Chances are that at some point in your career you've been asked to implement a strategy that was developed by someone other than yourself. A manager's job is to implement that strategy, and to be sure that her team, unit, or department executes well. But what if you believe the strategy you've been asked to implement is flawed? Perhaps you think the strategy won't achieve the intended result, or worse, that it will put the company at risk. Regardless of the severity of your concern, you have an obligation to speak up. However, immediately pulling the strategy fire alarm isn't always useful, and may brand you as an alarmist. It's important to find ways to express your concerns productively. By acting cautiously and thoughtfully, you can make your concerns heard while perhaps saving your team — or the company — time, energy, and money.
What the Experts Say
Strategy development is a difficult, time-intensive, and often messy process. The end result is never perfect. However, as a good citizen in any organization, you have an obligation to act if you see something wrong with your organization's strategy. Linda Hill, the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and author of Becoming a Manager: How New Managers Master the Challenges of Leadership, says, "Anyone with a deep commitment to the organization owes it to that organization to ask questions and clear up confusions." However, you need to proceed cautiously. Don Sull, Professor of Management Practice in Strategic and International Management, the Faculty Director of Executive Education at the London Business School, and author of The Upside of Turbulence, cautions, "Saying 'this is stupid and wrong' isn't helpful." Before you cry "wrong strategy," follow these three steps to understand what is truly at stake and explore your motivations.
1. Diagnose: Understand the Full Picture
An organization's strategy is often steeped in complex political issues. Before you speak up, try to understand the situation in which the strategy was developed. As Gary Neilson, a Senior Partner at Booz & Company and co-author of Results: Keep What's Good, Fix What's Wrong, and Unlock Great Performance points out, "Too many people view themselves as a self appointed strategist for the company." Don't assume you know how or why the strategy was developed. Use your network to find out more about the process and the assumptions used. According to Hill, a good network will return useful information and advice if it includes a diverse set of people who have differing perspectives — what Hill calls, "a personal board of directors." Send out feelers to get more background about what went into the strategy and what its intended purpose is. Try to understand what problem the company's leaders are trying to solve with the current strategy or if there is a shift in priorities that you don't know about. Gaining a perspective on what went into the strategy can help you to reflect on what is underlying your concerns.
2. Reflect: Contextualize Your Concerns
When it comes to strategy, right or wrong is in the eye of the beholder. Sull points out that a "good enough strategy excellently implemented will trump a perfect strategy lukewarmly implemented nine times out of ten." Because no strategy is infallible, it's likely that there are things you feel should be different, but these things don't necessarily require you to cause a mutiny. Neilson urges that concerned employees ask themselves, "Is it that you would have expected a different direction or do you believe that the analysis, facts, or process that the company used [were] flawed?" It's your job to understand what about your unease is critical to raise and what is simply the result of a difference of opinion.
It's also important to ask yourself if you are using your objections as a reason not to do something difficult. Sull says, "Middle managers may use imperfect strategy as an excuse not to take initiative." It may be that your unease is rooted in your resistance to change or resentment about not being included in the strategy development process. It's better to know the true source of your concerns before speaking up. After you've done your research and reflected on your true motivations, if your concerns remain, it's time to verbalize them.
3. Speak Up: Proceed Carefully
You should start by going to your direct manager to share your apprehensions. Your manager may or may not have been involved in the development of the strategy, but hopefully she will know more about the background. This is a conversation that should happen in private (see Linda Hill's experience in Case Study #2 below). Take an inquiry stance, asking questions and enlisting your manager's help in understanding why this is the strategy the company has chosen. You can use questions such as, "What are the assumptions behind the strategy?," "Could you explain to me why this particular piece is important?," or "What scope do we have to adjust the strategy to the realities of the local market?"
It is important when sharing your concerns that you provide data that supports why you're raising questions in the first place. If you've done your research, you should have this information at the ready. You can make this conversation more successful by proposing alternative solutions that would help mitigate the risks you see. Be sure that you don't accuse your manager or hold her responsible. You should make clear that you are not questioning her authority but trying to better understand the strategy you've been asked to implement.
When to let it go — and when not to
After taking the above steps, if your concerns have been shrugged off or disputed, you may need to choose your battles. "Skepticism is hugely helpful in organizations but bloody-minded obstinacy is not," Sull says. People have very little respect for someone who ruthlessly fights over imperfections. You may have to trust your boss or other superiors especially because there may be issues they are not at liberty to disclose. "In those cases, you may want to say, 'If you truly think this is the right direction, I will do it,'" Hill suggests.
Sull points out that there are rare cases where the strategy is putting the company at such risk that you may want to consider leaving. These are cases where there are ethical concerns or the company may fail if the strategy is pursued in its current form. If faced with a strategy that is severely flawed or that you just can't comfortably support, you may want to consider quitting. "If she believes there were fact-based errors, such as the strategy choice was just a negotiated settlement between two warring executives who feared losing turf, then the manager should ask whether she should really stay at the company for her own benefit and the company's" says Neilson. If you do leave, don't bury your concerns. Write a letter to the CEO, no matter where you are in the organization, explaining your decision and the risks you see in the strategy.
Principles to Remember
Understand the root cause of your concerns
Research the inputs and assumptions underlying the strategy
Express your concerns to your immediate boss first
Insist that your concerns be heeded
Assume you know the assumptions or reasoning behind the strategy
Question the strategy in a public setting
Case Study #1: When the competitive advantage is a disadvantage
In 2005, Laura Casela (some details, including her name, have been changed) joined a strategic communications firm started by two former consulting colleagues of hers. Laura was brought in as the Director of Business Development to help grow the year-old firm. Laura was excited about her new role and about the company's future. The firm was founded on a unique premise. Most communications firms rely on freelance writers to do a lot of their work and clients have little knowledge about who these writers are. Laura's colleagues decided to change that by hiring stay-at-home moms who had left the industry to have more time with their families; they felt this was an untapped and experienced resource and if leveraged appropriately, could be a competitive advantage for the young firm. They built their brand around this hiring approach and had success with it in their first year in the market.
However, soon after taking the job, Laura discovered that the leads she was pursuing were not turning over. She was able to capture referrals but when new leads went to the website, they seemed to lose interest. She asked a few would-be clients what turned them away and they explained they weren't looking for a business of stay-at-home moms. Many said it just didn't feel like "a right fit." Laura realized that "clients wanted the best writers they could get and they were hiring a communications firm to do the hiring for them. They didn't care who did the work, as long as the work was great." Laura was conflicted; she believed in the brand and like the founders, thought it would help them stand out in the crowded New York market. But the evidence showed something different. Laura shared what she learned with her colleagues and explained that despite how much she believed in the principle, this was an angle they should drop. The founders were surprised; but they were open to what Laura had to say, primarily because of the evidence she provided, including client feedback and emails. Laura's speaking up had a huge impact and the firm's founders, together with Laura, are now working with a strategy consultant to rethink their branding.
Case Study #2: Openly questioning strategy
Linda Hill is a professor at Harvard Business School and one of our experts from above. As a member of the faculty, it is part of Linda's role to contribute to and implement the various strategies of the Business School. A few years back, the Dean of the school held a faculty meeting to address several topics. At this meeting, the Dean announced a new strategy for handling a commonly understood issue. Linda was confused about what the Dean proposed so she asked why he had chosen that particular strategy. To Linda, it didn't seem as if the action he proposed would solve the problem he was trying to address. The Dean responded, "You're right, but I can't say what the issue is." There was immediate tension in the room and Linda knew right away that she had embarrassed the Dean.
Later Linda found out that the problem the Dean said he was solving for was not truly the problem at hand. She also found out that she had risked her relationship with him by questioning him in such a public manner. He told a colleague that he wished more people were upfront and honest like Linda, but that she had hurt his feelings. Linda said, "In retrospect, I wouldn't do it that way again. I would ask my questions one-on-one."
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