Communicate the digital vision and strategy

This is an excerpt from the cloud native organization cookbook I’m working on. This is from the leadership section, covering making sure people know why you’re suffering through all this change. That is, communicating your vision and strategy. Also, see previous excerpts.

Your employees listening to yet another annual vision and strategy pitch.

If a strategy is presented in the boardroom but employees never see, is it really a strategy? Obviously, not. Leadership too often believes that the strategy is crystal clear but staff usually disagree. For example, in a survey of 1,700 leaders and staff, 69% of leaders said their vision was “pragmatic and could easily translated into concrete projects and initiatives.” Employees, had a glummer picture: only 36% agreed.

Your staff likely doesn’t know the vision and strategy. More than just understanding it, they rarely know how they can help. As Boeing’s Nikki Allen put it:

In order to get people to scale, they have to understand how to connect the dots. They have to see it themselves in what they do — whether it’s developing software, or protecting and securing the network, or provisioning infrastructure — they have to see how the work they do every day connects back to enabling the business to either be productive, or generate revenue.

There’s little wizardry to communicating strategy. First, it has to be compressible. But, you already did that when you established your vision and strategy…right? Next, you push it through all the mediums and channels at your disposal to tell people over and over again. Chances are, you have “town hall” meetings, email lists, and team meetings up and down your organization. Recording videos and podcasts of you explaining the vision and strategy is helpful. Include strategy overviews in your public speaking because staff often scrutinizes these recordings. While “Enterprise 2.0” fizzled out several years ago, Facebook has trained all us to follow activity streams and other social flotsam. Use those habits and the internal channels you have to spread your communication.

You also need to include examples of the strategy in action, what worked and didn’t work. As with any type of persuasion, getting people’s peers to tell their stories are the best examples. Google and others find that celebrating failure with company-wide post mortems is instructive, career-ending crazy as that may sound. Stories of success and failure are valuable because you can draw a direct line between high-level vision to fingers on keyboard. If you’re afraid of sharing too much failure, try just opening up status metrics to staff. Leadership usually underestimates the value of organization-wide information radiators, but staff usually wants that information to stop prairie dogging through their 9 to 5.

As you’re progressing, getting feedback is key: do people understand it? Do people know what to do to help? If not, then it’s time to tune your messages and mediums. Again, you can apply a small batch process to test out new methods of communicating. While I find them tedious, staff surveys help: ask people if they understand your strategy. Be to also ask if know how to help execute the strategy.

Manifestos can help decompose a strategy into tangible goals and tactics. The insurance industry is on the cusp of turbulent competitive landscape. To call it “disruptive,” would be too narrow. To pick one sea of chop, autonomous vehicles are “changing everything about our personal auto line and we have to change ourselves,” says Liberty Mutual’s Chris Bartlow. New technologies are only one of many fronts in Liberty’s new competitive landscape. Every existing insurance company and cut-throat competitors like Amazon are using new technologies to both optimize existing business models and introduce new ones.

“We have to think about what that’s going to mean to our products and services as we move forward,” Bartlow says. Getting there required re-engineering Liberty’s software capabilities. Like most insurance companies, mainframes and monoliths drove their success over past decades. That approach worked in calmer times, but now Liberty is refocusing their software capability around innovation more than optimization. Liberty is using a stripped down set of three goals to make this urgency and vision tangible.

“The idea was to really change how we’re developing software. To make that real for people we identified these bold, audacious moves — or ‘BAMS,’” says Liberty Mutual’s John Heveran:

These BAMs grounded Liberty’s strategy, giving staff very tangible, if audacious, goals. With these in mind, staff could start thinking about how they’d achieve those goals. This kind of manifesto, makes strategy actionable.

So far, it’s working. “We’re just about cross the chasm on our DevOps and CI/CD journey,” says Liberty’s Miranda LeBlanc. “I can say that because we’re doing about 2,500 daily builds, with over a 1,000 production deployments per a day,” she adds. These numbers are tracers of putting a small batch process in place that’s used to improve the business. They now support around 10,000 internal users at Liberty and are better provisioned for the long ship ride into insurance’s future.

Choosing the right language is important for managing IT transformation. For example, most change leaders suggest dumping the term “agile.” At this point, near 25 years into “agile,” everyone feels like they’re agile experts. Whether that’s true is irrelevant. You’ll faceplam your way through transformation if you’re pitching switching to a methodology people believe they’ve long mastered.

It’s better to pick your own branding for this new methodology. If it works, steal the buzzwords du jour, from “cloud native,” DevOps, or serverless. Creating your own brand is even better. As we’ll discuss later, Allstate created a new name, CompoZed Labs, for its transformation effort. Using your own language and branding can help bring smug staff onboard and involved. “Oh, we’ve always done that, we just didn’t call it ‘agile,’” sticks-in-the-mud are fond of saying as they go off to update their Gantt charts.

Make sure people understand why they’re going through all this “digital transformation.” And make even more sure they know how to implement the vision and strategy, or, as you start thinking, our strategy.

This is a draft excerpt from the third edition of my Cloud Native Journey booklet, a work in progress. Tell me what you think, and check out the previous edition if you’re curious for more on how organizations are improving their software capabilities.