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Strategic commitment

Life sciences businesses, such as pharmaceuticals and medical technology, are characterised by a high proportion of educated people in roles that have high discretion. That is, you can’t tell them what do, how to do it or make them do want they don’t want to. This means that, when it comes to strategy implementation, they have to want to implement the strategy. This places a premium on individual commitment to the organisation’s strategy. This is a tricky concept, for which I give the strict, academic definition in box 1.

Box 1: What is commitment to strategy?
Box 1

When someone is strongly committed to a strategy, what they do and how they behave will be consistent with supporting the execution of that strategy. For example, salespeople will focus their efforts on those customer segments identified in the strategy and will convey the positioning accurately and with sincerity. By contrast, salespeople not committed to the strategy will focus on customers that they like to see and may give messages incoherent with brand positioning. Even worse, someone who is strongly disaffected with the strategy may work to undermine it. Commitment to strategy is obviously important but it’s notoriously difficult to create and maintain, especially among the bright, independent-minded sort of people that our industry needs and employs. In reality, everyone in your organisation sits on a continuum of commitment, as shown in figure 1, and can move up and down this spectrum over time. Your challenge as a leader is, of course, to move people from left to right along this spectrum.

Figure 1

Figure 1: The commitment to strategy continuum

Commitment creates engagement
Commitment to strategy is important because it creates engagement with strategy or, more accurately, it creates three distinct kinds of engagement with strategy, as shown in figure 2.

The first type, cognitive engagement, reflects the extent to which we engage our intelligence and thought processes with the execution of strategy. We see it when people come up with good ideas and when they are resilient in the face of problems and difficulties.

The second, emotional engagement, is the extent to which we engage our feelings with the execution of strategy. We see this in higher energy levels and willingness to work beyond expectations. The third, physical engagement, isn’t quite what it sounds like. It is the extent to which we engage with the outside world.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Types of strategy engagement

It leads to proactive behaviour, such as taking responsibility for one’s own development and anticipating problems rather than reacting to them. When strategy implementers engage in all three ways, this creates a strategic psychological state of self-efficacy, a high level of self-belief in one’s own capacity to execute the strategy successfully. It’s this self-belief that makes people proactive, energetic and resilient in the face of difficulties. Equally, lack of commitment and a feeling of low self-efficacy leads to disengagement and the sort of behaviours that hinder strategy execution, including cynicism, laziness and obstructive behaviour.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Components of commitment to strategy

Components of commitment
So commitment leads to engagement leads to behaviour leads to outcomes. This makes creating commitment to strategy an essential part of the leaders’ role in a knowledge-based organisation such as a pharmaceutical or medical technology company. But before they can do so, they need to understand more about how this valuable emotional state comes about. 

Figure 4

Figure 4:  Precursors of commitment
Creating commitment begins with understanding that it is not a single, simple thing. Psychologists talk of three kinds of commitment: affective, normative and continuance, as defined in box 2. This means that an individual’s commitment to strategy arises from three complementary feelings, as shown in figure 3. In practice this means that each of us asks three questions before we commit to a strategy, as shown in figure 4. If our leaders answer those questions well, we commit and move to the right of the spectrum. If not, we become ambivalent or even disruptive.

Box 2
Box 2: Three forms of commitment

In my research, I’ve paid great attention to the differences between leaders who are effective at creating commitment to strategy and those who fail to. The latter failing group can be compared to preachers, who evangelise for their strategy with lots of passion but little listening. The former, successful group are better described as conversationalists, who engage with their teams in a very personalised way. I’ve summarised these behaviours in figures 5 and 6.
Figure 5
Figure 5: Ineffective commitment creation

Even the best strategy will fail if its implementers are not committed to it. Leaders who are passionate about the strategy they have created often think that all that is necessary is to evangelise their strategy. In practice, this only works for the most charismatic of leaders. For most of us, creating commitment to strategy is a delicate craft. It’s made easier if you understand that commitment comes in three flavours, each achieved by meeting different needs within the individual. It then works by creating the three kinds of engagement that blend to shape behaviour and outcomes. This understanding causes the best leaders to stop evangelising and start a conversation with their implementers. It’s that conversation that creates commitment to strategy.

Figure 6

Professor Brian D Smith works at SDA Bocconi and the University of Hertfordshire. He is a world-recognised authority on the evolution of the life sciences industry and welcomes questions at

9th August 2022

Professor Brian D Smith works at SDA Bocconi and the University of Hertfordshire. He is a world-recognised authority on the evolution of the life sciences industry and welcomes questions at

9th August 2022

From: Marketing


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