Is strategy and strategy execution serious stuff in your organization? Would you say that it’s TOO serious? If you answered “yes” then you and your organization are not alone. Sometimes I think that we just take all this strategy stuff much too seriously and I wonder if this is where the seeds for peoples’ dislike for all things strategy are sown.
An attention to strategy is critical for the progress and success of any organization and I know how hard it can be to get people to engage in strategy activities and talk. However, I think that taking a hyper-serious approach to strategy formulation, execution, and management actually limits the attractiveness of your strategy and strategy activities to employees at all levels of your organization – including your executives. Besides, taking the straight-faced approach to business strategy may actually be making it harder for your company to achieve the performance results you desire!
So, what exactly do I mean when I talk about being “too serious” about strategy?
First of all, let me be clear that I do believe that the content related to a company’s strategy is serious business – even if you are in the entertainment/fun business. However, I think that as business and strategy leaders, we often think that we must bring the same level of seriousness to our strategy processes. It’s almost as though we think that the strategy we create and execute will not be serious enough, be taken seriously, be effective enough, or produce high performance results unless it is supported by equally serious process. However, based on my experiences both as a strategy manager in a corporate environment and as a consulting strategy advisor, I’m not at all convinced that this is actually the case – regardless of the type of business you are in. In fact, I have come to think that it's quite the opposite
Essentially, I believe that strategy gets too serious when we take an element of playfulness out of the strategy formulation, execution, and management process.
Yes – playfulness. Let me explain what I mean.
In my experience, bringing an element of play and light-heartedness into the strategy formulation process creates an environment that is more conducive to information sharing, creative thinking, and idea generation. This, in turn, results in the development of higher quality, more innovative strategic insights. A planning environment that is playful is open and is conducive to building trust – just the right conditions for maximum employee and executive participation and engagement in the planning process. However, I want to be very clear that your expectations for the strategy created in this type of environment shouldn’t be lowered just because an element of play has been added into the mix. In fact, leaders I work with are often surprised to find that the result is a better quality, more effective business strategy BECAUSE of the environment created and process used when playfulness is involved, not despite it.
Smart strategy managers bring an element of play into the strategy formulation process by including non-strategy related “warm up” activities and small team discussion and creation activities into the process. By highlighting collaboration (e.g. small team work) and including light-hearted, friendly competition (small teams will "compete" with each other to produce higher quality work even without you encouraging it), entertainment (e.g. relevant funny videos and appropriate banter and jokes), and rewards (e.g. visible rewards like strategy-themed buttons, pens, USB's, and zipper pulls can provide participants with a real reminder and tangible evidence of their strategic knowledge and contribution on an ongoing basis) into the process, it’s easy to make strategic planning, and most importantly the environment, fun and playful, preparing participants to seriously think about strategy.
Once the business strategy has been defined, the strategy implementation, execution, and management process offers lots of opportunities to add playfulness into the mix. The key is to be creative and focus on playful elements that work with your organizational culture and appeal to the fun side of your employees’ nature. Here are some real-life ideas.
Rather than holding lifeless quarterly results update meetings with employees, transform them into venues where employees can engage with your strategy, and each other, in fun and playful ways. For example, when I was managing strategy at the Canada Life Assurance Co, our meetings became famous for the strategy games we would play. A short information session on an element of our business strategy and/or a review of quarterly performance results and the associated learnings would be followed up with a survivor-style “game show” where department teams could work together to answer questions about our business strategy, perform fun tasks to uncover information about key strategic facts, and leverage their knowledge to win modest prizes.
As another example, rather than simply color-coding our business performance results, we used happy face icons to indicate whether performance was above, at, or below target. Using our happy faces allowed us to slip in fun and unexpected icon expressions from time to time which kept everyone guessing (what will they come up with next?) and entertained.
Finally, by staging our annual results review meeting as a news-style “show” with entertaining interviews with key executive leaders, these meetings became not to be missed entertaining, information-packed, and interactive strategy-focused events for our staff.
These are just a few examples of the creative ways we added fun into the strategy management process in our organization. Yes, it took time, effort, and resources to do these things but the result was that our employees came willingly to events where they were exposed to important elements of our business strategy and what it looked like in action. They received information, interacted with our strategy, and heard from their peers about how they put the business strategy into action in their everyday work.
Do your current strategy efforts feel like they are focused on pushing strategy information on an unwilling audience? Are you struggling to engage disinterested employees and executives in strategy conversations? What if you could turn it around and focus your efforts on building fun and playfulness into your strategy processes so that that they attract your employees to your strategy like a magnet? I can tell you that it’s a much better experience for you, your employees, and your organization!
Now, one of the concerns you might have about all this fun is that people forget about the strategy once the games are over. (Here’s a little secret – keep the fun and playfulness going! Don’t completely stop – make fun a part of the way you do strategy in your organization). I will tell you that our annual strategy knowledge and capability survey did demonstrate a gradual uptick in employee knowledge of our strategy over time. Would we have seen this increase with regular strategy communications? Perhaps. But I can say with some level of certainty that, as an organization, we had a lot of fun with our strategy over time and it certainly didn’t have a negative impact on the quality of our strategic plan, our employees’ understanding of our business strategy, on the execution of our strategy, or on the achievement of our business results. In fact, we achieved some of our biggest business performance improvements over the same time period.
The key in my mind? Adding playfulness into your strategy processes creates a better environment for good strategic thinking, producing a high quality business strategy. A process that includes fun helps your employees engage with your strategy and each other in an almost effortless way. Making strategy fun draws employees in and brings them to your strategy, providing you with opportunities to educate and engage them further. And finally, adding a touch of play to your strategy events and communication efforts makes your strategy sticky – ensuring that your employees will remember it, increasing the odds that they will actually put it into action on a day to day basis through aligned decision-making and work activities.
Is your organization too serious about strategy? Adding playfulness into your strategy formulation, execution, and management process has lots of upside. It’s good for your strategy, your employees, your customers or stakeholders, and, ultimately, your business results.
What can you do right now to add a little fun into your strategy? Engage your playful side and see what you can come up with!
How do you and your organization put fun into your strategy formulation, execution, and management process? Please share your creative ideas with our readers and tell us what impact it’s having on your strategy management efforts, organization, and business performance results!