Executing business strategy is like a braid — specifically, a French braid, the beautiful, twisted strands of hair atop one's head. Both require a clear start and ongoing adjustments.  

But how and where do you learn those skills?

In seventh grade, my friend Suzanne would occasionally French-braid my hair in the commons area before classes started. I hadn’t thought about that in years, but I was reminded of it recently as I talked to a group of managers about executing strategy.

When translating strategic direction received from leadership, a manager must first figure out how to apply that high-level direction to her department’s day to day work. The manager must then identify and solve the people, process, and technology obstacles.

When French-braiding my hair, Suzanne would ask me what I wanted the braid to look like: loose or tight? Fishtail or regular? Dutch or classic? With that direction, she’d start at an appropriate spot on my head and create some sections. Likewise, a manager must figure out where to begin and then start executing the strategy across the people, processes, and technology available.

The manager will likely be missing something necessary for the new direction; it is new, after all. Will the team’s processes and/or technology support the new direction? If not, how will she change that? And once she gets that technology approved or the processes redesigned, how will she develop the team to perform with these new elements in place?

Let’s say processes and technology are already firmly established. Does the manager understand the types of people needed for the new direction? Will she hire or develop them — or a combination? If developing employees, will training be needed or will coaching close the gap? If hiring, how much will she invest in recruiting experienced people versus new people who will need development?

And she’s just getting started.

Soon, metrics will be available. And short-term pressures for high performance. The manager must continue to braid people, process, and technology together as she decides whether to stay the course or course-correct for the long term.

With my French braid, Suzanne would add a little more hair to the original three strands with every turn, keeping the pattern going in the direction we had set. Sometimes she’d need to add more hair to a strand, other times less, to keep the braid even and headed the right way.

Suzanne kept braiding, just as a manager would need to assess all along what tweaks to make to the people, processes, or technology. The three strands of the braid are interdependent. If one is short, the braid falls apart. If one is thin, the whole braid will be lopsided. Is more coaching needed – and what kind? More time spent with a sub-team? More independence for this team leader? Should processes be re-evaluated? Or maybe automated?

More complications reveal themselves. (They always do.) As a manager makes decisions, she must consider how they might create different conditions for the team and adjust the strands that need it.

In our Executing Strategy simulation, participants make decisions for a hypothetical organization of 440 people. They set metrics for their teams and make large and small decisions to move toward those metrics and the strategy set by the CEO. With those tactics, they start creating the braid of decisions they believe will fulfill their part of the CEO’s direction. Results come in. Complications arise. Opportunities emerge. The participants learn to add to some strands, abandon others, and thin the rest. Through cycles of decision-making in a simulated world, participants learn how to weave a braid to deliver the corporate direction. This practice clarifies their strengths and challenges back in their jobs in “the real world” — and makes those easier to address.

Braiding, braiding, and more braiding. Each time she did it, Suzanne got better at braiding my hair. Managers also benefit from repeated practice in braiding the strands of business capabilities to execute strategy.

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