Linkage: The Foundation
for Everything Else
By Bill Birnbaum, CMC
 
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Suppose you're conducting an orchestra. You'll need to integrate the talents of a number of musicians. Some will play the violin; others the oboe; others the drum. While the contribution of each musician is unique, all work in harmony toward one common objective – the successful performance of the musical piece.

Implementing a strategy is exactly the same. It requires the collective efforts of multiple organizational units, each working on different activities, but all working toward a common goal – implementation of your strategy.

The trick, of course, is to link" the activities of the various organizational units to assure their collective efforts work in harmony. You'll need to "tie together" their activities so they provide strategic focus... so they point in the same direction. Toward the successful implementation of the strategy.

Linkage in Two Dimensions

Implementation of strategies requires linkage in two dimensions – both vertical and horizontal. Vertical linkages are those tying together the organization "from top to bottom," from corporate to division to department. Here's an example...

If the corporate strategy calls for growth through product development, the division plans had better commit capital to research and development. And the R&D departments within each division will need to remain on the leading edge of appropriate technologies.

Horizontal linkages relate the activities of departments, of regional offices, of manufacturing plants or divisions – establish coordination and cooperation – so their collective efforts work together toward the successful implementation of the strategy. As an example, a strategy calling for computerization of manufacturing would require the collective (and cooperative) efforts of production, human resources, and R&D.

In support of a product development strategy, the R&D department will, obviously, need to be familiar with applicable technologies. But just as important, the human resources department will have to recruit those with the applicable technical skills.

In 1988, we began working with a client who was reporting difficulties implementing a growth strategy based on superior service. Some brief interviews with managers in various departments turned up the answer... lack of linkage in the organization. The production department was focusing on reducing costs. By itself a commendable goal. But the marketing department wasn't stressing price... rather it was pushing both superior service (the firm's stated strategy) and product reliability. And the R&D department wasn't focusing on service, or cost, or reliability, but rather on inventing significant contributions to technology.

Each department's focus was, by itself complete, but none was linked to the strategy of "increasing market share through superior service." And they certainly weren't linked to each other. Clearly, the organization lacked linkage.

Encouraging Linkage

Through proper design of your planning process, you can encourage the establishment of linkages. You'd best develop your plans beginning at the top of the organization... and work your way down... from corporate, to division, to department. In that manner, planning will move from top to bottom... from the more general to the more specific. And each successive level in the organization will have benefit of direction from above before developing its own plan.

Another excellent way to encourage linkage is to establish action planning teams which cross departments. That way, people from one department not only appreciate the activities being performed by those in other departments, but they better understand the "big picture" – the strategy in its entirety... and better understand how their own efforts work toward successful strategy implementation.

Finally, you can encourage by communicating. Not just an occasional memo describing a strategy, but series honest to goodness eyeball-to-eyeball discussions on what the strategy is, how in the world you're going to accomplish it, how each person's efforts fit into the big picture.

An Example from Hewlett Packard

Some years ago, I was meeting with a division of the Hewlett Packard Corporation in Northern California. On that particular day, the division manager was making his monthly presentation to the managers in the division. There he was, up on the stage in a large auditorium... reviewing sales achievements, manufacturing efficiencies, new product development schedules... and more. All before an audience of three or four hundred managers. And his communication wasn't one-way either. He fielded questions and took comments from the managers. In all, an hour or so.

And that monthly meeting for managers was only a part of his communications efforts. He met with his immediate staff far more frequently. And in typical Hewlett Packard fashion, he did his fair share of "managing by wandering around."

By the way, it's easy to tell when an organization has a high degree of linkage. Just interview the managers one at a time. Each manager will describe the firm's strategy in some detail. You'll note that he's thought carefully about the strategy's implementation. He'll articulate the specific role, not only his own department, but each of the other departments, must play in successfully implementing the strategy. And he'll speak of the specific challenges which each department faces related to implementation. Each of the managers is thus able to take a more "general management overview" of the business.

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