The Social Side of Strategy

Photo McKinsey Quarterly / Editors / May 25th, 2012

Crowdsourcing your strategy may sound crazy. But a few pioneering companies are starting to do just that, boosting organizational alignment in the process. Should you join them?

In 2009, Wikimedia launched a special wiki—one dedicated to the organization’s own strategy. Over the next two years, more than 1,000 volunteers generated some 900 proposals for the company’s future direction and then categorized, rationalized, and formed task forces to elaborate on them. The result was a coherent strategic plan detailing a set of beliefs, priorities, and related commitments that together engendered among participants a deep sense of dedication to Wikimedia’s future. Through the launch of several special projects and the continued work of self-organizing teams dedicated to specific proposals, the vision laid out in the strategic plan is now unfolding.

Wikimedia’s effort to crowdsource its strategy probably sounds like an outlier—after all, the company’s very existence rests on collaborative content creation. Yet over the past few years, a growing number of organizations have begun experimenting with opening up their strategy processes to constituents who were previously frozen out of strategic direction setting. Examples include 3M, Dutch insurer AEGON, global IT services provider HCL Technologies, Red Hat (the leading provider of Linux software), and defense contractor Rite-Solutions.

While such efforts are at different stages, executives at organizations that are experimenting with more participatory modes of strategy development cite two major benefits. One is improving the quality of strategy by pulling in diverse and detailed frontline perspectives that are typically overlooked but can make the resulting plans more insightful and actionable. The second is building enthusiasm and alignment behind a company’s strategic direction—a critical component of long-term organizational health, effective execution, and strong financial performance that is all too rare, according to research we and our colleagues in McKinsey’s organization practice have conducted.

Our objective in this article isn’t to present a definitive road map for opening up the strategy process; it’s simply too early for one to exist. We’d also be the first to acknowledge that for most organizations, “social” strategy setting represents a significant departure from the status quo and should be experimented with carefully—whether that means trying it out in a few areas or creating meaningful opportunities for participation in the context of a more traditional strategy process. Nonetheless, we hope that by sketching a picture of some management innovations under way, we will stir the thinking of senior executives eager to benefit from experimenting with such approaches. If you’ve ever wondered how to inject more diversity and expertise into your strategy process, to get leaders closer to the operational implications of their decisions, or to avoid the experience-based biases and orthodoxies that inevitably creep into small groups at the top, it may be time to try shaking things up.

The best way to describe the possibilities of community-based strategy approaches is to show them in action. Two examples demonstrate the lengths to which some companies have already gone in broadening their strategy processes, as well as the degree to which the executives who participated are convinced of the benefits.

Rethinking planning at HCL Technologies
HCL Technologies, the Indian IT services and software-development company, had enjoyed rapid growth since its founding, in 1998. With growth, however, the company’s business-planning process had become unwieldy. Vineet Nayar, HCL’s chairman and CEO, along with his top team, were providing input to hundreds of business unit–level plans each year. Nayar realized that he and his team had neither the expertise nor the time to deliver all the detailed feedback that each business plan deserved, so he challenged his colleagues to use three key principles to revamp the planning process: make peer review a core component of strategy evaluation, create radical transparency across units, and open up the conversation to large cross-sections of the company.

The solution was to turn the company’s existing business-planning process—a live meeting called Blueprint, which involved a few hundred top executives—into an online platform open to thousands of people. The new process, dubbed My Blueprint, was launched in 2009, with 300 HCL managers posting their business plans, each coupled with an audio presentation. More than 8,000 employees (including several members of the teams that had submitted plans) were then invited to review and provide input on the individual blueprints. A surge of advice followed. The inclusive nature of the process helped identify specific ideas for cross-unit collaboration and gave business leaders a chance to obtain detailed and actionable feedback from interested individuals across the company.

This exercise quickly began yielding business results. One HCL executive we spoke with credited the new process with a fivefold increase in sales to an important client over two years. The key, the executive explained, was the detailed comments—from more than 25 colleagues, ranging from junior finance professionals to software engineers—that together highlighted the need to reframe the business plan away from an emphasis on commoditized application support and toward a handful of new services where HCL had the edge over larger competitors. The employees provided more than good ideas: several even helped assemble the materials the executive needed to deliver the successful proposal.

The high degree of transparency increased the quality of insights, not just their volume. As Nayar notes, “Because the managers knew that the plans would be reviewed by a large number of people, including their own teams, the depth of their business analysis and the quality of their planned strategy improved. They were more honest in their assessment of current challenges and opportunities. They talked less about what they hoped to accomplish and more about the actions they intended to take to achieve specific results.” At the conclusion of the inaugural My Blueprint process, there was broad consensus that participatory business planning had been far more valuable than the traditional top-down review process.

Red Hat’s new road map
Red Hat is the leading provider of open-source software. In 2008, its leadership team began taking a new approach to strategy development. After defining an initial set of priorities for exploration, Red Hat’s leaders formed teams devoted to each priority. To boost the odds they would stretch toward new solutions, the company ensured that the team leaders—all members of the company’s C-suite—were far removed from their areas of responsibility. The company’s chief people officer, for example, was tasked with analyzing its financial model, while the CFO explored potential operational enhancements.

The teams used wikis and other online tools to generate and organize ideas and made these “open” so that any Red Hat employee could respond with comments or suggestions. The idea generation phase lasted five months and included company-wide updates and online chats with the CEO. Over that period, the best ideas coalesced into nine strategic priorities.

To ensure accountability for developing the priorities further and for making them actionable, the company tasked a new group of executives to lead teams exploring each of the nine areas. These leaders were senior functional ones whose responsibilities put them a level or two below the C-suite. Each of their teams fleshed out one or two of the most important strategic initiatives and was empowered to execute the plans for them without further approvals.

This effort has reshaped the way Red Hat conducts strategic planning. Instead of refreshing strategy yearly on a fixed calendar, the company now updates and evaluates strategy on an ongoing basis. Initiative leaders use customized mailing lists and other tools to receive input continuously from employees and communicate back to them via town hall–style meetings, Internet chat sessions, and frequent blog posts. The company maintains its annual budget process, which is informed by the evolving funding needs of the initiatives.

The fresh perspectives generated by the new planning process have been instrumental in spurring value-creating shifts in the company’s direction. For example, a respected Red Hat engineer used the new process to make the case for a significant change in the way the company offers virtualization services for enterprise data centers and desktop computer applications. The changes led to the acquisition of an external technology provider—a move that would have been unlikely in the days when the company used its old, less inclusive planning process.

Red Hat’s vice president of strategy and corporate marketing, Jackie Yeaney, cites three key benefits of the company’s new approach: first, the process generated “more creativity, accountability, and commitment.” Second, “By not bubbling every decision up to the senior-executive level, we avoided the typical 50,000-foot oversimplification” of issues. And third, “We improved the flexibility and adaptability of the strategy.” With the responsibility for planning and execution now in the hands of the same people doing the work, responsiveness to new opportunities or shifts in the market has increased dramatically.

Some leaders may wonder about borrowing approaches from Red Hat, Wikimedia, or other companies that consider crowdsourcing a part of their institutional DNA (and for which confidentiality issues may be less pressing than they are for many organizations). For these executives, we would note the experiments of more traditional companies, such as 3M, AEGON, and Rite-Solutions. A look at how these organizations are introducing a social side to strategy can help senior executives determine how much further they want to go in their own companies.

Market-based strategy at Rite-Solutions
One way of experimenting with more open strategic direction setting is to create internal markets where legacy programs and new perspectives compete on an equal footing for talent and cash. Rite-Solutions, a Rhode Island–based software provider for the US Navy, defense contractors, and first responders (such as fire departments), is pioneering a game-based strategy process whose foundation is an internal stock exchange it calls Mutual Fun.

Would-be entrepreneurs at Rite-Solutions can launch “IPOs” by preparing an Expect-Us (rather than a prospectus)—a document that outlines the value creation potential of the new idea—as well as a Budge-It list that articulates the short-term steps needed to move the idea forward. Each new stock debuts at $10, and every employee gets $10,000 in play money to invest in the virtual idea market and thereby establish a personal intellectual portfolio. The money flows to ideas that are attracting volunteer effort and moving steadily from germination toward commercialization. A value algorithm revalues each stock, based on the number of Budge-It items completed, inflows and outflows of employee money, and opinions about the stocks expressed in an online discussion board. When an IPO gains momentum and breaks into the company’s Top 20, the initiative is funded with seed money; more is awarded depending on the ability to meet various stage gate milestones. What’s more, when ideas help Rite-Solutions make or save money, those who have invested intellectual capital and contributed to the idea’s realization receive a share of the benefits through bonuses or real stock options.

The internal market for ideas has bolstered the company’s pipeline of new products, and the 15 ideas the company has thus far launched as a result now account for one-fifth of Rite-Solutions’ revenues. Some of the blockbusters were generated in unexpected places—including Win/Play/Learn, a Web-based educational tool licensed by toy maker Hasbro. The source of the idea: an administrative assistant.

Improving market analysis at 3M
In April 2009, 3M decided to reinvigorate its Markets of the Future process—a critical input to the company’s strategic planning. Previously, says Barry Dayton, the company’s knowledge-management strategist, this process had “consisted of a small group of analysts doing research [about] megatrends and resulting markets of the future.” The company invited all of its sales, marketing, and R&D employees to a Web-based forum called InnovationLive, which over a two-week period attracted more than 1,200 participants from over 40 countries and generated more than 700 ideas. The end result was the identification of nine new future markets with an aggregate revenue potential in the tens of billions of dollars. Since then, 3M has held several additional InnovationLive events, and more are on the way.

The alignment advantage
Spend a few minutes talking with the senior executives involved in any of the initiatives described earlier, and it’s immediately apparent how powerful it is when thousands of people are deeply engaged with a company’s strategy. Those employees not only understand the strategy better but are also more motivated to help execute it effectively and more likely to spot emerging opportunities or threats that require quick adjustments.

Research we’ve conducted using McKinsey’s organizational-health index database suggests that none of this should be surprising. That database, which contains the results of surveys collected over more than a decade from upward of 765,000 employees at some 600 companies, facilitates analysis of the nature of organizational health, the factors contributing to it, and its relationship with financial performance. One thing we and our colleagues have seen over and over again through our work is that many organizations struggle with strategic alignment: even at the healthiest companies, about 25 percent of employees are unclear about their company’s direction. That figure rises to nearly 60 percent for companies with poor organizational-health scores.

Similarly, we’ve found that the actions companies can take that are most helpful in aligning individuals with the organization’s direction are moves like “making the vision meaningful to employees at a personal level” and “soliciting employee involvement in setting the company’s direction.” If that’s right, it suggests that making more employees part of the strategy process should be a powerful means of aligning them more closely with the company’s overall direction. The payoff for such cohesion is significant: companies with a top-quartile score in directional alignment are twice as likely as others to have above-median financial performance.

Mobilizing middle management
Of course, adopting social-strategy tools doesn’t automatically create alignment. Companies must create it actively, particularly among middle managers, who as the guardians of everyday operations bear the brunt of making any company’s strategy work.

One airline saw its efforts to mobilize the workforce impaired by the silent noncooperation of middle management in several departments. Closer inspection revealed that middle managers didn’t disagree with the discussion that was under way but felt they deserved a bigger voice in it—and should have been included earlier. They also felt uneasy with the level of transparency in a dialogue involving some 2,000 people, accustomed as they were to managing on a need-to-know basis.

The Dutch insurer AEGON sidestepped problems such as these by breaking its strategy discussion into manageable topics related to everyday operational practices. That allowed middle managers to assume responsibility for the discussion and contribute their expertise. In the words of Marco Keim, CEO of AEGON The Netherlands, “We started a digital-networking platform called AEGON Square and got the conversation going. People gathered in communities of practice and started sharing ideas on how to make the new strategy work. Dialogue really helped in fostering organization-wide alignment.”

Ultimately, middle managers were among the effort’s most enthusiastic supporters—both as contributors themselves and as active recruiters of participants. (In the end, 3,000 employees, 85 percent of the total, participated over 12 months.) Keim acknowledged, though, that building this alignment required a significant cultural change toward more openness, which took time to take hold and required regular reaffirmation by senior executives.

The evolution of strategic leadership
It takes courage to bring more people and ideas into strategic direction setting. Senior executives who launch such initiatives are essentially using their positional authority to distribute power. They’re also embracing the underlying principles—transparency, radical inclusion, egalitarianism, and peer review—of the Web-based social technologies that make it possible to open up direction setting.

Taking these principles to their logical conclusion suggests a shift in the strategic-leadership role of the CEO and other members of the C-suite: from “all-knowing decision makers,” who are expected to know everything and tell others what to do, to “social architects,” who spend a lot of time thinking about how to create the processes and incentives that unearth the best thinking and unleash the full potential of all who work at a company. Making this shift doesn’t imply an abdication of strategic leadership. The CEO and other top executives still have the right—indeed, the responsibility—to step in if things go awry, and of course they continue to be responsible for making the difficult trade-offs that are the essence of good strategy.

But it also may be increasingly important for strategists to lead in different ways. For example, to convey the message that the contribution of employees is of vital importance, top executives should constantly confirm that it is and set the example themselves. This approach requires a more direct, personal, and empathetic exchange than a traditional town hall meeting allows. For a mass digital dialogue to succeed, people need to express themselves openly, which may leave some participants feeling exposed. Leaders can help by demonstrating vulnerability as well—peeling off the layers of formal composure.

Another important element of social-strategy leadership is honestly assessing the readiness of the organization to open up and, in light of that, determining the best way to stimulate engagement. This sounds simple, but overlooking it can be costly. As part of a new strategy dialogue, the leaders of one mutual insurance company enthusiastically called upon its workforce to share reflections on an innovative, soon-to-be-launched life insurance product. Despite the leaders’ expectation that the open call would generate a torrent of endorsements, it was met with a deafening silence. Closer inspection revealed that people were acutely aware of the strategic importance that senior management attached to this innovation. And nobody wanted to wreck the party by openly sharing the prevailing doubts, which were widespread. The doubts proved well founded: within a few months of being launched, the new product was declared a failure and shelved.

This cautionary tale points to a final element of strategic leadership: figuring out ways to encourage dissenting voices. Enabling employees to communicate through ambient signals instead of relying on words and elaborated opinions is an effective way to lower the threshold and still catch the prevailing mood. Familiar examples of ambient dialogue include polls, “liking,” and voting—simple functions that allow participants to express an opinion without being exposed. More powerful and sophisticated forms of ambient dialogue include prediction markets (small-scale electronic markets that tie payoffs to measurable future events) and swarming (the visually aggregated representation of the emergent mood or motion within an organization).

Consider how a prediction market might have helped the mutual insurer. The opening market quotation for the new life insurance product would probably have taken a steep dive, revealing the negative assessment of the internal market. This would have immediately alerted managers to potential weaknesses, without exposing the employees who had the courage to reveal the problems.

While these are still early days for social strategy, its potential to enhance the quality of dialogue, improve decision making, and boost organizational alignment is alluring. Realizing that potential will require strategic leaders to flex new muscles and display real courage.

About the Authors
Arne Gast is a principal in McKinsey’s Amsterdam office; Michele Zanini is a consultant in the Boston office and cofounder of the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX), a Web-based open-innovation project dedicated to reinventing management. McKinsey is a knowledge partner of the MIX. The authors would like to offer special thanks to Raul Lansink for his advice on and contributions to this article.

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