What is stewardship in business?
17 February 2020
“Steward” is a bit old world – glimmers of yacht clubs, caretakers and public garden attendants – but it best describes the most successful approach to creating business improvement through consulting.
Stewardship is the parallel actions of thinking about a problem and undertaking a solution. It is being an intelligent and adaptive agent of change in the intricate and unpredictable business environment, and “the art of getting things done amidst a complex and dynamic context.” 1See the Helsinki Design Lab document “Legible Practices.” A steward develops strategies for improvement and shoulders the related difficult and detailed work of change with patience, reason, understanding and logic in cooperation and coordination with the real limitations and capacities of the business.
Stewardship is the combination of strategy creation and implementation of that strategy into a coordinated and sustained effort, while evaluating specifics and new information during the process.
How to achieve, or at least improve
The ultimate goal of advising change in business is for the business to achieve a better result from operations and to increase the ability and likelihood of both the organization and individuals to reach their goals.
So the consultant’s question is simply: what is the best way to achieve that ultimate goal?
Consultants and the businesses they serve cannot act without a plan, goals or strategy. But a plan without action is useless – success demands both thinking and doing in in a messy environment.
Strategy (the thinking) is the creation of a better way to do things – a method to achieve a goal, a way to solve problems, or an improvement to a specific situation. In consulting, strategy without execution is commonly referred to as “getting paid for thinking” and the end result is some kind of recommendation: a PowerPoint, a report or a presentation of the consultant’s advice. The execution (the doing) is changing parts of the organization in order to improve the way the business works, whether it’s specifics of a policy, workflow, or the way responsibilities are organized.
Separate is not better
Separating thinking and doing into two discrete tasks which occur at different times – especially if different people or teams are responsible for each- rarely leads to success. Why?
First, it is very difficult for strategy isolated from action to lead to improvement because the strategy is necessarily untested – ideas and direction are at best only academic if they aren’t exposed to the real world. Because real businesses are not examples from a textbook, executing strategy that was developed in one moment of time will develop complications as soon as the execution phase begins.
Indeed, because execution often unearths undiscovered elements of the problem, details or roadblocks, the mere implementation of strategy without constant attention towards revising both the original plan and the implementation is usually unsuccessful. The new elements that emerge at execution logically alter the potential success of the strategy, the related plan or even the final goal. The real world and the unknown can affect a mouse’s best laid plans.
Secondly, strategy and execution are often separated by both time and the people who are responsible for them. Strategy usually comes first, and is “finished” before execution gets underway. Strategy, perhaps created by a consultant, is not part of the separate team who is responsible for executing the strategy – this results in disconnection of the thinking about the problem and the action to change it.
The disconnect between responsible parties leads to uncoordinated efforts at the very least. Strategy can be developed without taking into account the business’s particular issues that could limit the effectiveness of the plan. On the other hand, execution of a strategy by a separate team can lead to problems of interpretation, judgement and frustration.
This is not a matter of a consultant or business partners “doing a better job,” spending more money or time, because it is the effort to change that itself unearths the unknown.. Has your life turned out the way you predicted it would? How about just this week?
It’s just not possible for people to predict the simple future, never mind the intricate chain of events that occur when one pulls the levers connected to a complex business. Therefore the original strategy usually fails or is insufficient at least – when new specifics emerge, it even may appear that business conditions have changed.
The start of implementation naturally causes two things: one, details, obstacles and problems that were not included in the creation of the strategy at first emerge. Secondly, participants in the implementation of the strategy may quickly notice that there are shortcomings visible or additions that are needed that were not part of the original plan.
If the thinking and doing (strategy and execution) are separated, it is unlikely that the business will improve very much, if at all.
So all too often, our good ideas in business (and outside of it for that matter) don’t survive as our original intents simply because real life enters the process. Undiscovered inter-company turf wars, competing priorities, and unknown agendas can undermine a well-intentioned plan, even one presented in just the right Powerpoint fonts and colors. The list of things that can derail even great strategy is truly endless: metrics don’t hold up, people change their minds, employees leave, or the product is late.
Solution: Mind what we don’t know
In order for the improvement to happen, the strategy and the word needs to be altered quickly, decisively and logically in response to the the new information that has been uncovered by the effort, in relation to the intents of the strategy and the context of the business itself. In order to improve and achieve success, openly reviewing strategy coordinated with execution needs to be a cooperative and iterative process.
That process needs to be honest, and the change needs accommodate the capabilities of the business right now so that incremental progress towards the agreed goal can proceed. To be successful, the consultant cannot be indifferent or aloof during the work, either to change the strategy in response to execution or the execution in response to new information – he or she must lead iteration of the strategy and lead the necessary work to achieve it.
If the original intent to increase the probability of success is to survive during a consultant’s engagement, the strategy – neatly projected in an isolated moment of time – and the implementation of that strategy, necessarily need to be guided through the previously unknown reactions and the unexpected developments, details and changes that occur.
Changes in strategy and direction need to be graceful, balanced and careful because a business is an intricate living organism, and the rate and size of change will be successful only in relation to the rate and size of adjustment the business can tolerate. The consultant must not only consider but also respect the limitations and boundaries of the problem, the people involved and the business resources. Successful changes cannot be blind to those characteristics, even in the name of grit, determination or the supposed benefits of the end of the change state.
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