Monday, April 23, 2012

The Strategy of Strategy Implementation

The articles for this week made the case that defining the strategy of an organization is only one small step on the road to success.  Apart from the organization’s visionary strategy for its operations, its actual implementation is a separate strategy altogether.  In their article, Neilson et. al outline “fundamental building blocks” that predetermine successful strategy implementation1 and G.E. CEO Jeffrey R. Immelt seconds these building blocks in his comments in Lohr’s 2010 New York Times article.2  In my last blog post, I discussed the strategic planning process of my current workplace, the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council (GPAC).  My organization also recently restructured staff duties in a way that rings very true to this discussion about the primary components of strategic implementation.

You may recall that I identified GPAC’s strategy as one of differentiation in providing services that arts organizations and individual artists cannot otherwise provide themselves.  To this end, before the restructuring last fall, it had a staff person dedicated to each of the following key functions: grants and consulting; marketing; advocacy and research; development; and general office management.  Of course, the CEO oversaw these efforts and several support staff were interspersed among the operations.  The resignation of the marketing director in August served as a catalyst for a review of the individual workloads, reporting structure, and separation of duties of each staff member.  By the spring, the key functional staff members’ responsibilities had shifted: communications and volunteer programs; grants and professional development; development; artist relations; conference planning; and general office management.  Simultaneously rearranged with the review of the strategic plan, this staffing structure promised the plan’s effective implementation.       

Neilson et. al acknowledge that, like GPAC, “to improve performance, most organizations go right to structural measures,”1 but they recommend examining decision rights as a more long-term solution.  At G.E., Immelt agrees that “his broadest responsibility…is to ‘drive change and develop people,’”2 a responsibility that can only be carried out by affording different people with different decision rights.  I would argue that although GPAC’s restructuring made sense for the organization’s operational strategy, it is experiencing an unnecessarily steep learning curve in strategic implementation because it did not carefully consider the decisions that staff were making in their original roles.  A decision that was previously made by one person could now feasibly be made by three different people in three different ways.  As the organization’s intern and very much at the mercy of upper management’s decisions, I have been caught in the middle of this triangle.  Neilson et. al go further in stating that the lack of decision rights can lead to second-guessing one another,1 and I have experienced this as well.  Like the cited charitable organization (it must be a chronic nonprofit problem), we do “have a series of meetings in which no decision [is] reached.”1  GPAC’s thought process behind the organizational restructuring was noble in its intentions to spread the workload, but it will be some time before the structure allows for the development of its people (a la Immelt).

Neilson et. al and Immelt also agree that the careful alignment of the organizational structure and information flow is key to strategy implementation.  Neilson et. al suggest that in successful companies, “information flows freely across organizational boundaries.”1  At G.E., a large company whose business units could comfortably live in silos, Immelt oversees the activities that “cut across business units – or have no natural home in a business.”2 He views the corporation’s size as an advantage because he can structure its “resources to capitalize on opportunity.”2  At GPAC, the organization was restructured to allow for balanced workloads, strategic plan implementation, and cost- and energy-efficient use of time, but it did not follow the way that information flowed throughout the organization.  To GPAC’s credit, the restructuring did break many of the existing silos, but in the process it created redundancies.  For example, when I received an email with a question from an artist, I forwarded it to two people, who then forwarded it to a third person, and all three had different ideas of how this artist’s question applied to their respective focus areas.  In the meantime, I, the intern, was the pivot point and the person responsible for answering the email.  Of GPAC’s 10 staff members, four of us were preoccupied with this one simple question.  To this day, we have not devised a system for handling information that now overlaps with multiple people’s responsibilities.  This example shows how GPAC’s staff restructuring in fact caused inefficiencies in shaking up the information flow within the organization.  It diverted attention away from activities that would fulfill its strategy to serve a broad array of artists and arts organizations.   

Admittedly, my view of GPAC’s strategy is tainted by the position I hold within the organization, where I am privy to some channels of decision-making and information flow and not to others.  At my very bottom level, however, I might suggest that I am one of the most likely staff members to first recognize this breakdown in strategic implementation as I am directed to perform conflicting duties.  With strategy development so often directed or at least initiated by top management, what can bottom level staff members do to motivate strategic alignment throughout the organization?

1Neilson, Gary L., Karla L. Martin, and Elizabeth Powers. "The Secrets to Successful Strategy Execution." Harvard Business Review June (2008): 3-13. Print.
2Lohr, Steve. "G.E. Goes With What It Knows: Making Stuff." The New York Times [New York] 4 Dec. 2010. Print.

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