What Is Strategy Activation?

Leading Strategy Activation Requires
a People-First Approach

Almost every organization today talks regularly about its strategy. It’s the topic of great debate and sound writing: what is strategy; how do you arrive at a compelling strategy; the list goes on. We have an abundance of resources to guide us through strategic planning processes, and we see organizations regularly invest tremendous amounts of time and money in the formation of strategy itself.

There is value in this investment in strategy. When constructed well, strategy breaks down into goals, objectives, and initiatives, often in a very linear, time-bound, programmatic way that will produce growth and change. All of this is clearly important. When managed properly, it can be an effective and essential part of growth. But too often, we take for granted the critical element that makes strategy effective—that is, the people who will be doing things differently and producing new results to make the strategic vision a reality.

Strategy is activated through people.

The idea of strategy activation through people feels fairly intuitive. Yet, how often do we talk about what our strategy activation plan is? How much attention is given to how this strategy activation will occur? How well do we account for the neuroscience research that helps us understand why activating a new strategy is so difficult? Lastly, how do we know when and where it’s working to help us reach our goals and the organization’s potential?

What is strategy activation and how does it work?

Strategy activation eliminates the gap between development and execution. It moves people into action. The skills, tactics, techniques, and approaches that fit under this heading of strategy activation are broad. They encompass many topics and skills—brand, culture, technology, neuroscience, communication, and visual design, to name a few. However, there are a few fundamental concepts that can strengthen any organization’s approach to strategy activation.

An illustration showing the fundamental concepts of strategy activation

Align key stakeholders

Strategy activation starts with alignment. There are many levels of alignment:

  • Align the board and executives on what the strategy is.
  • Align executives and other senior leaders on the culture, purpose, and principles that give shape to how strategy comes to life.
  • Align senior leaders and middle management on the how and why of strategy activation.

Alignment reduces conflict and creates a foundation for the efficient deployment of strategy. In contrast, the lack of alignment will bog an organization down in continuous internal meetings and endless debate.

Craft a compelling story

Successful strategy activation depends on clarity, repetition, and storytelling. Too often we start strategic initiatives with a company announcement. The purpose remains high level and the intention is left to interpretation. What winds up happening is the narrative is written by the recipients of the message. Confusion and tension begin to set in before things have even started.

Beginning with connection to the organization’s purpose, strategy activation must vividly articulate why the strategy makes sense. It needs holistic branding to paint the vision of the journey ahead. It needs a layered communication strategy that reaches each individual where they are and helps them process where they will be going. And it needs to be done through compelling stories that give shape and depth to the journey that is underway.

Begin activation with onboarding

Strategy activation needs to begin prior to the onboarding process of new employees. Employees need to be given a consistent story and a well-orchestrated, synthesized onboarding experience that helps them see, hear, and live the strategy before their first day on the job. Building robust onboarding platforms and employee support systems are essential to both the initial strategy activation and the ongoing (and inevitable) adaptation and change to the strategy. Experience design is a critical skill set in the strategy activation process to get this piece right.

Empower middle managers

Strategy activation is highly dependent on middle managers. Real work gets led in the middle of most organizations and executed on the front lines. That’s where we touch the customer. That’s where processes work—or don’t. That’s where daily decisions are made that result in an efficient, high-quality, customer-centric organization (or result in something else).

Unfortunately, middle managers are generally overloaded and under pressure from many directions. They are expected to operate the business, advocate for change, lead people, and answer to other leaders all while making sure customers are happy and quality is high. It’s essential to provide middles managers with significant support for strategy activation. This might start with:

  • Clear, simple visual design of support tools that help explain ideas
  • Infographics that communicate models in simple ways
  • Short video snippets that provide just-in-time support

These tactics and others make middle managers’ lives easier. Regardless of the approach, effective strategy activation requires us to arm managers with the tools to support the front lines; the skills to handle the pressures placed upon them; and the space and support network to process their roles throughout the activation process.

Design the employee experience

Activation requires support systems and points of integration. The tools, technologies, and general infrastructure that exist in an organization can be invaluable resources in the strategy activation process. If strategy depends upon people, then thinking through the employee’s experience—and the entire ecosystem that surrounds them, which includes numerous systems and technologies—is essential to bringing strategy to life. Rather than seeing software as a barrier to be learned, effective strategy activation requires us to design the employee’s work environment to maximize their effectiveness.

Embrace an iterative approach

Finally, recognize that strategy activation is not linear; it’s iterative. Neither strategy nor strategy activation are ever “finished.” It’s important to embrace this mindset. The process of strategy activation requires feedback loops whereby messages, ideas, priorities, and processes are deployed to the organization, and then data and information are gathered in the deployment process to be fed back into the strategy activation plan as well as the strategy itself.

Leading strategy activation through people

Strategy activation is daunting. So is strategy. So is business. The key to leading strategy activation through your people isn’t to worry about getting it all right up front. We’re all playing the game as we re-write the game plan.

The key is to have real empathy for the players: the people who are bringing your strategy to life. When we take steps that make their lives easier and empower them to contribute—even as the game plan changes—that’s when we’ll realize the full potential of our strategy investment.