Humanizing Strategy for Real Impact

June 2016, by So-Young Kang

Did you know that over 70% of strategies fail[1]?

broken glass_sunset_by Bing Wright
Photo: Bing Wright

According to John Kotter, one of the leading experts on leading change, over 70% of strategic efforts fail. There are many reasons for this but one of the largest is the inability for an organization to execute on the desired strategies.

We decided to pioneer a new approach to change the game—a ‘human-centered strategy.’ In our experience with this new approach, we have flipped the failure rate and seen significant business and people impact in a way that sustains years after the strategy is developed. Real impact can only be measured after execution.

How is this possible? How is this human-centred approach different from typical business strategies?

Human-centered strategies follow 3 design principles:

1. Start with humans
Don’t simply rely on research reports, analysis, and data on the industry, market, competitive landscape, customers, and value chain. Go talk to key user groups such as real customers, partners, vendors, employees, management team, and board members. Try to understand not only their functional, but also their emotional needs. Any organization can meet functional needs; it’s when you start to meet underlying emotional needs that you truly connect with and serve people. Actually talk and listen to what’s important to them and why.

hmn center 3

2. Engage humans throughout the process of strategy development
Don’t develop the strategy in isolation; co-create the development of strategy by involving key user groups throughout the process and engage them to come up with the strategic frames and objectives. For one of our clients, we spoke with 50 internal stakeholders, 40 clients, and conducted 9 workshops across their key employees to co-create their 5-year competitive strategy. Users were engaged from beginning until the final formulation stage. As a result, it was the first strategy (from prior three) that actually got executed and by year three, they were one year ahead of their plan.

3. Create an open feedback loop and be willing to adapt and refine strategy 
Create mechanisms and processes for receiving feedback upfront and continuously. Watch the market and industry trends. Encourage users to share their views on what’s working and what’s not working. Have a willingness to refine and adapt, as needed. Strategies can no longer be static one-off events. They need to adapt to remain relevant.

What is the impact of ‘human-centered strategy’?

Putting key users at the center of strategy development is a powerful way of getting buy-in and engagement. It significantly improves the probability of execution as those involved develop emotional support for the strategies if they were part of the development process, even if the final outcome differs from their actual input.

Great strategies are only great when they get executed so, increasing the probability of execution is one of the most significant impacts of this approach. There is a short-term cost to this approach, however. It will require time upfront to go to the ground and speak to real humans.

coffee chats

Sometimes you need to go slow so you can go fast.

Spending time with users upfront and throughout the process will pay off handsomely when the implementation of the ideas starts to get executed more quickly.

While there is a short-term cost, we believe that it’s worth it. Are you willing to try a new approach for new outcomes?

* * *

So-Young Kang spent close to five years as a strategy consultant at McKinsey & Company in the U.S. She was the head of the Finance Transformation Service line for North America where she designed and led transformations for companies and governments in the U.S. and Asia.

[1] Randy Ottinger, “What Happens When the Strategy Consultants Leave?” Forbes.