Putting company strategy into practice is notoriously difficult. In particular, there are four core tensions that leaders need to balance.
TENSION #1: AN INSPIRING END STATE VERSUS CHALLENGING TARGETS
A vision of an inspirational ”end state” is essential for getting people to commit to change: a simple narrative that articulates not only why change is necessary but also what life will look and feel like once change is successfully implemented.
However, aggressive “mid-state” targets are also required to provide direction and to challenge people to give their all. Among workers, an inspiring end state without challenging targets will likely elicit the response, “I will give this a go, and we can see where we land.” That’s not optimal. But at the same time, challenging targets without an inspiring end state leads to a grind in which workers often ask themselves, “Why am I doing this?”
TENSION #2: TOP-DOWN CONTROL VERSUS DEMOCRATIZATION OF CHANGE
When everyone in the organization feels empowered to make decisions that can influence change, it creates a palpable energy: People tend to work harder, offer more ideas and become far more invested in the process. If every activity is the result of a command from on high, the company runs the risk of sucking all the energy out of the room. But the flip side can be myriad groups of enthusiastic change agents dashing off in multiple, uncoordinated directions.
TENSION #3: CAPABILITY DEVELOPMENT VERSUS PRESSURE FOR RESULTS
Many strategies call for significant changes in the ways a company works, which raises questions of whether the organization needs to develop new capabilities. But the pressure to deliver immediate results is often so intense that an organization may be forced to forge ahead with its existing capabilities.
TENSION #4: CREATIVITY VERSUS DISCIPLINE
Creativity is a part of any distinctive strategy. Fearing that discipline will stifle creativity, it is not uncommon for executives to choose to “let the creatives run free.” At its best this can lead to unanticipated insights and outcomes, but at its worst it can lead to chaos and complete unaccountability for results. In fact, creativity and discipline are not mutually exclusive — yet this tension can be the hardest one to balance.
Companies that can achieve a balance between opposing forces are far more likely to realize successful strategies that endure.
(Simon Horan is a managing director at L.E.K. Consulting. Michael Connerty is a managing director in L.E.K. Consulting’s Chicago office.)