Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Strategic Planning Analogy #356: Followership

Imagine, if you will, a marketer explaining her new marketing plan. This is what she says:

“I have 100 consumers for my product, but I am going to spend my entire marketing budget on reaching only one of them. I will ignore the other 99.”

You might want to ask her, “Does this one customer spend a lot more than the other 99?”

Her answer, “No, that one customer is slightly below average in spending.”

Then you might ask, “Are the other 99 so loyal that they do not need to be marketed to?”

Her answer, “No, they defect to the competition all the time.”

At this point, you might conclude that this woman is in the wrong profession and should give up a career in marketing.

It seems silly for a marketer to focus all their effort on one person and ignore everyone else. How can you expect consumers to patronize you if you ignore them?

Yet businesses do something equally silly. It seems that all the business books and consultants are focused on “Leadership”. For example, there are tons of books out there on how to become a great CEO, but try to find a book on how to become a great low level employee. They don’t exist. Last time I checked, there are a lot more followers in a business than there are leaders. Why don’t we spend more attention on followership?

Although strategies may be created by leaders back at the corporate offices, strategies are implemented primarily in places far away from the corporate offices by the hundreds and thousands of rank and file employees. A well crafted strategy at headquarters can be utterly destroyed by a front level employee who mis-handles a contact with a customer. How can you expect employees to properly implement the strategy if you ignore them?

Focusing only on leadership is like a marketer who focuses only on one consumer. It misses all the potential from everyone else. I understand why the authors and consultants focus on leadership…that is where their money is made. However, your money is made primarily by the labors of the followers. A strategy which ignores the followers will most likely fail.

The principle here is that strategic success should not be determined by the cleverness of the plan, but by the effectiveness of the implementation. Therefore, careful consideration should be given to how the plan impacts the implementers.

For example, many strategic plans try to implement change. Although that change may be good and desirable, change is typically resisted by the rank and file employees. If your strategy does not include specific attention to overcoming that resistance, then it will fail to be properly executed by those who resist it. Hence, the plan becomes worthless…all because of ignoring the implementers.

Although this principle has always been important, recent trends are making it even more important.

1. De-layering and Empowerment
There has been a trend in business to eliminate many layers of leaders and give more decision power to front-line employees. This can be a very good thing. It improves flexibility and the ability to react quickly. However, it also increases the risk that a strategy is implemented improperly. If those front-line employees are (a) unaware of the plan or (b) do not buy into the plan or (c) do not see the connection between what they do and the plan, then that extra empowerment they have will empower them to ignore the plan.

2. The Nature of Knowledge Work
Back in the days when most labor was assembly line factory work, the typical difference between the most productive and least productive employee in terms of output was about 20%. That was because the assembly line itself served to help people conform to the norms of efficiency. If you deviated much from the norm, you upset the entire assembly line. This was highly noticeable and the inefficient would soon be eliminated.

However, in knowledge-based work, it is a lot harder to detect and control output. In knowledge-based work, it is not uncommon for the best employee to accomplish more in a couple of hours than what the worst employee does in an entire week. In knowledge-based work, there can be a lot of people like Wally in the Dilbert cartoons, who can go for months without doing any real output and go undetected.

Without the assembly line to help enforce conformity, it takes extra effort to get employees committed to executing in conformance with the plan. If you do not pay special attention to this issue in your planning, these knowledge-based workers may end up doing nothing to advance the plan, or worse yet, apply their knowledge in a way that acts counter to the plan.

3. Social Networking
In the world of social networking there are no secrets. If a front-line employee screws up in the interaction with customers, it will soon be broadcast to the world via emails, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other such media. Rather than accept your strategic claims at face value, customers go to social networking sites to hear other voices speak about your company.

In the world of social networking, headquarters has less control over its image than ever before. Successfully getting consumers embrace your strategic position and trust you with their patronage is harder than ever. Therefore, it is more critical than ever to implement the strategy well—even at the smallest levels. This requires more diligence in working with your implementers on execution.

4. Lower Employee Loyalty
The loyalty contract between employer and employee is not what it used to be. In general, newer, younger employees are not as blindly committed to their employers. They are more likely to quit if things do not go their way. They are not accustomed to blindly following orders. They ask a lot more questions.

As a result, loyalty can no longer be accepted as a given. If you want loyal employees, you have to earn it by “going the extra mile.” Good strategic plan implementation works best when implemented by loyal employees, particularly if the plan involves a lot of change. Therefore, an investment in building more loyalty throughout the organization can be very important to strategic success.

So What Does This Mean?
Keeping this in mind, strategic planning can improve its success in implementation by doing the following:

a) Consider how the strategic plan impacts your expectations of how employees should act (what they should be working on and how they should interact with others).

b) Consider what barriers may exist to cause employees to resist acting in this manner.

c) Develop tactics to remove those barriers.

d) Incorporate into the plan a means to communicate the essence of the plan to all workers (on a regular basis) so that they understand it, buy into it, see its relevancy to what they do on a daily basis, and want to work to make it a reality.

e) Link rewards and compensation to strategy implementation.

f) Whenever key decisions are being made in the organization, make sure its strategic implications are a part of the discussion. Institutionalize it into your decision-making process.

g) Get strategic issues into the daily conversation at the lowest levels of the organization, so that it is not forgotten.

h) Proactively work to improve employee loyalty.

Clever plans can be fun to develop, but true success depends on getting favorable results. Therefore, a large portion of one’s strategic effort should be focused on barriers to implementation. Since implementation depends on the implementers, significant attention needs to be given to the lower level employees who do that work. They will only execute the plan well if they understand the plan, see its relevancy to their work, and are motivated to want to see the plan succeed. Getting this right can do more for your success than just being clever.

The definition of a leader is someone who has followers. If you only focus on creating a great leader, you may not get great followers (and have failed in your task). However, if you focus on creating great followers, you will have (by definition) a great leader.

1 comment:

  1. Gerald Nanninga,

    This inspiring post reminds me of the long-tail distribution. There is a growing realization that the knowledge economy is reshaping even the normal distribution into a long-tail distribution. In this distribution there is a new retailing concept describing the niche strategy of selling a large number of unique items in relatively small quantities. Analogously, I would say selling unique tactics to a large number of workers is more profitable to selling popular strategy items to few leaders. Creativity is continuously generating specialized items (regardless whether these items are ideas, widgets, etc.) and these items must sell to the masses (workers) rather than the few elite (leaders).
    The trend to go for masses (worker) is growing. This is conforming to your post. I hope I made my point clear.