One of the biggest problems with traditional strategic plans/planning documents is that they are written at too high a level. That is, they include a list of high level strategic direction statements supported by an often longer list of goals and objectives. While these elements of the plan make sense and sound logical, the real problem is that when they get back to their every day work, employees don’t know (1) whether and/or how any of these directions and goals relate to them and their work, and (2) how they can make a real contribution that will count and actually move the business and strategy forward. The primary barrier getting in the way here is that the traditional strategic plan doesn’t effectively “operationalize” strategy. That is, it is operating at a high level and doesn’t do a good job of translating strategy into meaningful, actionable terms.
The strategy map is one of the tools that have been developed to solve this problem. By identifying the strategy-focused value chain that runs throughout the entire organization, and expressing these elements in terms of the action-oriented strategic objectives that must work in an integrated way to achieve desired business results, deliver the customer or stakeholder value proposition, and achieve the organization’s mission and vision, the strategy map does an excellent job at helping employees begin to “see” (1) what the strategy looks like in action across the organization and, more importantly, in their own job, and (2) how they can personally contribute to (first) strategy execution and (ultimately) strategy formulation/re-formulation.
However, while a strategy map alone is a vast improvement over the traditional strategic plan, with its three to five word strategic objectives and one word core values your organization still runs the risk that action and strategy execution will be sub-optimized. This isn’t because employees can’t imagine the action required to execute the strategy – it’s because there is still a lot of room for mis-interpretation of which actions will bring the strategy to life and actually produce the desired results in a way that that is consistent with the values of the organization.
Here’s the problem: while some strategy-based action is better than none at all, action that has sub-optimized alignment with your strategy can actually get you and your organization into trouble. Here’s what I mean. For example, if you and I are fellow employees and we have different interpretations of what “Teamwork” (in the case of a typical core value) or “Optimize Operational Efficiencies” (a possible strategic objective) mean and look like in action, we will behave differently and, almost certainly, make different business decisions based on our individual understanding of these elements of our company’s strategy. In the best case scenario, we end up sub-optimizing our efforts and reducing organizational efficiencies because own actions don’t quite dovetail together. In a worst case situation, you and I make business decisions based on our personal understanding of the business strategy that don’t quite fit with the intent of the company’s strategy and the big picture, which ends up costing the company time, resources, hard dollars, and even lost customers.
The solution to this problem is to take your strategy map to another, deeper level by creating short definitions for both the core values and strategic objectives that are included on it. The secret is that once you create these definitions, you’ll discover that they play such a pivotal role in the successful execution of your business strategy every day that you’ll wonder how you ever could have done without them.
Let’s start with discussing the nature of the definitions for your organization’s core values.
Why do organizations create core values in the first place? The primary reason is to establish behavioral norms for the group/employees. Core values set the standards and boundaries of acceptable behavior for employees and communicate to your other stakeholders what they can expect when dealing with your organization. Great core value definitions take the time to really describe what living a specific core value actually looks like in action. They provide more information about what we mean when we use terms like “Innovation”, “Customer-Centered”, or “Entrepreneurial” (just some examples of the core values I often see in organizations I work with) AND they provide some examples of the behavior we would observe when someone is putting that core value into action.
Here are a few examples of some core values definitions:
Integrity: Acting with integrity means that we are honest and trustworthy in every interaction we have with our partners, stakeholders, and each other. It also means that we are who we say we are and do what we say we are going to do. Integrity means that each of us aspires to always do the right thing, even when it's difficult to do so. We act with integrity by always ensuring transparency, confidentiality, and discretion so that we can maintain the trust and confidence of our stakeholders.
Respect: We will treat everyone with fairness, courtesy, and consideration in everything we do and take the people we work with for who they are. We value the diversity of each individual we encounter throughout our day and understand the unique nature of the individual experience, journey, and motivations. As a result, we make sure that we listen to everyone we meet with openness and compassion.
The beauty of these definitions is that they make each core value much clearer. When you read them do you have a much better understanding of what they truly mean, what’s involved, and what it looks like to live each value? A great definition makes this abundantly clear to everyone.
Strategic objective definitions work in a similar way. Each definition provides more specificity about what a strategic objective really is about (including what’s in play and, often more importantly, what isn’t) AND it talks about the unique contribution each specific strategic objective makes in the context of the overall business strategy. This second part of the definition plays a particularly important role in engaging the hearts and minds of your employees (who are the people who really make your strategic objectives happen) with your business strategy.
Here are a few examples of some strategic objective definitions:
Collaborate & Partner to Advance Goals: We work closely with a variety of internal and external partners to create and share common goals, understand what needs to be done to achieve those goals, and determine who has accountability to do what. Having this level of clarity and collaboration builds high levels of synergy and buy in amongst partners, accelerates the cycle of innovation, and facilitates deeper investment in our organization and our overall mission.
Strive for Continuous Improvement & Innovation: We are never satisfied with the status quo and, by pushing the boundaries and looking beyond the way we currently work, we dare to step out of our comfort zone. We challenge ourselves in everything we do and actively seek learning opportunities. By constantly searching for new and better ways of doing things and achieving our goals, we demonstrate that we are forward-thinking thought leaders in our field.
Usually your core values and strategic objective definitions exist in a companion document that sits beside your strategy map and can be used as required for just some of the important purposes outlined below.
When you are just starting out sharing your strategy story with your employees and stakeholders, definitions will help build consistent understanding of the real meaning of your strategy map (and what it looks like in action). As people become familiar with your strategy map, they will gradually need to refer to these definitions less frequently however, until they do, the definitions play a critical role in building an aligned organization and culture.
Core values definitions can be used to develop the behavioral elements and performance thresholds used in your employee development and performance management processes. The best company recognition programs reward employees for demonstrating behaviors aligned with core values – this is difficult to do without clear definitions.
Strategic objective definitions are a tool your organization will use again and again when it comes to selecting, evaluating, and replacing your balanced scorecard indicators. In your quest to select the one or two indicators that best represent the intent behind each strategic objective on your strategy map, you’ll quickly discover that well written strategic objective definitions are your best friend.
Good strategic objective definitions are essential if you are going to leverage your strategy map in your business decision making criteria and processes. Have an ad hoc work request or new business opportunity and need a consistent approach to evaluating it in the context of relative value to your business strategy? Clear strategic objective definitions are a critical tool supporting your decision making process.
Most importantly, good core values and strategic objective definitions help shorten the learning curve for new employees, helping them understand your business strategy and organizational cultural imperatives and expected behaviors faster than most traditional onboarding processes. With the support of well written definitions, your strategy map can help new employees fit into your organization better and make meaningful business contributions more quickly and effectively – which is a win-win for both your new employee and your company.
And this is just a short list of the critical ways definitions can make a difference in your organization.
The bottom line is that core values and strategic objective definitions play a powerful and pivotal role in the successful execution and refinement of your business strategy and in building a strategy-focused culture and organization in your company. They help translate your strategy into actionable terms and give your employees the “dictionary” they need to bring your strategy to life and into play everyday effortlessly, effectively and, most importantly, in a way that maximizes the impact on your business strategy and the results your company achieves.
For these important reasons, your core values and strategic objective definitions are the essential and invaluable “Rosetta stone” of your company’s business strategy.
Is your strategy map supported by core values and strategic objective definitions? If not, take steps today to add definitions to your company’s arsenal.