Digital Strategy is a big space, and while it’s easy to lump it into the same category as IT Strategy, it is decidedly different. Digital Strategy encompasses the processes, policies, people, and technology of the business and how each of these interlink into each other systemically. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to be speaking directly to the ‘people’ aspect of digital strategy.

A failure in traditional management theory is the concept that things are black and white when it comes to strategy; if you put in the correct process, everything else will fall into place. The simple fact is though, you are dealing with people. People exhibit choices, preferences, and their own mindsets. In these top-down organisations, it is often concluded by Exco that the staff are on a need to know basis, and processes are dictated by the needs of management (in contrast to efficiency at the coal-face).

Enter toxicity

These mindsets are not only dangerous to the business, they can be incredibly insulting to teams and people in the business. They create a toxic us-and-them relationship (I use the term loosely) between the executive and the teams on the ground. And when you have this toxic environment, people are going to exhibit those choices – resisting the processes or worse, leaving the organisation with any intellectual property they may possess.

Often, strategy is employed to “fix a problem” in addition to reaching organisational goals defined by Exco, in a kind of ‘two birds with one stone’ approach. The view is that the fix should be a checkbox exercise of implementing the strategy, and the staff will follow. When the staff don’t follow, it’s a failure of the strategy and not the Exco. This is where I disagree. What tends to happen is that the executive will bring in a new strategy which involves unreasonable requirements or processes on the ground level. These processes, policies, and tools are implemented for the general staff – but Exco are given carte blanche to remain on the previous way of doing things – often because the restrictions are in place to fix a problem with people in the business, and the strategy is therefore wildly impractical.

There are two problems with this approach:

  1. The executive team is not supporting the strategy
  2. Strategy is being implemented as a “cop-out” for problems on the ground

Why is executive buy-in important?

People within an organisation will take cues from others in the organisation, and when those perceived to be in power in an organisation flaunt the rules, why should others follow them? If the executive team does not apply the requirements of a process or policy change to themselves in a disciplined manner, they simply cannot expect that teams will follow without absolute authoritarianism. A management discipline which I believe costs more time in micromanaging than it has benefit in efficiency and control.

It’s key that everyone buys in and applies the strategy in order to keep the ship steered straight. If every level applies the strategy, it also becomes clear as to what is not working in the process, policy, or tools at any given level. This allows for an agile approach to changing the strategy if needs be. Have “strong opinions loosely held” as they say.

A cop-out for a broader problem

This brings me to the more dangerous point. If your strategy is designed as a top down implementation that aims to control and manipulate teams into a particular behaviour, there is a larger problem at hand. Digital (or any) strategy should not be seen as a control mechanism for problems due to individuals or groups within the organisation. In these cases, the problem teams and individuals should be dealt with by a strong leadership in whichever way is most fitting (and just) to the problem at hand.

While you can have strategy in place to lessen a problem by giving direction to the organisation, implementing disciplinary measures under the guise of strategy is a dangerous (and often incredibly impractical) approach to management. I specifically stay away from the term ‘leadership’ in this instance.

What can be done

It’s a remarkably simple concept, with a potentially difficult implementation; management at all levels needs to apply and buy in to the consequences and effects of any strategic change. If they do not, they are effectively sitting with their heads in the sand (and their thumbs somewhere else). It is vitally important that the executive team hold each other accountable, just as much as they would hold their teams accountable for the adoption of the strategy and it’s constituent parts.

If the strategy is a good one, it shouldn’t be troublesome for everyone to adopt. If it’s a bad one, there’s a good chance those at the Exco level would not be comfortable following it, and that’s when you need to start asking why the strategy is in place in the first place. A good digital strategy design is one that includes the social aspects of implementation in an organisation, and one that has had the time taken to involve the stakeholders at every level, be it internally designed or through ongoing external consultation.

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