Blind Spots of Strategy Execution

The strategy that is not a strategy

The strategies defined are often reminiscent of amorphous vision à la “to be the most respected and successful company“; goal setting exercises along the lines of “to increase market share by growing faster than the market through introducing new products“; and so called strategic objectives more akin to long to-dos list. Complex power point slides, full of buzz-words describing blue-sky objectives, usually skip over their impracticability or the fact that no one has a clue as to how to get there.

Instead, a strategy should figure out which purposes are worth pursuing and capable of being accomplished – in other words, it should be about choice and focus. To achieve higher performance, leaders must spot the relevant trends, identify the strategic issues that will have the greatest impact on future business performance and define the resulting critical challenges. They then develop a coherent approach to overcome those challenges.

A good strategy thus becomes a bridge between challenge and action. It is short on vision, long on tough-minded analysis, policies and actions identifying the 5 or 6 insightful and actionable things that the business needs to do, to deliver substantially higher performance.

Leadership missing in action

For much of the last 40 years, the focus in business has been on how to create the right strategy, which is seen as the leaders’ responsibility. Most still believe that, once this has been done, it gets executed. They forget to look inside the process and the implementation then becomes a fait accompli as they delegate the implementation responsibility i.e. they take their eyes off the ball. In reality, the hardest part – implementation – is just beginning.

Two companies might have the same strategy but each organisation’s implementation is unique. Senior management must first identify what needs to be done and then lead staff members to adopt and perform the required behaviour and work. In addition, they must keep the process alive: constantly discussing, overseeing and guiding the implementation. Where new focus areas are dictated by a new strategy, they become the champions or faces of change, helping staff (at all levels) understand what the implications are for them, personally.

Seniors of the organisations that successfully implement their strategies often state that they double the effort on implementation compared to what they had spent crafting it. That obviously requires them to free up valuable time and resources, and to avoid being caught in the day-to-day management of the business, potentially losing sight of their goals to implement a strategy and, as such, taking the wrong actions.

Confusing change management with strategy implementation

Change management is a systematic approach to dealing with change (both at an organisational and individual level) but implementation is a specific approach that drives the right actions today to deliver the strategy, tomorrow. As such, change management is a flawed methodology for implementing strategy – if we keep doing the same thing, we will keep failing, and strategy will fail.

While crafting a strategy is about making the right choices – implementation is about taking the right actions and it’s the role of top management to translate the strategy into daily actions. Their biggest blind spot is the failure to recognise that implementing a strategy requires a shift in day-to-day activities throughout the organisation. Very often, little attention is paid to whether staff members are taking the right actions i.e. those that drive the implementation forward. Leaders are responsible for identifying what is no longer important to the business from the old strategy, and what is key to the new strategy – i.e. the actions they do not want staff members to do any more and the ones they want them to do differently or start doing.

Thirty years ago, management was about control and change management was designed as command and control. Now, most business have moved to empowerment and team work. The challenge thus resides in putting new models in practice that might be counter to what the organisation is currently doing and stopping doing what does not work – they must take the right actions. Many leaders use change management out of ignorance, and end up taking the wrong the actions.