Have you ever noticed that organizations often don’t invest the time upfront to clarify the strategic outcomes for change initiatives? 

Organizations create challenges for themselves by not defining their strategic intent. Daryl Conner developed this term in 1974 to establish a method for separating organizations that are changing successfully from those that aren’t. He proposed making detailed plans of what clients wanted to achieve with strategies.

90% of organizations don’t achieve their strategic objectives. One reason is they lack confirmation of their strategic intent before beginning a change initiative. This lack of forethought results in them heading in a direction that won’t deliver on the company’s intended metrics. 

ROI, competitive advantage, product leadership, organizational agility, and culture change are often examples of failed metrics. When metrics indicate failure, it’s usually too late to turn back. 

The best approach is to support clients to be as specific as possible to establish structured guidance they have built that will feel familiar throughout a process of uncomfortable unknowns. The podcast episode with Melanie Franklin details the agile change management techniques change specialists can use to support clients toward a specific vision. 

This article guides change managers by explaining why strategic intent is important and complicated. It also provides examples of how it looks and how to simplify these complications. Follow our vision, and let’s begin! 

Why is strategic intent important?

Many organizations don’t envision and define their strategic initiatives. Large investments lead to wasted time and resources, and initiatives progress too far into implementation to recover resources. 

Establishing strategic intent early is what the best transformational leaders do to achieve ROI in any change initiative via a structured approach toward a clear vision for the future.

Statista predicts that global spending on digital transformation will double between 2022 and 2025 to USD 2.8 trillion. If strategies do not receive adequate planning and clear intent, much of this investment will become waste.

Clients need to be strongly encouraged to envision what future they want to achieve with their initiatives. Change managers can help them do this by assisting them to consider what they are creating and from that point of view. 

When change managers support their clients in establishing a clear strategic intent, they can see a golden path to success. 

If leaders see this shining path, they will receive inspiration to empower team members to lead changes, save resources, and contribute to a pro-change culture. 

This culture will be resilient to future changes and become agile as it accepts that change in all tasks is the only constant. 

Why is confirming strategic intent in change management complicated?

The golden path to confirming strategic intent is essential but contains perils. The positive side to this is that there are two main points to consider, and with forethought, clients can overcome them, resulting in clear strategic intent. 

Employing agile methodologies helps mitigate this issue by working incrementally to define the minimum viable product (MVP) to ensure that each piece of work contributes to the desired result. The Agile Manifesto establishes the principles of Agile approaches.

However, there are two complications which make it challenging to achieve this:

  1. Employing agile depends on vision clarity.
  2. Defining what the future desired state does not look like is challenging.

Let’s begin with the first point and consider an example of how it looks in practice and how to overcome this complication. 

Deploying Agile Depends On Vision Clarity

Confirming strategic intent in change management, particularly when employing Agile methodologies, presents significant challenges. Agile transformation requires a clear vision of what the change seeks to achieve and a well-defined picture of the future state. 

Without a cohesive vision, efforts can become disjointed, leading to confusion and inconsistent outcomes. This vision must be communicated effectively throughout the organization, ensuring all team members understand and align with the transformation goals.

Example of how this challenge looks in practice

For example, consider a large financial institution transitioning to Agile to improve its product development cycle. The leadership must articulate a clear vision: becoming a customer-centric organization with faster time to market for new financial products. 

This vision involves transforming not just processes but also mindsets and company culture.

However, if the strategic intent isn’t well defined or communicated, teams might adopt Agile practices in isolation, leading to siloed efforts that don’t align with the broader organizational goals. 

One department might prioritize speed, while another might focus on regulatory compliance, resulting in friction and inefficiencies.

How to simplify this complication

The ways to simplify this complication include:

  • Strong leadership: Leadership must ensure that the vision for Agile transformation is specific, measurable, and universally understood. 
  • Roadmaps: Use detailed roadmaps to map out your vision for the initiative’s future so leaders and team members can relate to a visual representation of what they are striving for. 
  • Multi-level communication: Practice regular communication to keep feedback channels open and deal with challenges as they occur. 
  • Personalized training: Align training with the desired future state, thus enabling a cohesive and effective transformation.

Defining what the future desired state does not look like is challenging

In change management, we see a paradoxical challenge when confirming strategic intent. Defining what the organization’s future state will look like after a transformation is not as significant to success. 

Instead, explicitly establishing what the future desired state does not look like up front is crucial for confirming strategic intent and ensuring the success of any transformation initiative. 

All change methodologies rely on this clarity, whether you choose ADKAR, the PROSCI 3-Phase Model, Conner, Kotter or another model. This aspect of these models avoids ambiguity and misalignment among team members and stakeholders. 

The organizations you work with can prevent efforts from deviating toward unintended outcomes by clearly stating what the future state does not entail.

Example of how this challenge looks in practice

Consider a healthcare organization implementing a new electronic health record (EHR) system to enhance patient care and streamline operations. 

Leadership must not only define the positive aspects of the future state, such as improved data accuracy and faster patient service but also explicitly outline what the future state should avoid. 

This challenge might include stating that the new system should not create additional administrative burdens for healthcare providers, should not compromise patient privacy, and should not result in longer patient wait times.

How to simplify this complication

The ways to simplify this complication include:

  • Define challenges: Define challenges of the current strategic plan to help the organization prevent potential pitfalls during the implementation process. 
  • Build a plan of attack: Establish how to tackle each possible challenge and who will be responsible.
  • Envision your future state: State what the future state should not look like to maintain a focused and aligned approach to change.

Clarity ensures that all teams work towards a cohesive vision, minimizing the risk of unintended consequences and fostering a smoother transition towards the desired state. This clarity is essential for avoiding missteps and achieving successful, sustainable change.

Be patient and specific with clients 

Helping clients understand and build a clear strategic intent can be challenging. 

This process is a mindset shift from the familiarity of linear brainstorming ideas of “who we want to be” on a flipchart as a group to “what do we need to be able to do” to reach our desired future state. 

Don’t forget that the second one is far more ambitious and can feel intimidating for clients. It’s essential to be patient while they scope out what they want their intent to be to achieve success.

To successfully support an organization in confirming the strategic intent of their transformation using change management skills, you must get to a level of specificity in setting the strategy for the initiative so that the guard rails are clearly in place for project resources to know and to be able to project the best next step in work completion.

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