Linking Strategy Execution to Strategy Planning

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A scowl crosses the face of some people when they hear the term “strategic planning.” These people have been to the off-sites with bright ideas and sticky notes, they’ve seen the slick “final plan” with cool clip art, and then they’ve seen . . . nothing. Nothing happening. Nothing changing. And then they realize: This was a stupid waste of time. Strategy execution isn’t part of the deal. Leadership wasn’t serious.

For leaders who are serious, for whom strategy execution is part of the deal, we’ve always seen these three ingredients work.

1. A steady accountability drumbeat. Even leaders who are terrific at communicating their goals and strategies will come up short if they don’t build in an accountability cycle. Each member of the leadership team must regularly (say, monthly) stand in front of boss and peers and report progress on his or her piece of the strategic plan. The conversation flows like this:

  • “This is the measurable impact I committed to achieve.”
  • “Here is how I’m doing.”
  • [optional] “These are the changes I’d suggest to our direction,” and/or “This is the help I need from my boss or peers.”
  • See ya next month!

This is a great conversation, and it’s what drives everyone to realize, “Oh crap! The stuff in this plan is actually my day job!” Also, these conversations create self-correction and improvement in the strategic plan. That means that your strategic plan doesn’t have to start out perfect; you can settle for the 60/40 solution and get going!

This group readout not only helps the organization stay focused, but it also keeps leaders aligned with each other and constantly mindful of how they are affecting each other.

Of course, your strategic plan must spell out what each team member is supposed to accomplish. Otherwise, you have a wish list, not a plan, and accountability is impossible.

2. Strategic initiatives managed as projects. Strategic plans almost always name something new that has to be accomplished. Regardless of industry, there will be “initiatives,” each with a beginning, middle, and end – and an outcome. That’s a wordy way of saying that there are projects to be managed. As soon as you realize you’ve got some projects on your hands, you can lean on the well-known body of knowledge called “project management.” Here are some of the more salient points.

  • Put ONE person in charge of the project. There’s a reason ships don’t have two captains. Even big ships.
  • Establish a clear goal, a clear timeframe, and a budget. Progress reports (we’re back to the accountability cycle) need to be couched relative to (a) work accomplished vs. schedule and (b) work accomplished vs. budget. Make sure you get both.
  • Stand up a project team with team members who have clear accountabilities and clear understanding that for this project, they work for the project manager. (Obviously, the project manager must have some clout. We covered this topic when we discussed the perils of accountability without authority.)

There’s plenty more to say on this topic, but this’ll get us started for now.

3. Innovation Switched On. Many organizations’ plans identify gaps between where they are and where they want to be – and they cite “innovation” as the way to close that gap. In an earlier post, we discussed Prahalad’s prescription for quantum innovation (See “We Can All Play In The Innovation Sandbox”). In addition,

  • Encourage constructive failure. The innovators’ dictum to “fail fast, fail often, and fail cheap” boils down to this formula: non-fatal failure + learning = discovery. You need discovery for innovation, and the more discovery the better.
  • But failure + blame (or stories, reasons, and excuses) = uh, FAILURE. When you see this happen, at least act annoyed.
  • Reward innovative solutions, reward learning from failure, reward people for reaching across boundaries to create solutions.
  • Contests work for a while (so use them), and demonstrating that you take “different thinking” seriously – whether or not you use it – always works.

These three ingredients do a pretty good job of turning strategy into results. Any that you’d add to the list?

Published: May 2, 2015


11 Comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more.I work for MART, a Delhi based rural consultancy organisation.

    -We (being small team) follow a simple process of morning meeting where every team member share his today’s plan of action (POA) and next day where he/she stands as per POA shared.It ensures accountability and helps in many ways to make whole organisation more effective.

    -Also we’ve different divisions like Research, Development but we’ve consciously kept our strategy & Implementation team together and that division is called Strategic Implementation team.It helped us to come up with more systemic answers and innovative solutions.

  2. Ernie Watson

    Great post, much appreciated and fully aligned, was saying much the same thing to clients recently. With reference to your question of what to add then I have found to support the 60/40 principle I stress the need to have Strategic Thinking Capabilities http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategic_thinking . This has helped clients free themselves up and get on with execution.

  3. Once the “innovation switch” goes on, there’s a useful 3 step process to turn a good idea into a major organizational improvement at leadfromthebottom.blogspot.com. Check it out . . .

  4. Chuck Cone

    Here are my thoughts on linking execution to strategy:

    As we all know from experience, there is a gap between strategy and execution (e.g., planning) as well as gaps within each (e.g., strategy articulation, KPIs, implementation effectiveness, change mgmt., accountability, etc.).

    At the highest level, taking an organization from Goals -> Strategy -> Initiatives Required -> Implementation Plans -> Plan(s) Execution -> Sustained Performance Monitoring usually serves as a disciplined model to achieve successful outcomes. Clearly, there are roadblocks in this process (e.g., cultural resistance) yet a repeatable high-level model helps most organizations succeed where others fall short.

  5. No arguments, there, Duane. Good list!

  6. Overall a good perspective, but here’s my list!

    1. Focus on what’s truly important; is it significant and achievable. To often organizations fail to achieve strategic goals because they don’t focus on value and instead get hung up on the ‘want to have’ and ‘nice to have’.

    2. Create a scorecard, if you can’t measure it, it won’t happen.

    3. Translate every important item into specific actionable tasks. What needs to be done and by who to be successful in achieving goals.

    4. Accountability – Every member of each team needs to hold themselves and others accountable for their role in successful attainment of goals!

  7. Totally agree!! That’s not innovation; it’s self-indulgence. Innovation comes from having an exquisite understanding of what you are trying to accomplish. And if your mission is to serve internal customers, then that means you need to have an exquisite understanding of what THEY are trying to accomplish. “Innovating” without involving them is silly.

  8. Nancy Rantanen

    I fully believe in innovation. However, some govt organizations/companies may see this as an opportunity to design and implement a Cadillac when a Yugo would be just fine. Over-engineering systems may add additional costs which are not identified within life cycle management. We need to work with our stakeholders to understand their requirements; thus, ensuring the end-result system is exactly what we need.

  9. Right! In some places, it appears that “having a plan” IS the plan!

  10. One of my favorite trainers says, “if the plan is in your head there is no plan.”

  11. Loren Heckelman

    Nice article. Unfortunately more often than not, the strategic planning process and offsite becomes an annual “check in the box” event and never gets another thought until time to update or renew… or worse yet, until the leader transitions and a new person comes in. It doesn’t have to be a major event or evolution… but it does need to be a part of the real, daily work to have impact through the masses of the organization and for everyone to know their part and what they contribute to the objective(s). I have also seen where the leader directs and delegates the strategic planning process to others because it’s definitely “important” and “the thing to do” but he/she is “too busy” to actually engage in it himself or herself. You’re kidding yourself if you think your people don’t see through that. It can be done and done effectively… and have measurable, positive results. But you can’t give it lip service and have that happen. It’s real work.

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