Gridiron versus football
One way of understanding the importance of communication to strategy is to consider the differences between football and American football (which we’ll call “gridiron” here, to avoid confusion). What role does strategy play in each of these sports?
In this sport the coach has frequent opportunities to communicate tactics to the team. After each play, the game stops and there is a chance to consult, with players receiving a detailed tactical brief on the next sequence of moves.
Football teams need to play for 45-minute periods with no opportunity to communicate in depth with the coach, who must stay off the pitch. While the game is in progress, the coach can shout from the sidelines or pass instructions through players brought on as substitutes.
Both games are strategic, of course, but strategy’s role in football is more analogous to its role in a typical organisation. In the gridiron model, it’s not a problem if the team doesn’t understand the strategy – it’s enough for the coach to know the strategy and provide tactical briefings to the team at regular intervals.
In football, however, the team will fail if it does not understand the coach’s strategy. A player may get sent off, a surprise goal might be scored, the weather might change – a lot can happen in 45 minutes, and the team will have to adapt to the changed situation on its own. The detailed tactical briefing will have to wait until the half-time break.
Businesses can suffer when strategic thinking, and the strategies it helps to produce, remain inside the head of an elite team. That team will need to become like the gridiron coach, micromanaging all parts of the organisation to make sure it’s operating cohesively. This in turn places a huge burden on the leadership team, whose time is quickly consumed by the need to form and relay tactical briefings.
A more effective approach to strategy is to follow the football model, where the leadership successfully conveys the strategy to the organisation and, in doing so, shares ownership of that strategy. Teams and departments can then adapt their tactics as circumstances change in the daily reality of business, with no need to be micromanaged from on high. The leadership team has the time to remain focused on strategic issues, and strategic briefings are less frequent but more valuable.
Implications for digital strategy
To work well, digital strategy needs to put organisations in control of their own digital operations & initiatives. It fails when it is treated as the preserve of experts, and succeeds when it enables people from different backgrounds to contribute to the success of their digital business.
This is particularly important in the digital field, which is fast-changing, technologically challenging, and prone to jargon. Digital strategy must be able to frame its ideas in a way that is easily understood by non-expert audiences.
Some organisations know that they need to create a digital strategy at some point, but not right now. Maybe there are too many projects on the go, or a key decision-maker is about to move to a new role. But this can lead to dangerous periods of strategic drift. Next week’s chapter explores this theme in more detail.