It’s all about Strategy Execution

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without Strategy is the noise before the defeat.”

Sun Tsu (”The Art of War”)

If there is one thing missing from so many otherwise great organizations I’ve worked with, it is strategy execution.  Many managers understand that a strategy is essential for success over the long-run, but surprisingly few are capable of mapping that to operational terms meaningful to the rest of the organization.

Robert Kaplan (co-creator of the Balanced Scorecard) suggests that according to a recent Bain Consulting study, seven out of eight companies (in a sample of almost 2,000 large corporations) fail to achieve profitable growth, even though more than 90 percent had detailed strategic plans.  (Link)

Why is that?  It is assumed that failure is assured without a strategy, but with a well crafted, informed strategy success is destined.  In fact, we see that the mere existence of a strategy means very little in terms of contribution to success.

Using a sports analogy, teams heading into game day will have prepared a strategy that has been chosen as the best means to victory given the conditions, the opposition, their roster, the officiating crew or style and even the reputation of the fans.  But what good is a strategy without the playbook?  The result is a team that understands the elements required to win, but without the direction to apply their efforts cohesively.

Strategy execution is all about the “operationalization” of strategy, but this is not straightforward and takes as much introspection as it does external analysis.  I intend to further explore this “gap” between strategy and tactical operations in subsequent articles, but would like to focus here on the Strategy Execution as an organizational trait.

A few years ago I attended a discussion led by Robert Kaplan where he suggested that there are five key principles that management should assess when developing a Strategy Execution Plan.  I’ve modified them somewhat to my own taste and experience, but the themes remain consistent:

  1. Deliver Exceptional Leadership. 
  2. Communicate the Mapping. 
  3. Demonstrate Organizational Alignment. 
  4. Provide the Inspiration.
  5. Strategy as a Continuous Process.

In Summary:

Delivering Exceptional Leadership
Corporate change in a leadership void is a recipe for disaster.  Organizational leaders need to be visible and consistently available when attempting to align the organization to a new (or even existing) strategy.  The concept of a “leadership coalition” is cited as a key contributor to successfully implementing a strategy execution plan, and more importantly a culture of strategy execution.

Communicating the Mapping
The mapping of strategy to operational terms needs to pervasive and communicated consistently and constantly.  In Kaplan’s words: “Say it seven times, in seven different ways”, which is to say that the delivery of the message needs to become as much a part of the fabric of corporate culture as your core values and mission are.

Demonstrating Organizational Alignment
A common question is, “What happens if the result of my Strategy Map is the realization that one or more of my initiatives are off-strategy?”.  This is further complicated if the initiative has significant momentum or has had a significant amount of investment.  The answer (as any good consultant will always tell you) is that it depends:  However, the “answer” depends less on the tangible elements of the problem, and more on the resolve of leadership to stay on-strategy and to assure organizational alignment.  Make alignment to strategy another cultural trait of your organization.

Providing the Inspiration
Kaplan in his talk actually suggested providing the right “motivation” for your team.  I prefer to explore inspiration than motivation.  Motivation urges action often through the enticement of reward (or threat of correction), whereas inspiration draws from deeper purpose that provokes greater engagement for a longer period. 

How can we ensure that a strategy execution plan is meaningful for line employees?  How can we inspire alignment in our team?  I don’t know … or at least the answer varies by organization.  Because organizations invariably consist of people, each with varied degrees and sources of purpose, developing inspiration is a black art.  Having said that, a very common human trait is the inspiration one feels when efforts are appreciated and their effects are correlated to the success of the organization (which leads me back to the concept of “Personal Brand Development“).

  • Strategy as a Continuous Process
    I have personal experience with organizations that insist that strategy is a document that was produced years ago, printed, and distributed to staff.  Often this strategy still maintains a prominent home at the top of a dusty shelf or even helping to prop up a computer monitor.  Instead the concept of continuous strategy development needs to be embraced.  Much like the analogy of a sports team with a game plan (strategy), the same game plan applied to different circumstances may fail.  The team must have the ability to adapt to changing environments, different competitors, etc.

In my experience three critical themes contribute the greatest to developing an environment conducive to strategy execution. 

  1. Make it Cultural.  What better way to make a strategy execution plan succeed than to make strategy execution a central theme within the culture of your organization.  The team in shipping needs to insist that they understand how their efforts contribute to financial sustainability (for instance).  If it isn’t clear, demand clarity.
  2. Make it Personal.  Why can’t a strategy execution plan be delivered with the entire organization comprising the principle audience.  Too many reports, plans and “strategies” are written by, for and to the general amusement of consultants and executives.  A litmus test: Does your junior accountant in accounts receivable identify with your vision and your organizational strategy?  Can she articulate how that strategy applies to what she is doing right now? Why not?
  3. Make it Practical.  Does understanding the correlation of my every-day tasks to overall organizational success need to be complex?  If it is, maybe it isn’t correlated.  Re-thing the strategy map.

What do you think?  What are your experiences?