How to Improve Strategic-Operational Collaboration

Strategy execution often flounders unless the organization manages this fundamental question: how much energy and attention should managers devote to operations (planning and acting for today) compared to strategy (planning and acting for the future)?

This query from a strategic initiative leader illustrates the challenge,

My organization is filled with managers who are very good at operations, but not good at creating or supporting strategy. Our managers, directors and VPs need to think and operate at a more strategic and less tactical level. How do I get people to move from a hands-on, day-to-day mindset to a more strategic one?

Operations people are important stakeholders for several reasons. First, they are performers of the key activities of the current business model, and will also perform activities if the organization migrates to a new business model. Second, they are providers and controllers of resources that are used in the strategic initiative. Third, when  operations people change their behaviors to adopt strategy, they create benefits.

Unfortunately, many people who are strong in operations are less comfortable with the ambiguity of strategy. People avoid ambiguity, so they avoid strategy-setting discussions.

A Polarity Map illustrates Organizational Tensions and Polarization

This article provides a polarity map for operations and strategy. Understanding it will help you develop a better working relationship with operational managers, thereby increasing their buy in for the strategic initiative.

A template for a polarity map is shown in the following graphic. The strategic-operational tension is shown on the left and right. Note the symbols in the corners. The “+” sign is a place for capturing the advantages of that pole, and the “-” sign is for the disadvantages. Thus,

  • The upper left is advantages of strategic focus; the lower left is disadvantages of strategic focus.
  • The upper right is advantages of operational focus; the lower right is disadvantages of operational focus.

Here is a completed polarity map for the strategy-operational tension. Examine the perceived advantages and disadvantages of each perspective. Notice the presence of items in each of the four quadrants: it illustrates a somewhat complete picture of operations and strategy. Notice the upsides and downsides of each perspective; neither is perfect.

When People are Polarized

People are “polarized” when they only see the upsides their position [on the polarity map] and the downsides of the opposite.

The following graphic shows two related polarity maps. The top graphic shows the polarized view of the operational perspective. Operational managers take pride in accomplishing their duties, and things that distract are not welcome. The lower graphic illustrates the polarized view of the strategist. They want to increase the success for the future, and regard the operational view as risky (over the long term).

The polarization increases when a polarized party avoid contact with the other party or view them as an antagonists.

One important benefit of a polarity map is,

A polarity map helps people to see the big picture.

How to Gain Support for Strategic Focus

Here are the steps:

  1. The strategist has to acknowledge the value of holding an operational focus (the upper right quadrant).  This is absolutely vital for change agents to understand! Operations people may not see the big picture, but they know they run their piece of the business model.
  2. The strategist has to acknowledge the disadvantages of a strategic focus (the lower left quadrant). You have to assure the operations person acknowledges your understanding of their perspective. Steps one and two should relax the tension. You are ready to gently introduce the reasons for more strategic ways of thinking.
  3. Now, as Steven Covey advises, we “seek first to understand and then be understood.” Now, introduce the upsides of the strategic focus perspective and test for agreement:

“The focus of strategy is to create and sustain competitive advantage.
Do you agree with this statement and its importance to our organization?”

Often, people only see the pieces in isolation. As a change agent, you have to help each position recognize the value proposition for the organization both at present and in the future.

You are now in a better position to explore common values and aims.

Tensions to Manage

The organizational goal is to stay in the upper half of the polarity map. Recognize that there will be tension between the two poles. Sometimes there will be more emphasis on operations and sometimes more on strategy. Be prepared to cycle back and forth.

Recognize, too, that the downsides are natural and unavoidable. When the downsides of the polarity become noticeable, it is time to shift energy to the opposite pole. For example, when you start to experience complaints about strategy, it is time to revisit operations. When you start to see the dysfunctions of the operational focus (too many projects and conflicting priorities), it is time to invest more energy in discussions about strategic alignment.

The key, of course, is balance.

Strategy is not the solution to the problem of operations, and operations is not the solution to the problem of strategy. Remember, there are few problems to solve. Rather, there are tensions to manage.

How do you get people to see the big picture?


About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
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