Apply behaviour change in strategy to bridge the implementation gap.

The strategy is done. We feel a euphoric sense of achievement. And we envisage smiling faces, conveying a readiness to accept everything we say as truth and do all that we require. Let it be so!

Alas, most organisations struggle to bring strategies to life. It’s what some call the ‘strategy -implementation’ gap. And the problem is now urgent as the pace of change accelerates.

An underlying premise that is often missed in strategy design and development is that ‘people make strategy work’.

The strategy assumes objectives will be achieved because, upon launch with a wave of comms, people will change their thinking and behaviour.

But people don’t like change – it’s a cognitive bias that we assign more weight to what we know and have experienced that even the most promising alternatives.

And, often, people simply don’t have the capacity to act as intended due to their psychological, social or environmental context: whether it be a lack of time, the effort required, the influence of managers and team mates, heuristics, entrenched systems, or vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Research published by The Economist in September 2023 establishes common reasons companies fail to achieve strategic objectives are a lack of critical capabilities and work habits spanning strategy planning and implementation.

That is, there is significant investment in strategy but not in the capacity for behaviour change across complex organisations to achieve objectives.

Business leaders consistently overestimate a strategy’s benefits while:

  • underestimating how changes in the competitive environment can render a strategy flawed; and
  • severely miscalculating – in no less than 85% of companies surveyed – an organisation’s ability to adapt to change.

The key recommendations of the report are:

  1. Align key stakeholders during both strategy design and implementation.
  2. Drive accountability through targeted outcome-based performance metrics, monitoring and holistic data management systems.
  3. Prioritise strategic initiatives to improve resource allocation.
  4. Embed agility in strategy design, planning and implementation.
  5. Build a culture that reinforces strategic objectives.

But how do organisations achieve this among the relentless competing priorities, parallel strategies, and constraints on what can be asked of employees, customers, and stakeholders?

Primarily, we need to see the strategy document and its artefacts as not the end of a process, but the beginning of a journey. Strategy activation is the hardest part, and you can’t take the hands off the wheel.

Strategies are only as good as the evidence of assumptions that they make.

Asking the right questions, and running a participatory process, gauges the benefit people see in the change being presented and their capacity to act.

That research and consultation should be framed for behaviour change. This ensures the strategy is realistic and feasible. It also means that how the strategy will be adopted and experienced informs key activities, initiatives, and technology.

Strategy activation planning needs to consider resources: among them financial, human, physical (infrastructure), technological, governance, and time.

It also needs to consider the skills and knowledge of the many different people it seeks to direct.

More importantly, it needs to consider behaviour.

In an organisational context, you might think roles and responsibilities – enshrined in job descriptions and performance frameworks – dictate an employee’s agency. They do. But we’ve all seen three managers with the same role prosecute their responsibilities very differently, particularly when it comes to team and organisation culture. Call it ‘leadership style’.

We all approach problems and opportunities differently. Some with a creative mindset, others with a growth mindset and others still with a fixed mindset. These mindsets are related to our psychology and social context or experiences.

We need some first movers – these are not people in leadership roles necessarily, they are people comfortable with change. We need those first followers who, encouraged by the confidence of the first movers, overcome their subconscious cognitive bias and jump on board. And, for the strategy to work, we need most people in the organisation to see the ease with which change was possible by those early adopters, and the benefits accrued, to get behind the new priorities and trajectory.

This is what behavioural scientists do – address capability, opportunity and motivation in complex contexts. Here’s what it can look like:

  • Understand individual team identity as a platform for connection (let’s all get around this) and change (others like us have done this differently, so can we)
  • Change or influence the conditions (such as culture, routine, language)
  • Use behavioural frameworks to reprioritise tasks during implementation, adapting to experience data as it becomes clearer where early movement can be gained, while other objectives might take longer to achieve.
  • Build capability through experiential learning and coaching.
  • Motivate by regularly and creatively reporting on progress at personal and organisational levels.
  • Exemplify intended actions and behaviours through whole of organisation communication campaigns and personal nudges.

The Economist report defines the critical capabilities for success as alignment, accountability, resourcing, agility, and culture.

To achieve that create the conditions, invest in mindset, coaching and capability, and motivate behaviour change through creative communications and co-designed initiatives.
Ellis Jones applies behavioural science in all the strategic planning we do, and all the co-design projects we undertake.

Talk to us about embedding behavioural science in your research, strategy design and strategy activation processes.