Transition from strategy to execution, by Tajudeen Ahmed

There are fewer examples of an oxymoron better than the documented evidence that most Management teams across geographies fail to execute a strategy/strategic plan they spent huge resources to develop! In fact, one of the most difficult and intriguing part of the role of Management is executing the organization’s strategy.

In a recent survey administered on Chief Executive Officers by Conference Board, a global, independent business membership and research association providing the world’s leading organizations with practical insights for better performance, it was discovered that CEOs are so concerned about strategy execution that they rated it as both their number one and number two most challenging issue.

This unnerving outcome should, however, not be seen as startling especially for members of Management in any organization who have ever attempted to execute a strategy.

Roger Martin, in his March 2015 article: “Stop Distinguishing Between Execution and Strategy,” published in Harvard Business Review, suggested that “it is impossible to have a good strategy poorly executed. That is because execution actually is strategy – trying to separate the two only leads to confusion”. Martin suggested that blaming poor execution for the failure of a rather ‘brilliant’ strategy is akin to “The Execution Trap”, asking further how a strategy could be described as brilliant if it was not implementable.

In my view, a strategy should go beyond verbose semantics, highfalutin words, grandiose propositions and ambitions, etc. A strategy/strategic plan that is not executed, or that is poorly executed, is not worth the paper on which it is written!

Execution is so important that companies go under because of poor or non-implementation of strategy. I have had instances where organizations bemoaned their fate when a competitor beat them to introducing a strategic product to the market, whereas the deployment of the product was a significant part of their strategy. Therefore, when you hear your CEO or Board Chairman scream: “Oh, that was our product; we developed it” after a rival organization had launched and made significant mileage from it, remember that it as an example of execution failure.

It was estimated that more than 60% of strategies are not successfully implemented. So, why do organizations abysmally fail in their attempt at executing their strategy?

Lack of focus and detail is one of the major execution pitfalls. By this, I mean that a strategic plan without clear actions, objectives, deliverables, etc, with attendant milestones and performance measurement structure(s) would likely not be executed, or would be poorly executed.

Generalization also stifles execution. Some strategy documents contain many general-purpose, grandiose words that say nothing. When an organization says “we will build a robust information technology apparatus unrivalled in any part of the world” without specific plans, what does that mean? There are no action plans, no specification of the time the “robust technology” will be deployed within the planning horizon (is it year 1, 2, 3, or 4?). How could it be regarded as a strategy?

Another pitfall is confusing routine activities and operations with strategy. In fact, the word “strategy” is perhaps the most abused word in contemporary management.

An organization could introduce a blend of savings account and name it a strategy! Another closes a non-profitable branch and addresses it as strategy. Strategy, aside the various definitions in copious literature available on the subject, is similar to making choices. Usually, but not in all cases, it involves trade-offs. Questions to be addressed include “What is it we wish to do that we cannot do now?”, “What shall we never do within the limit of resources, time, and focus?”, “What do we wish to be known for, distinct from others?”

Treating strategy execution as ‘business-as-usual’ is another ground for failure. Executing a strategic plan is a well-reasoned, deliberate, focused activity which demands investment of effort, time, energy, and resources. Putting up an approach akin to weekly business or operational meetings in executing your strategy is a self-inflicted route to failure!

Poor communication and engagement of employees also leads to failed execution. If the strategy is not well understood by every staff of the organization, if they do not know about expectations regarding their role in execution; they cannot possibly execute the strategy.

In seeking to get execution right, organizations should ensure that, at the beginning of the strategic planning process, they communicate effectively with ALL members of staff. Employees should know the “what” and “why” regarding their roles. Whereas it is normal practice to have a core group accountable for the strategy process, concentrating everything among members of this group, Management, and the Board, signals a sure ground for failed execution.

A sense of urgency in execution should be created. Execution should be clearly stated as a critical end of the planning cycle, with unambiguous roles of employees and attendant deliverables. Employees that are resistant to change should be identified and won over with convincing raison d’etre.

Strategy execution should be measured and progress reported and communicated. Different measurement channels, e.g. dashboard, performance matrix, Balanced Score Card, etc, could be adopted.

Considering that strategy execution may not necessarily be about day-to-day activities and projects, a reward mechanism should accompany execution. Barring unplanned occurrences, a fair reward structure usually encourages faster, efficient, and effective execution of strategy.

Organizations should also learn to be agile and adaptable to current realities in their operating environments. Over-fixation with projects and deliverables on the strategic plan negatively affects execution. They should adjust to real-time situations that were not contemplated in formulating the strategy. Management should not see strategy as the “Holy Grail” which is completely immune to changing circumstances.
Finally, a strategy that is beautifully written and launched with funfair, but is poorly executed, or not executed at all, is like trying to store water into a basket; it is an exercise in futility.

. Ahmed, a strategy expert, with several years of senior management experience in consulting, commercial banking, and FMCG, is the General Manager/Group Head Business Development at BUA Group.