How Good is Your Strategy Execution?
by Paul G. Ward, Ph.D.

"80% of executives are satisfied with their strategy yet only
14% are satisfied with the execution of the strategy."1

Something is very wrong here. What is the point of an elaborate strategic plan if you cannot put it into practice and deliver results? Yet there are numerous examples demonstrating that strategy can be converted into successful business results. A simple formula can help you remember the key steps: Strategy plus Execution equals Sustained Results. This formula can be expanded to show the practical actions needed to implement a sustained drive for results into the natural rhythm of your business. Strategy needs Focus, Balance and Stretch before it can be successfully executed. And for execution to deliver sustained results, Alignment, Engagement and Discipline are essential. Apply these six elements well and your strategy execution can be as good as the world's best.

Strategy: Focus, Balance, and Stretch

A thick report of dense analysis is not a strategy. A strategy must be communicable to be useful. Your strategy should impart direction, inspiration and specific guidance of what your organization needs to do to win. If you can articulate that sense of winning, express it in terms to which people can relate and show how they can contribute to it, you have a communicable strategy.

To help people in your organization to understand and ultimately feel a sense of co-ownership of the strategy, you will need to show the linkages between the longer-term ambitions and the actions people take today and tomorrow. You need to make sharp informed choices of what is strategic and high priority or people will feel swamped and confused. To make these hard choices, use the techniques of focus, balance and stretch.

Focus

Focus requires a clear Vision of the desired future state. What is your organization about and how will it stand out and compete in the future? That vision may reflect customer and market drivers, operational excellence, environmental standards and financial performance. Paint a picture of future competitive success and describe it, not in the style of a statement for the annual report but as the future messages and actions of the leaders of the organization.

The defining of the vision may be considered relatively easy. More grueling but ultimately rewarding is the definition of a mission and goals to support the vision. Many leaders start by shaping big strategic themes or priorities, sometimes using warfare terminology such as Must Win Battles. Within these winning priorities, specific goals must be defined. This takes time, needs good data and structured debate in the top leadership team. Keep working at it until you have an agreed set of Vital Few Goals. This means a maximum of 15 and ideally much less.

Focus is also about learning to say no. Identify the things to stop doing in order to focus on the vital few. These 'must stops' require leaders to let go of their favorite projects, stop wasting valuable resources, and focus their own time only on the chosen goals.

Balance

Short term financial performance, driven by quarterly reports to investment analysts and shareholders, certainly provides focus for today's business leaders. Yet companies routinely deliver less than they promise. An explicit sense of balance is needed covering a broader spread of stakeholders than shareholders alone. Start with the standard balanced categories of Our Market, Our Processes, Our People and Our Performance and assess whether the chosen focused goals strongly cover each one. Use this balanced framework to prioritize and refine the goals even further.

When thinking about balance, think also about balancing hard and soft issues in the business. Emphasizing organizational values is a good way of ensuring the softer elements of business are not neglected. All organizations work to a set of values which are often unwritten and may be hidden. The really successful organizations shape these values to support their strategy. Identify three to five aspirational values, words or short statements, that exemplify how you would like people to describe your organization and business performance.

So far, we have converted our strategic thinking into a vision, a mission, a set of organizational values and a suite of vital few goals spread across a balanced framework. How does it look together? Will it fit on one page? If so, you have the basis for a Balanced Business Strategy. The one page test is a good one. If you have too many words to fit onto one page, you almost certainly have too many goals and your wording is not yet succinct enough.

Stretch

Now our strategy is focused and balanced but what degree of stretch is required? Without stretch, we may well find that achieving it is not enough and the competition has left us behind. Each of the vital few goals must have a specific description, a relevant measure and clearly defined targets. Your vital few goals must be stretching enough to stimulate changes, elevating performance from the average to the exceptional, from the mediocre to the excellent, and from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

So your Balanced Business Strategy now has statements of vision, values, vital few goals and maybe one or two breakthrough goals, all expressed with a three-year timeframe in mind. Using this three-year view, the remaining task is to think through with your leadership team how you would define the goals and set the targets for just one year ahead. During this task, you can also capture the main projects to be delivered to achieve the goals. You now have a communicable strategy.

Execution: Alignment, Engagement, Discipline

It's great to have a communicable strategy. You can use it with confidence to make decisions and you can use it with passion to discuss your business with people inside and outside of the organization. But there is much more to do to turn the strategy into success. Effective execution is at least as important as the excellence of the strategy itself.

Execution is largely about discipline. The discipline of working to a set timetable so that strategy execution fits with and then reinforces the natural business rhythm. To embed this natural rigor into your organization, you need to apply the techniques of Alignment, Engagement and Discipline.

Alignment

Now that you have a communicable strategy, communicate it. This may sound obvious but leaders typically under-communicate their strategy. However, if your organization is at all complex, you will not easily be able to communicate directly and regularly with everyone. You will need to align your leadership teams and ensure the same messages and beliefs are passed on through the organization lines. Different business units may face different challenges yet a lot of their strategic needs may be similar. Indeed, the winning strategies may well lie in the inter-dependence between business units and between functional areas.

Unilever is a giant multinational with hundreds of brands and operations in almost every country. 120,000 people work in sales teams, category teams, innovation centers, functional expertise centers, regional supply chains and many other sub-divisions. How does the Chief Executive ensure all these people and teams pull in the same direction? The solution is having one core discipline called Strategy Into Action™ that aligns leadership teams at every level and every function. Using the same one-page strategy format, each leadership team creates its strategic plan not in isolation but in collaboration with the levels above, below and across. This allows the Unilever top executive team to manage the whole global corporation with just 16 goals.

However strong the alignment of strategic plans becomes, you still cannot delegate strategy execution; it must be led personally. This requires awareness and attention to how you and your colleagues behave as leaders. Consistency is required. Consistency in making decisions based on the Balanced Business Strategy, consistency of messages and consistency in dealing with people. Nothing causes more confusion in an organization than leaders displaying conflicting attitudes and variable behaviors.

Engagement

Even with a clear strategy and strong leadership, the desired results will prove elusive without mobilizing the people who do the day to day work. People engagement at all levels of the organization and all stages of the process is a prerequisite for effective strategy execution. People like to know and understand the big picture, how other people are contributing to it and, most of all, how they can work on and 'own' strategic delivery in their own area. People like to feel involved.

Engagement requires winning hearts as well as minds. Winning the hearts of people is about inspiring belief in the strategic direction and generating passion for what we are doing. Winning the minds of employees is about appreciating their perspective, listening to their views and incorporating their insights. The leader's willingness to engage people in the strategic process will be rewarded in commitment and passion for work.

Discipline

One common area of weakness is to believe that once a plan is finalized and agreed and people are clear what to do, then it will happen. Organizational life is too contrary for that: results have to be driven with relentless concentration and effort. Processes and methodologies, tools and techniques, skills and competencies, all provide the discipline to complement effective leadership.

The bigger items in the strategic plans need to be converted into projects and even programs of projects. Program and project management is an under-rated skill. Similarly, effective measurement is a problem for many organizations, where the wrong metrics clog up the ability to know what is happening. The key here is to use a balanced scorecard to track the measures specified for each strategic goal.

Sustained Results

The elements of this formula can take you, as a leader, through the shaping of a communicable strategy and the execution of it. If you apply the six elements outlined so far you will definitely see good results. Unfortunately, unless you are retiring this year, this is not quite enough. You have to sustain the results.

To help you with embedding the strategy execution process, use the four strategy execution phases of THINK, PLAN, DELIVER and REVIEW, repeated each year to enforce rhythm and rigor and apply the appropriate techniques at the right time. This disciplined approach has proven in practice to align leadership teams, engage people, accelerate progress, and deliver results.

1. Source: Quest Worldwide global survey



Dr. Paul Ward, Vice President and Principal Consultant at Quest Worldwide, has been leading strategy deployment and organizational change assignments for more than 20 years. His passion and enthusiasm is focused on transforming performance and culture at the level of the individual, the team, and the organization.

Quest Worldwide is a global change management consultancy. Quest's mission is to enable leaders to achieve sustained results by focusing their strategy, engaging their people, and driving improvement. Quest Worldwide is the 2007 Management Consultancies Association (MCA) management award winner in the best small firm category for the implementation of Strategy into Action™ at Unilever.

This article is based on the booklet, Strategy execution: Executing your strategy and delivering results (ISBN 1899682368). For more information about Quest Worldwide or a copy of the Strategy Execution booklet, please visit www.quest-worldwide.com .

Many more articles in Strategic Planning and Competitive Strategy
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Copyright 2007 by Paul Ward. All rights reserved.

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