Most strategy efforts, like most diets, fail. Or, at least they fail to create the predicted value. While there are plenty of opportunities to come to flawed conclusions about the world and to substitute half-measures or noble goals for real strategy, even if the process works right, there’s still the issue of strategy execution. Successful strategy execution for many firms is all-too-elusive. However, it doesn’t have to be. This article offers 4 key starter ideas for succeeding with this difficult business challenge.

Consider the Work and Process of Strategy:

Before the first action is taken or investment is made, the work of strategy offers the ultimate in organizational self and situation assessment exercises.

A healthy strategy process looks at the world from all perspectives and lays bare the realities of the firm’s position and challenges visible at this time and imaginable in the foreseeable future.

Ultimately, an effective strategy process distills to a clear statement of the challenge; a policy for succeeding with the challenge, and a list of the core items that must take place to realize success.

That’s the easy part.

Bringing a strategy to life—even one that reasonably describes the situation and a way forward to success is one of the most difficult acts in all of business. There are traps, landmines, and pitfalls along the way.

During the past year, I chronicled some of these challenges in articles titled: A to Z on Why Your Strategy Initiative Will Fail, 17 Reasons Why Your Strategy Process Will Fail, and Real Strategy Demands Leadership Courage.

By my math, that’s 43 big reasons why you are going to muck it up with strategy execution. And, even if you know how to get it right, you or those of you at the top, probably lack the courage to make it happen.

Some might suggest I’m a naysayer. I prefer the label of “experienced pragmatist.”

Of course, we all know it’s easy to be a restaurant critic and hard to cook the meal. A reasonable question might be,

“OK, Mr. Doom and Strategy Execution Gloom, how do we get this right?”

It’s a fair question.

First, you have to assemble the ingredients.

4 Key Ingredients for Strategy Execution Success:

1. Widespread Understanding and Purpose:

Unfortunately, only a small subset of the employee population is involved in this work. While everyone may know about it, too few typically have any context for what it means to them, their teams, or, the firm.

In many/most cases where I see strategy execution hit the rocks, there’s a bad case of, “I don’t know why we’re doing this,” in the employee population. It takes as much or more time to create a common understanding of the “Why” across the employee base as it does for those involved to create the strategy in the first-place.

Senior leaders and managers must exhaust every opportunity to lay bare the realities of the world, marketplace, customer needs and competitor issues. Your ability to give context to what otherwise seems like grandiose plans on PowerPoint is directly correlated with execution success.

Present the strategy at a Town Hall meeting. Expect it not to go great. People still don’t get the reasons for and urgency behind your words, ideas, and slides.

Break the Town Hall into smaller groups and present the strategy again, soliciting questions and asking for thoughts on how to bring the strategy to life. Expect a few questions, but don’t assume your work is done here.

Use every available medium to share the same message and create dialog on the external situation and proposed strategy and plans. Websites, blogs, internal forums…all of those are eligible to raise questions. Use them, and get involved in the discussions.

You still need to break it down further.

Discuss the strategy in one-on-ones with all employees. Don’t ignore that what’s on everyone’s mind is, WTHDTMFM? Roughly translated: “What the heck does this mean for me?”

Effective leaders understand that people do their best work when they have context for import and purpose. Don’t stop until every individual can easily describe the “Why” of strategy and also connect their role to the goals and success of the work.

Over time, begin to bake the strategy execution initiatives into group, departmental and individual goals.

2. Ask for Help:

Instead of articulating the “How,” provide a framework—strategy is executed in projects—and ask employees to join the work of creating the future.

A great practice is to use the discipline of project management to create involvement, foster problem-solving, and ultimately succeed with the discrete initiatives necessary to bring strategy to life.

Projects are for more than IT initiatives or new product development efforts.

The project environment draws upon the employee base to define their way forward, yet imposes some structure and yes, even control, around the project initiatives. It also allows you to build a new sense of energy for the work of strengthening the business.

The use of projects in strategy execution work is a book worthy topic. While all projects and project teams come complete with their own set of risks and potential pitfalls, the organizational discipline imposed by “projectizing” strategy execution is worth the price of admission.

Ask your employees for help in bringing strategy to life. Organize the effort around projects.

3. Adjust the Operating Routine to Incorporate Strategy Execution:

Almost every organization has a distinct operating routine that includes reviewing results, identifying needed improvements and discussion problems and challenges. From the ubiquitous Quarterly Business Review found in many organizations to regular management or operations meetings, there’s likely a process in place. The introduction of the need to monitor and evaluate progress on strategy execution offers a ripe opportunity to dramatically improve your operating routine.

Review the progress of the key strategy execution projects at every operating meeting.

Identify challenges and let the management group define countermeasures to deal with those problems.

Begin to add key scorecard measures for the strategy work, or, at least monitor how this work is beginning to impact the scorecard.

Provide visibility to initiative leaders to brief the broader management group and to share ideas, lessons learned, and ask for help.

Most of my clients define a distinct execution team, so they can meet and work separate and distinct from the operations meetings. Nonetheless, those are key meetings where all involved have the opportunity to gauge progress and offer input or prepare for next steps.

4. Keep the Work of Strategy Execution Front and Center:

Done right, strategy execution efforts dramatically alter and strengthen your regular employee communications on results.

Operations reviews and Town Hall Meetings become forums where strategy execution team (project team) members brief their colleagues on progress, victories, and lessons learned. Gone are the days of benign, mind-numbing numbers updates. Instead, they are replaced with perspectives on how the work of creating the future is going.

  • Celebrate victories.
  • Share innovations and unique approaches to addressing problems.
  • Communicate upcoming steps and address the WTHDTMFM for everyone.
  • Bring visibility to the key initiatives.
  • Highlight roadblocks and ask for help.

Too many management teams let the work of strategy fade into the background after the initial push. Effective management teams work to keep the work of strategy execution front and center as THE topic of importance.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

The list above is incomplete, yet, if you apply the essence of the ideas around creating context, engaging everyone, and running your business with strategy execution work as a core focus, you improve your odds of success dramatically. Succeeding with strategy execution goes far beyond these three, but you have to start somewhere. Use the ingredients liberally and creatively.

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