There are many things that annoy me in the world of work, but a particular bugbear of mine, which I’m sure happens in many organisations, is that when discussing the progress of various initiatives, the Centre’s ‘strategic role’ is positioned as more critical and important that the satellites’ ‘operational’ one. The inference is that ‘operational teams’ should be ready in waiting to move in response to the strategist’s vision. I find this stance particularly problematic given that most of the operationalising I concoct and conduct is very much considered, aligned and cognoscente of strategy. Anyway, me being me, my “strategic vs. operational” radar is always turned on and ready to detect any incidence of occurrence within the context of meetings, zooms and email exchanges. (By the way, this radar draws on the same power source as my feminism/patriarchy radar. Both systems are highly reliable, exceptionally accurate and very sensitive 😊).
I have spent a lot of time teaching organisations of the importance of Strategy and Strategic Deployment. Particularly Strategy Deployment led by Purpose, taking time to share how powerful a unifier Purpose can be. Organising and aligning around purpose provides clarity of direction and incites innovation. It identifies the work that you should not be doing but critically, it promotes where improvement within current operations is required. I’ve talked for probably months on end about how this Purpose can be translated and cascaded across the whole organisation, how it should be aligned to customer value and measures which help organisations to determine where they are, where they want to be and how healthy and in-shape they are in terms of being able to get there. When organisations take the time and trouble to define their purpose and the things that matter to them, when they communicate, communicate, communicate these, translate and cascade them so they are meaningful to different departments and levels, and when the organisation itself actually lives and breathe this purpose, it’s a tremendously powerful and productive force.
But strategy without operations is just a pipe dream. Worse still, it’s the opportunity to frustrate, to disappoint, to disenchant the people that work for you. Strategy without Operations means nothing happens, nothing is achieved. It means no value is delivered. Strategy and Operations shouldn’t be a hierarchical relationship, it should be a cooperative one. Co-produced, co-delivered, with equal respect and yes, equal power.
The trouble is, strategy feels better. Strategy is what you do as you progress in your career, it’s when you leave behind the hot ears and skull dimpling headset of the customer contact centre and you move to the corridors of power for some privacy and headspace because of all of that thinking that you suddenly need to start doing. It’s when you are now able to ‘work from home’ because you have an important policy document to write. (Thank God for the pandemic for finally bursting the ‘only senior people can be trusted to work from home’ myth at least).
In fact, the pandemic has brought the essential nature of operations into sharp focus for the first time in a long time. Yes, the most important workers in our society are not strategists or business consultants … our keyworkers work in supermarkets, deliver parcels and pick up our bins, they’re in our hospitals and in our schools, caring for us and teaching our children.
Indeed, the biggest challenges of our times are now operational ones. How do we process a test as fast as we can and inform those concerned as quickly as possible? How can we make enough vaccines, procure enough vaccines and get everyone vaccinated as quickly and as effectively as we can?
Of course, strategy will be a key catalyst in the success of these initiatives but be under no illusion that achievement of these strategic goals is VERY much an operational challenge. It’s about demand, it’s about capacity, it’s about logistics, its about equipment, it’s about PROCESS. Of course it’s about money too, but money will always only get you so far. There sure has been a lot of money spent in this pandemic which hasn’t led to huge leaps in operational efficiency or effectiveness.
Effective operations can move mountains, its life and death, the difference between thriving and surviving and I hope that we take this newfound respect for the importance of operations (well I suppose I haven’t really tested whether society has become enlightened to their importance yet… if the pandemic doesn’t achieve it then I suppose we will be doomed forever) within the world of work.
From my perspective at least, it’s one thing to have a vision about what’s possible, it’s easy to issue a call to action – the trouble is ALWAYS, how do we make that vision become a reality? There needs to be an investment (mental, emotional, often financial but mostly just cooperative effort) in terms of how we operationalise these strategic aims. More than this, an awareness that the key part of an excellent strategist’s role, is to collaborate with operations, listen to their expertise and provide them with what they need to make the strategic vision become a reality. Strategy is not a dictatorial command, it’s a collaborative conversation that seeks to achieve things, together.