From the Playbook of a Veteran: How to Mobilize Thousands to Execute Against a Unified Strategy

I recently came across an article published by the Veterans Administration. It listed 45 things people can do to honor those who have served our country on Veteran’s Day. Idea #2 inspired me: Ask a Veteran about their time in the military, and really listen to the answer. 

Those of us who have served all have stories, wisdoms, and invaluable lessons we carry with us into how we conduct ourselves—both personally and professionally. 

In my case, as a former U.S. Army Intelligence Officer, I am committed to supporting veterans, enjoy hearing their stories, and sharing mine. As I reflect on my time in the service, I see many skills developed under the rigor of the military that I carry with me now into my client engagements—with rewarding outcomes. 

"The best time I never want to have again." 

That’s how I often describe my time in the military. It was simultaneously one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences in my life. Our military systems are far from perfect, but in the 175+ years as an organization, it has refined the systems and processes that can offer simple answers to many of our clients’ biggest business problems. In this blog, I’ll share one of the most utilized approaches my colleagues and I deploy on behalf of our clients. 

How to move from strategy to execution with all your teams aligned 

Getting large organizations to execute against a unified strategy or mission is complicated. There are a lot of stakeholders required to execute in lockstep to achieve the end goal. 

Despite this, there are best-practices that can be followed to help everyone get there. Here’s how the military does it: 

  1. The commanding general issues a brief 
  2. The brief is a published strategy document that defines each unit’s objectives 
  3. It outlines (for example) the six objectives needed to reach the goal and complete the mission
  4. It is in alignment with the general, colonel, battalion units, and leadership from all companies, etc. 
  5. Each unit then defines how they support the execution of the goals within those six mission priorities 
  6. This exercise is completed and shared up and down the ranks, with full reporting transparency throughout the ranks—before the mission begins 

Here’s how that same process can take shape for large enterprise organizations—to take action against a unified strategy and help avoid pitfalls. 

Best practice 1:

A high level strategy—capable of being embraced within each echelon of the organization—is finalized and agreed to by those accountable for delivering on the organization’s objectives before the mission begins. 

Why it’s important: Developing the strategic plan with those ultimately responsible for executing that plan, ensures clear objectives and a system of accountability to achieve those objectives. 

Pitfalls in missing this step. 

  • By not having all the right people in the room committed the outcomes of the plan, leaders inadvertently inhibit their teams from delivering against the organizations stated strategic objectives. 
  • Not having clear, measurable objectives tied to your strategies makes it highly likely that those executing against it will be off track from the start. 

Best practice 2:

Ensure communication of the strategy throughout each echelon of the organization in a way that is contextual and relevant to their work.

Why it’s important. This practice ensures teams can report their value delivery all the way up to senior leadership’s stated strategic objectives. And, it creates a mission anchor so all teams executing the work can see how their work aligns to the mission outcome. 

Pitfalls in missing this step. 

  • Making the assumption that the strategy is communicated all the way down to the teams doing the work. 
  • Not providing clear definitions for your strategic objectives makes it difficult for your people to understand how their work contributes to the overall strategy (aka, why are they doing this work). 

Best practice 3:

Teams executing the strategies must be given proper time to learn about what the strategic outcomes mean, discover what’s involved to successfully execute the work, and plan their contribution to the strategy. 

Why it’s important. People should not be surprised by strategy. In order to adequately report an execution plan, teams need to have a complete understanding of the strategy goals and approach. They should not be asked to report out on a strategic objective they weren’t brief on ahead of time. Furthermore, reporting systems should be supported by the right people, processes, data and technology to enable the reporting structure. Sometimes this in and of itself is a new body of work.

Pitfalls in missing this step. 

  • When work ‘comes in sideways’ (surprises people) teams are forced to develop new ways to show progress against that work that isn’t necessarily in-line with your strategy. 
  • When work doesn't come through an intake process that feeds your strategy, teams can get confused about the work priority (relative to your strategy). They might create new work that requires additional team capacity that is not available—creating barriers to progress. This can also result in change fatigue and additional team churn. 
When teams transparently and regularly share outcomes and deliverables up and down the organization, they are confirming expectations are clear and aligned, ensuring everyone is strategically and tactically moving in the same direction.
—Thomas Arm, Consultant 

Best practice 4:

 

Give your people the systems, tools, and reporting structure to show you what they are doing and give it a chance! 

Why it’s important. When teams transparently and regularly share outcomes and deliverables up and down the organization, they are confirming expectations are clear and aligned, ensuring everyone is strategically and tactically moving in the same direction. 

Pitfalls in missing this step: 

  • Without a supported, automated reporting system, teams will create their own tools and processes that may or may not support insight into the strategy—creating a lot of overhead burden, team churn, and burnout. Team’s might also be flying blind! 
  • Without an established reporting system, data governance gets sacrificed and people often report execution progress at different levels of granularity. This makes it really difficult to understand your investment versus intended outcomes across the organization. 
  • Changing too quickly means you aren’t learning and iterating. It is better to implement a system and evolve that reporting system rather than starting from square one every three to five years. 

It is easy to see how planning and communication hold an absolutely pivotal role in the success of any mission. Your people—just like military troops—will produce outstanding work when they know exactly what the high-level strategy is and what they need to do to help achieve your objectives. 

On this Veteran’s day ask your Veteran employees if they are comfortable sharing their military experience and listen. You might learn something that could benefit your organization. 

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