Trickle Down Does Not Work


From senior leaders’ strategic vision to reality on the ground, trickle down does not work.

Let’s take a look at the data from 300 organizations around the world who took part in my research at the end of 2016.  Looking at the bars on the right of the chart, we see the typical flow of going from strategy to reality. We’ll start, as many organizations do, by defining a “clear role of digital in strategic vision” and making sure “top leadership is strongly involved”. So far, the data are not too bad. But when it comes to the next apparently logical step – “cross-organizational alignment”– the figures drop. It is not therefore surprising that “collaborative decision-making” and “buy-in from business units” are both at relatively low levels. And of course, lower still is “change initiatives owned by frontline and operational people”.

The trickle-down “red flow” approach is the most common. I have seen it often. Senior people define a global digital strategy and expect people in business units and countries to align, regardless of their own on-going initiatives.

The “green flow” approach is circular, interactive and more time-consuming. It is also more rare, perhaps because management is in a hurry.  There’s a pressure, the feeling they are late, and need to act fast to catch up. This means that few organizations create a context where strategy and planning are the outcome of a collaborative process: people carefully listening, sharing viewpoints, negotiating and coming to agreements both horizontally and vertically as shown in the green flows on the chart below.

Investing time, together

How people make decisions, plan and advance digital initiatives are underlying critical success factors. There are no absolute answers, no cookie cutter approach from one organization to another. Each organization needs to find its way, through conversations where people listen as much as speak, and through negotiating what works best from different viewpoints.

Note the long green arrow which represents a critical flow: from people throughout the organization to the senior leaders. Leaders need to hear voices from the front lines. Many mechanisms can facilitate the green flows: workshops, work groups, crowdsourcing ideas, discussions on the enterprise social network, live streaming Q&A with management, and so on.

Guidelines for Smart Decision-Making

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As these flows happen, and as decisions are made and changes take place, internal politics often come into play. Even in organizations reaching a high level of maturity. I wrote about this in more detail in Neutralize Internal Politics in Digital Initiatives published by MIT Sloan Management Review. The article details 4 specific guidelines on how to mitigate internal politics thereby making digital initiatives  more sustainable:

The how beats the what. How you as an organization define your strategy and make decisions is far more important than what the strategy actually is.

Photo credit: Kaitlin Gentry Unsplash.

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