The article was originally published in the HR Manager of Dansk HR April 2017
Mikkel Ejsing
Partner, Resonans A/S
Nanna Hebsgaard
Partner, Resonans A/S

The important role of HR in strategy realization

What is the purpose of HR? In our perspective, it is primarily about helping to ensure that your company uses human resources in a way that the company has the best possible starting point to succeed in its mission. To succeed in what the company is set in the world for. Therefore, in our opinion, HR's activities and focus should be based on the company's vision and strategy.

As HR, you have the potential to be one of the driving forces behind the realization of a company's strategy. Perhaps you already do this as an HR Business Partner, where you spar with managers and leadership teams, or as part of a central HR unit, where you plan development activities? Perhaps there is the potential for you and your HR colleagues to be even more of a strategic sparring partner for managers and employees when the strategy is clear and you have to go out and live in the organization? In this article, we give a few suggestions on how we look at the importance of the role of HR in strategy realization. And we must say that when HR works best with a challenging and insistent focus on strategy realization, then you are worth gold to your management and the rest of the organization, and not least in relation to your customers and users.

Where have we put the strategy?

In many companies — private and public — the strategy does not live out in the organization. If you ask each employee what the strategy is, many will answer that they do not know it or that it is a little unclear to them. It can be a daunting and quite amusing exercise in any organisation to ask people to write down in a few lines what the strategy is and then compare the answers afterwards. It is not uncommon for us to find that even the leaders do not know the strategy, or at least do not have it under their skin. The problem is well known. Top management has been working on the strategy over years or even months. Managers and managers are presented with the finished strategy at a seminar, where they have a few days to understand and translate the strategy into their own field. And then the strategy is finally presented to employees in a team meeting with too many powerpoints for an hour or so. The manager has rehearsed his narrative and does it really well, but the employees are squinting at the bell and thinking about the operations and all their deadlines. Phew, it's over. Back to work!

Challenge: When was the last time you asked managers and employees about how they understand the strategy and how they work on a day-to-day basis to realize it?

Are we exaggerating? It is up to you to judge from experience the places where you have witnessed strategy processes. Are we underestimating? Well, in some cases we even see that top management has literally branded the strategy “Top Secret” and thus almost keeps it secret from employees. The short and the long is that strategies often do not come out and live and breathe in the organization and in the individual person. It is a pity and shame, because there is often a lot of work and many important landmarks hidden in a strategy. It should be done when the primary task of every top management is to set the direction of the organisation and ensure future survival and value creation. And the consequences of a dead strategy are noticeable to yourselves and ultimately to your customers and stakeholders.

Four Generic Challenges

We have tried to collect some challenges that we see and hear about in practice and in dialogues with managers and employees, and which are also described with different angles and concepts in research and strategy and management literature. We describe the challenges briefly and give our take on some possible answers and important questions:

  1. Strategy formulation and strategy realization are conceived and described as a linear process
  2. Too many words for too long -- and too little action too late
  3. Inside-out perspective and self-sufficiency, which prevents necessary disruption of the system from the outside
  4. Action paralysis and lack of coordination due to silos, complexity and victim mentality

1. From the linear plan to an innovative and iterative approach

“Cascading of models to target population”! This wording is taken from a strategic document that we discussed with an HR consultant recently. The HR consultant's task was to implement parts of a strategy that dealt with a new management base. The process was described on a timeline with clearly defined actions under each point. The document was produced outside Denmark and was to be implemented throughout Europe at the same time. “Timed and organized”, as Egon Olsen would say. The HR consultant wants to create ownership and sell the ideas, which are actually good and well intentioned. But the chance of success is small if the course is not thought of in another way. As HR, you can help challenge linear thinking. The sooner you get into dialogue with management, the better. Because with a more innovative and iterative approach, the classic distinction between planning and implementation dissolves. The implementation or realisation of the strategy can and should often start very early in the process. Of course, top management needs to set direction, but that doesn't necessarily require months of planning behind closed doors. We have good experience with top management getting on track early and engaging in dialogue with bosses, managers and employees about visions and strategies for the future. It takes courage on the part of the management to open the doors and go out of the management room and into the organisation to open up the strategic dialogue. And it takes the courage of managers and employees to invite visits and dialogue about the strategy in their own area. And here HR can play a vitally important role as facilitators in that process. You can bring the right people together for the right dialogues with your network and insight into where the positives and negatives are in the organization.

Get the linear strategy realization plan curled up into a spiral of many iterations where formulating, testing, learning, and reformulating. It's not easy! It is often difficult and demanding! But the payoff is belly-ready, and an accelerated strategy realization can be felt on both the economy and on engagement and well-being.

2. Formulate and implement the strategy at the same time

When the broad outlines of the strategy are in place, when the Executive Board has given each other a handshake that they will stand together on the direction they have set out, then it is about moving quickly to action. HR can help management avoid going too much into planning mode. The plan doesn't make the strategy live. Actions and dialogue make the strategy come to life. The Executive Board must define the direction, and then give managers and employees the opportunity to choose activities or mini-projects where they can start working on things that are part of the strategy realization. Often it will be things that they would have to do anyway. In the process of selecting activities, all actors have an opportunity (are actually forced to) talk about how the overall strategic direction should be understood in their particular area. Thus, there is a fusion of strategy formulation and strategy realization locally, which is true to the overall direction. It can be ensured that the activities are in line with the direction by the management, with the support of HR, pressure-testing them against the overall strategic landmarks. This also creates dialogue, which in turn contributes to mutual understanding and provides input for the Executive Board's continued strategic work. The coherence of the innovative and iterative approach described in point 1 is evident.

Challenge: What can you achieve in 100 days that will contribute to the realization of your strategy?

A proven method of taking action around a strategy is what we call “100-day challenges”. We ask managers and employees at team or department level what they can achieve in 100 days
in relation to taking an element of the strategy and then doing something in practice to make it happen. It is a difficult process, but once people are at it, there is an incredible amount of power in feeling how to jointly move on something that is vitally important. Research on motivation shows that one of the things that motivates people the most is creating results. So drop the next well-being project, and do some strategy realization instead... Let's just let it bubble a little...

3. The outside-in perspective ensures necessary disruption of the system

Many strategies are thought out from the inside out. We sit within the walls trying to imagine what those out there need. It limits the organization's sense of the outside world, customers, users, stakeholders, etc. We have good experience in bringing an outside-in perspective to the field in strategy realisation projects.

Challenge: When was the last time you were touched by a customer?

In many cases, you as HR can be the ones pushing for the organization to have the courage to invite the external actors inside. One way to do this is to specifically invite customers into the room. It should be understood quite literally. For example, we have good experience of bringing together an entire organization or a representative sample at a so-called “summit” or general meeting. Here the strategy and its realization can be discussed. And suddenly they arrive, as it's all about. Namely, the customers. We interview them about their experience of the company and your products, services, service level, etc. The effect of this is often significant and the subsequent strategic discussions have a greater intensity. Your own perspective on the company and customers has been disrupted in a challenging but also important way. The outside-in perspective can happen in other ways too, but the basics of it are always the same. Bring them in, which is what it's all about. The strategy is not just for you. It is designed to make it better for your customers. Without customers, you have no future. So listen to them!

4th. Power of Action and Peaceful Warriors

This is, in fact, an absurd question. Whose fault is it? We all know that everyone bears a share of the responsibility. But we regularly hear what we call “victim narratives” when the realisation of the strategy is too slow. Employees blame the managers for that and believe that the managers are not laying out the direction. The managers blame the employee for it, and think they should take some more initiative and look to get started. They, in turn, are in common in blaming top management for not communicating enough at all. And top management blames the organization for its lack of vigor and aversion to change. Everyone points fingers and misses the power of action. Pretty caricatured, and yet stories that we hear in many places.

Challenge: Whose fault is it if the strategy is not realized?

The opposite of the victim narratives is what we call the “peaceful warrior”. A peaceful warrior takes leadership regardless of his position. They talk less and do something about it. He does not blame others, but takes responsibility for his own part. And challenge others to do the same. And it is the peaceful fighters who bring about change and who ensure that strategies are realized. And, by the way, he is in a better mood than the victims. The good news is that all humans have inherent both the victim and the warrior. And HR can help arouse the glow of both managers and employees, so that they want to react constructively and forcefully to the situation, no matter how difficult it may be. It might sound a bit “fluffy”. However, in order to promote energy, initiative and passion in an organization, it is necessary to work purposefully with dialogues, communication and involving processes so that the individual person wants to get involved. And here HR's role is again crucial as a sparring partner for top management, managers and employees. HR is about making the organization succeed by giving the people in it the best possible conditions to unfold. Use your strategy as an opportunity to let people unfold, and realize your strategy at the same time. Then HR creates significant value.

The 5th Element

There is a fifth point, and that will then be the concluding remark. A crucially important factor in making a strategy realization succeed is working with a both-and-perspective on development. Too many strategies focus too much on everything that does not succeed and everything that needs to be changed. These are important elements, of course. But development is also about retaining what works. To map, talk about and plan activities and actions based on the fact that there are many things happening every day that move in the direction of the strategy's landmarks. We call it “Find & Enlarge” and it can be pure magic. But never suppress the skeptical voices. Make room for both the positive and the negative stories.

Challenge: What are you doing right now that actually succeeds?

HR is about making the organization succeed by giving the people in it the best possible conditions to unfold. Use your strategy as an opportunity to let people unfold, and realize your strategy at the same time. Then HR creates significant value.

This article was originally brought to the HR manager of Dansk HR. The article is the first of two on strategy realization.

HR as a strategic sparring partner with managers and employees?

Do you need input on how HR can be even more of a strategic sparring partner for managers and employees when the strategy is clear and needs to go live in the organization?

Contact Mikkel Ejsing and hear more on 28 80 40 01 or


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