The Scottish Question

by Sarah Thrift on August 17, 2014

On September 18, Scotland will decide whether to become an independent country.

Regardless of the outcome, Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister has played a blinding strategy – and for all of us interested in strategy there are some interesting lessons to draw.

Half Scot Half brit flag

Alex Salmond has made himself and his party the master of the question, the timing of the question and the franchise. All of these he has chosen to maximise the chances of Scotland voting for independence. For example, Salmond picked September 2014 for the vote, after the Commonwealth Games were held in Glasgow and Scotland would have an extra bounce of self-confidence. Or take the franchise which has been extended to include 16 and 17 year olds (great!), who are also expected to on average be more in favor of independence.

Of particular interest is the question itself. For those of you who have attended my courses or who have read the first part of my book – which has been pre-released for free download you will know that I am very passionate about making sure we ask the right question and do so in the clearest possible way.

The Scottish question is extremely clear and simple: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

Scottish ballot

Compare this to the question asked of Quebec in their referendum on independence in 1995:“Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?” Quite a mouthful.

A second key component of getting to a good question is to make sure that it is not leading, nor making any implicit assumptions.

Interestingly, originally the Scottish government wanted the question to read “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?”. The Electoral Commission however found that the “Do you agree” preface made it a leading question, which would be more likely to garner a positive response. Personally, I still think that the fact I have to disagree with the statement of the present question gives a slight advantage – based our a natural inclination to want to agree rather than disagree.

A third feature of this question is its yes/no response. This is in contrast to a strategic question, where the questions should not be answerable with yes/no. In the case of a vote however, a yes/no question is precisely what is required.

Here again Alex Salmond has used the fact that most of us would much rather say “yes” than “no” to a question to the advantage of the campaign for an indpendent Scotland. This automatically makes the opposing camp the “naysayers”.

It remains to be seen if these strategic advantages will be enough for Alex Salmond to secure the “yes” he so desperately wants. But from a strategic perspective, hats off to him for playing shrewdly.


Majority of Company Strategies in Jeopardy

by Sarah Thrift on December 18, 2013

Strategies are so often put at risk because it’s not really understood or known by those who actually have to implement it day-to-day.

Read more in the article below, which features today in Silicon Valley Business Journal, Yahoo! Finance, and Strategize magazine amongst others.

Majority of Company Strategies in Jeopardy

Business Leaders Need to Better Align Employees with Overall Vision

SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 18, 2013 – Too many company strategies falter due to poor leadership alignment and low employee engagement, according to strategy expert Sarah Thrift.

A staggering 95% of a company’s employees are unaware of, or do not understand, the strategy, according to research by Robert S. Kaplan and David P. Norton . Even among high performing companies with “clearly articulated public strategies,” recent research by Timothy Devinney suggests that only 29% of their employees can correctly identify their company’s strategy out of six choices.

If a strategy is to succeed, every member of an organization needs to understand his role in making the strategy a reality, says Thrift, whose organization Insight Consultancy Solutions, Inc. has partnered with organizations across North America and Europe.

“It does not matter how clever your strategy is, if employees don’t understand what it is, then there is no chance for their actions to be in line with what needs to happen.” Thrift says. “Each person needs to continuously ask themselves how the work they do relates to the strategy. If there is no clear link, then don’t do it.”

Part of the challenge is a poor understanding of what it means to create support behind a vision. Research published by Julie Straw et al. suggests that that only 47 percent of leaders have a clear understanding of what “building alignment” means.

Mary Barra, the new CEO of GM shared in a YouTube interview with Fortune Magazine a breakthrough moment as a leader. She was running a GM assembly plant and realized “I’ve got to motivate everyone to want to pull in the same direction and not just naturally assume that it’s going to happen like it might in a small team.”
A starting point towards better employee engagement is for organizations to gauge the leadership team’s level of alignment around the strategy, says Thrift who helps organizations transform through periods of change.

“If the leadership team is not pulling in the same direction, there is no chance for the rest of the organization to do so” says Thrift.

“Sometimes the leadership team knows it is not in alignment and that differences need to be addressed” says Thrift. “The silent killer is when leadership teams assume they are in alignment when they are not.”
“Differences between leaders may seem small, but these differences can become very big when projected through layers of an organization. Before you know it, each division is leaning in a different direction, which is death for the strategy,” Thrift says.

“The best leaders I have worked with are the ones who make it a priority to create alignment with their peers and in their teams. They are the ones who make the objectives of the organization really clear and make sure that everyone knows how their individual role ties-in.” she says.


Successful Strategy Requires Organizations to Lean In

by Sarah Thrift on December 16, 2013

One of the things I see most with clients is the challenge of making strategy a reality. A good strategy is always needed, but without a way to implement it, there won’t be any impact.


Read more in the article below, which featured last Friday in Yahoo! Finance, Businessweek, and San Francisco Business Times amongst others.

Successful Strategy Requires Organizations to Lean In

Leadership Needs a Ruthless Focus on Execution for Strategy to Succeed

SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 13, 2013 — Many leadership teams today fail in execution, despite spending significant time and funds on strategy formulation, according to Sarah Thrift, strategy expert and founder of San Francisco-based Insight Consultancy Solutions, Inc.

Sixty-one percent of C-suite executives say their firms struggle to bridge the gap between strategy formulation and its day-to-day implementation, according to an Economist Intelligence Unit survey published earlier this year.
Strategy expert Sarah Thrift says the focus on execution needs to become the new norm, as a way to bridge the gap.

“The most beautifully formulated and thought-through strategy is no good if you don’t make it happen. The recent execution problems with Obamacare are a case in point. Regardless of whether you agree or not with Obamacare, its strategy has been totally blighted by poor execution,” says Thrift, whose organization partners with businesses not only for this development process but to bridge the gap between strategy and execution.

When Charlie Rose asked Sheryl Sandberg what Facebook’s winning strategy was, she replied “Execution and innovation.”
Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase also opines on the importance of execution, “I’d rather have a first-rate execution and second-rate strategy any time than a brilliant idea and mediocre management.”

“Leadership teams often spend months devoted to developing their strategy. They pour over information about the trends for their industry, they consider a vast array of options so as to be able to make the best choices for their strategy – and yet all too often, it soon becomes clear that the strategy is failing not because of its content, but because of an inability to execute on it,” says Thrift.

“It’s rare to find a leadership team as passionate and obsessed about execution as they are about the formulation of the strategy. An important starting point is for the executive team to acknowledge that status quo behavior will not work. They need to align as a team and ensure their actions embody the strategy. Without this mindset and shared commitment, nothing will work,” Thrift says.

With this commitment in place, execution can begin. Execution may include the translation of the strategy into goals and milestones. Or work on communication and employee engagement, another great need Thrift and her team are regularly engaged to address.

Research commissioned by Accenture and SuccessFactors showed that 80 percent of business leaders recognize that they are not doing their best to communicate strategy throughout the organization. It is hardly surprising, albeit somewhat depressing, that author William A. Schiemann’s research cited in the book Performance Management: Putting Research into Action shows that only 14 percent of employees have a good understanding of their company’s strategy and direction.

“If the leadership team are not spending at least as much time making the strategy happen – communicating it, aligning their teams around it, syncing reward and compensation plans to it – then it’s never going to work. Successful strategy never ends with a plan. That’s just where it begins,” she says.

Sarah Thrift is available for interviews and delighted to be approached for guest articles or blogs. Please contact her at

About Sarah Thrift
Sarah Thrift is a strategist with a particular knack for problem solving, an entrepreneurial mindset and a passion for enhancing personal and business effectiveness. She founded Insight Consultancy Solutions in 2007 and loves working with organizations who have a real passion for what they do. She began her career at McKinsey & Co and subsequently worked for the UK Treasury advising Chancellor Gordon Brown on Corporate Governance issues in the wake of the Enron debacle. You can read Sarah’s insights on her blog


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