Successfully translating strategy into action

One of Catapult’s core consulting services is facilitating the development of strategy.  These sessions often involve intense planning sessions with the senior leadership team and follow-up work to refine the thinking and resulting plan.   Cracking a great strategy is rewarding but it’s easy to think the job is done when the plan has been created.  But no matter how great the thinking, the strategy is useless unless it gets executed.

Most senior leaders know that developing strategy is only the start of the process.  Yet there is abundant research that shows that up to 80% of strategic plans are poorly executed.

A recent HBR article by Charles and Donald Sull and Rebecca Homkes, entitled Why Strategy Execution Unravels provides insights into the challenge of effective strategic execution based on extensive research.  Below are three insights from the article that resonate with our own experience as to what gets in the way of execution.

Alignment Is Not Execution.

Based on research with 262 organisations and over 7,000 managers, the authors say that nearly all organisations practiced strategic alignment – the process of linking strategy to actions at every level of the organisation.   Alignment allows for different parts of the organisation to develop business plans that support strategic priorities and which are coordinated with other parts of the business.

However, aligned execution is hamstrung by a lack of trust and reliability between different parts of the business.  The research reveals that while 84% of managers say they can rely on their bosses and direct reports to deliver on commitments, only 9% say they can rely on colleagues in other parts of the business to deliver on their commitments. The result is not only lack of execution but a bunch of dysfunctional behaviours that further undermine execution.  For example, duplicating effort, letting promises to customers slip, and failure to capitalise on opportunities.

The key insight is that while cascading strategy through the organisation is important, equally important is making sure there is horizontal strategic leadership – that different parts of the business support each other in the delivery of strategy.

Communication Outputs, Not Inputs

Strategy needs to be understood to be implemented.  Many CEs and senior leadership teams fall into the trap of not effectively communicating the strategy.  Even for organisations that spend a lot of effort in communicating the strategy the focus is on the communication inputs (emails, newsletters, staff meetings etc) rather than on measuring how well the strategy is understood.

The authors’ research reveals only 55% of middle managers could name even one of their organisation’s top five priorities.  Strategic objectives are poorly understood and often seem unrelated to each other and disconnected.  Only 16% of frontline supervisors and team leaders clearly understood strategic priorities!

Execution Is Driven From The Middle (Not The Top)

Lack of understanding about the strategy inside an organisation has a profound impact given that strategy execution needs to be “driven from the middle” not from the top.  While senior leaders may have accountability to develop and guide the strategy, it’s middle managers and team leaders that translate strategy into action.  If insufficient effort is given to ensuring that the strategy is clearly understood, even less attention is given to supporting middle managers and team leaders translate strategy into action.

The article also de bunks two other myths around strategy execution.  First, that a “performance culture drives execution”.  A performance culture is good as long as the focus on hitting targets does not choke strategic innovation and agility.  Second, “execution means sticking to the plan”.  Slavish adherence to the strategic plan can mean failing to adapt to changing operating conditions or failing to take advantage of fleeting opportunities.

Source: Harvard Business Review, March 2015.  Making Strategy Work


Catapult Tips for Successful Strategy Execution

We’ve helped many organisations develop and implement strategy and the article mirrors many of our observation and experiences.  Here are five tips from us.

Focus On Communication Outcomes.

When developing your communications plan for your strategy, think about the communication outcomes you want to achieve.  For example, “in three months’ time we want front line staff to say these three things about the strategy…”  Develop communication messages and activities to achieve these outcomes.

Make Your Strategy Snappy

Mark Twain said “I would have written a shorter letter if I had more time”.  Invest time in expressing your strategy in the clearest and most simple terms.   A big strategic plan in terms of words and pages is usually a sign of cluttered thinking and a failure to make clear choices as to priorities.  We are advocates of “boiling” your strategy down to one memorable phrase.

Make Clear Requests And Promises

Have business units or teams develop specific and clear requests of each other.  For example, the Sales team makes a request to the IT team that sales reports are generated every Friday by 2.00pm so Sales can monitor their strategic accountability of x percent sales growth.  If the IT Team agrees to this request the Sales Team can use this promise to manage this accountability and relationship.

Involve Middle Managers And Team Leaders Early

Test strategy with middle manager and leaders early.  Middle managers and leaders are far more likely to champion the strategy if they feel they have been consulted in its development.  Consultation can take many forms – from testing the robustness of the strategic thinking through to asking middle managers and leaders about the practicalities and do’s and don’ts to successful implementation.

Work On Staff Engagement

It’s hard to get staff to champion strategy if they are ambivalent or disengaged at work – they won’t hear it let alone care!  That said, asking staff to provide input and advice on the practicalities of implementing the strategy can also be a way of lifting overall staff engagement.