Bottom Up

Strategy Planning

What comes to mind when you think about creating a company strategy?

Todd C. Williams puts it like this, in his book, Filling Execution Gaps:

“Visionaries define where the company can go. Executives select the options that appear to make business sense, set goals for their development, and identify initiatives to meet those goals. Middle managers decompose those initiatives into programmes and constituent projects in order to build and implement the capabilities to support achieving the corporate goals.”

That seems pretty standard to me. Strategy days involve shutting your exec team and a consultant facilitator away in a hotel for a couple of days until they emerge, bleary-eyed, with a slide deck representing the future.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. Many a good corporate vision statement has been fuelled by conference venue coffee and those tiny croissants.

But it’s not the only way to input into a strategy.

In fact, Williams goes on to say that business is anything but static. “Vision and goals,” he adds, “need to adapt to customer and business changes.”

So effectively, we’re talking about inputting to strategy from the bottom up.

Bottom Up Changes

We see this all the time: businesses flex to the needs of their customers, whether it’s written as a declared part of their strategy or not. When they don’t, their businesses start to struggle (anyone remember Blockbuster?).

Project teams are often the first people to see the impact of this on their work. The products created from projects, or the customer input required for projects, provide a fantastic feedback loop. This information can filter up through the business, so that the vision can flex and follow, if necessary.

Alternatively, information can flow down through the organisation again, helping project teams and frontline staff course correct as appropriate to take on board the feedback.

Creating Bi-Directional Loops

If you want managers to take frontline feedback into account when steering the business – and I can’t see any reason why you wouldn’t listen to those voices – then it’s important to build in bi-directional feedback loops.

That simply means information can flow up the organisation and down again. There are channels for communicating upwards to management, and there are channels for cascading as well.

These have to be more meaningful ways of communicating than simply disseminating a presentation deck, for example. This is your strategy we are talking about, not an announcement about canteen hours or the cycle to work scheme. We’re hoping to align strategy throughout the organisation with this communication effort, so it has to work.

Feedback loops in different companies will look very different. You can imagine that in smaller companies or start-ups, the information about alignment of projects to strategy can be discussed with almost everyone in the business, regularly. That obviously doesn’t work for large multinationals. Whatever the chain of communication, it needs to be effective and the messages need to get through.

You could use a distributed network of Project Management Offices for this, if you have them, or share information via your line manager. It really doesn’t matter how the communication flows work, as long as they do. State your intention to be open to information that relates to strategic alignment, and adjust your process as you go to increase efficiency and adoption.

Align StrategyMaintaining Alignment

Wherever you are in the business, there are some things you can be doing to ensure that the alignment holds true. In other words, there are some key tasks, either as a one-off or an ongoing commitment, that allow you to ensure the organisation is strategically aligned against your business goals.

What do these look like? Well, again, it necessary to tailor how you approach alignment work to meet your business needs and the operational culture. However, there are some things that Williams suggests. Here are a few ideas to consider for your business.

Defining appropriate metrics: What are the success criteria that really matter? If you can focus everyone on the important metrics, you can ensure the work is aligned to deliver against these. Plus, you can measure where you are. It’s not easy to come up with a set of standard metrics, and you may need different measures for different business areas. However, if you don’t know what’s important, how will anyone else know what they should be focusing on?

Defining lean governance structures: How can you ensure bureaucracy doesn’t get in the way of information sharing? Governance should be fit for purpose to meet the business’ compliance and reporting requirements. Your Project Management Office should be able to actively support this and help define what governance should look like.

Building a culture of leadership: How sure are you that your leaders are equipped to support their teams? A leadership culture should spread beyond the top echelons of management. Often, companies invest in their senior leadership community with training programmes and the like, but leaders at all levels in the business can benefit from appropriate training and the transfer of that learning back to the workplace.

Assigning accountability at the right level: Are people’s actions tied to accountability? When you are trying to make sure strategy is aligned to the activity and feedback from the frontline of the organisation, you need to make sure accountability for action sits in the right place. It’s important to make the connection between accountability and action. People who are accountable for the delivery of strategy, for example, need to be connected to the people doing the actions. That gives you a ‘golden thread’ of strategy that links the vision to what is actually happening. And the person who is accountable should be able to see the activities clearly. They can then step in and correct the alignment if necessary.

There is still, of course, the overarching need for strategy to be defined by the people who have the best idea of where the business can go. However, it really is worth making sure that alignment exists where it needs to and feedback loops are open. The ‘bottom up’ idea won’t write your strategy for you, but it can alert you to concerns and help you identify where the strategic execution isn’t going quite how you planned it would from your session in that conference room.

Have you got feedback loops in your business that allow you to escalate issues when strategic activities seem to be going off plan? Tweet us @2080StrategyEx. We’d love to see how you manage this in your organisation.

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin
Elizabeth Harrin is a career project and programme manager with over a decade of experience in healthcare and financial services. She's also a content strategist, award-winning blogger and author of several books about project management. Find her online at A Girl's Guide to Project Management

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