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Dollars & Sense:
Sshhhhh! It's a Secret!

  Column published in DM Review Magazine
November 2003 Issue
  By Susan Osterfelt

You're a manager of a department or business and you are developing your key strategy for growing revenues, taking market share away from your competitors, developing a new product, expanding geographically or changing your business processes. Happens all the time, right? But do you communicate that strategy, or do you keep it secret?

It is baffling to me when a manager doesn't share his or her strategy with those employees who need to help achieve it. While I understand the need to keep the strategy private in terms of not letting the competition know the plans, I don't understand how a manager can fail to tell his or her employees what the strategy is. It's almost certain that if the employees don't know what the plan is, the plan will not be achieved (unless by sheer accident!).

However, some managers continue to give secret code names to certain strategies, taking care that no one, or only a select few, know the game plan. I guess it's a matter of lack of trust; yet it's troubling when that manager doesn't trust his or her employees with the knowledge of the strategy. Perhaps the manager thinks that the employees "can't handle" knowing the strategy, but that manager isn't giving the employees much credit. Employees like to be "in the know" and can be just as flexible as managers with changing strategies if given the chance, along with the rationale underscoring the strategy. Employees appreciate the trust their manager places in their ability to handle the knowledge appropriately.

Sometimes employees may catch wind of the fact that the strategy has changed, but have no knowledge of how it has changed or what is involved, or -- even worse -- have wrong information about the strategy. In this situation, the employees could make assumptions about changes to business processes and even work at cross-purposes to the strategy without even knowing it. It is clear that there are times where keeping strategies secret can backfire!

Some managers probably think that if fewer people know of the strategy, it is less likely that the strategy will find its way into the public domain. That may be true, especially if the strategy is a price change on a product line, for example. However, employees can be told of the need to keep the information out of the public domain, why it is important to do so and what specific actions they should take (or should not take) to safeguard the information. On the other hand, certain strategies may not be compromised even if the public finds out about them. In these situations, a competitor finding out about the strategy does not necessarily mean that the competitor can copy it or even respond to it successfully. The specific dynamics of one company or one unit that create the opportunity for the strategy to be accomplished can rarely be duplicated. The need for secrecy of the strategy has to be weighed against the difficulty of execution that secrecy creates.

Perhaps some managers want to keep their strategies secret just for a short period of time, until they are ready to rollout the action plans that will be necessary to accomplish them. While I understand that point of view, there is another viewpoint that if the strategy is shared with employees, it's possible that the employees themselves could suggest or develop action plans to meet the goal. Those employee-suggested action plans could, in fact, be as good as, or even better than, ones conceived by the manager. Additionally, there may be more buy-in generated when employees are asked for their opinion and given an opportunity to help develop action plans than when they are merely asked to execute plans developed by their manager, and employee buy-in can be a very good thing to have!

Communication of secret strategies can get everyone -- managers as well as employees -- working together toward a shared goal. People working together are more successful than people working at cross-purposes. Success of a business strategy may not be guaranteed if the secret is shared, but a strategy no one knows about save for the manager is almost guaranteed to not be successful.


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Business Intelligence (BI).

Susan Osterfelt is senior vice president at Bank of America, in Charlotte, North Carolina. She can be reached at susan.osterfelt@bankofamerica.com.

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