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Organizational transformation is paramount to survival, as businesses must adapt to ever-changing market trends and customer needs. Executing a strategy with success, however, is not an easy task. An effective strategy execution has the ability to rally thousands of employees around a common direction and becomes a point of competitive differentiation. More often than not, though, the execution falters and the strategy is unable to get off the ground and reach sustainment. But why? What’s going wrong? The answer typically boils down to an organization missing the mark on one (or more) of these five strategy execution beliefs.

Five Beliefs that Impact Strategy Execution Success

1. Stopping old behaviors is equally as important as starting new ones.

When it comes to executing a new strategy, leaders need to be ready to support their people in not only implementing new behaviors, but also in stopping old ones. It’s just as important to decide what you will not do or stop doing as what you will start doing. People must be ready to make some changes and must be supported throughout the discomfort and fear that will likely accompany this time.

Leaders, at your next strategic planning session, be sure to ask, “Is our strategy as clear about what we are not going to do as it is about what we are going to do?” If the answer is no, you’re not yet equipped to execute strategy. The output of your “stop doing” sessions can be as simple as not running an internal report that you aren’t sure anyone is reading. Or it can be as mission-critical as which markets you won’t focus on. Change and strategy execution go together, but change is usually resisted. Human beings just don’t like it. So leaders must be prepared for this challenge and be ready to help people get comfortable and confident in stopping behaviors as they simultaneously prepare to adopt new ones.

2. Not everyone will be in alignment on the new strategy right away.

By definition, strategy should be controversial and leaders need to know that there will be questions and debates as the plan comes to life. While leadership alignment is critical to a business, it isn’t automatic. After all, if everyone agrees on the new plan, it’s likely not controversial or different enough to provide a competitive advantage.

Leadership teams that truly understand this reality have created planning processes and cultural environments that foster intense debate and disagreement, have allotted time for questions and answers, and give everyone a chance to come to their own opinions on the validity of the changes. These are the organizations that will realize success. And the hard work isn’t over once execution begins. The leaders must then hold each other, and their employees, rigorously accountable to supporting the decision once it has been made.

3. Strategy is a look forward, not a look back, and that’s what makes it so difficult.

The balanced scorecard that measures involuntary turnover and yield is a look back at the health of an organization, a measure of your “blood pressure” and “cholesterol.” Strategy, however, is a look forward into uncertainty, your workout plan for the future. You need both, but don’t mistake your balanced scorecard for your strategy direction.

4. The time spent building your plan should not exceed time spent on execution.

There’s no arguing that leadership teams put in hours upon hours upon hours crafting a new strategy. Data is evaluated, expansions considered, technologies debated. Each step is reviewed and modified and ideated. The leaders know every detail inside and out. But they often forget that not everyone else has such an intimate connection to it. Even after the strategy is shared during a town hall or team meeting, the others seeing the plan for the first time simply won’t have the same level of understanding as those who developed it. And they are definitely not ready to go right into execution mode. Just because goals are developed based on the strategy and are cascaded through the organization doesn’t mean that the employees who are responsible for executing the strategy fully comprehend what needs to be done, and they might not even have the capabilities to execute it.

The most effective organizations continually communicate the corporate strategy, assess the organizational capabilities to execute it, and develop training programs to bridge capability gaps.

5. The people creating the strategy need to have a real-world knowledge of the marketplace.

This point may seem obvious, but not everyone on the leadership team is still spending time on the front line, assessing the competition, identifying emerging trends, or meeting with customers. This knowledge is the “raw material” for strategy creation. This issue has a relatively easy fix: leaders just need to allocate their time to focus on these tasks. And this must be fixed. Without the raw materials of a strategy that come from questioning your perceptions and being curious about your marketplace, it’s impossible to create a viable winning strategy. 

Strategy Execution Can’t Be Rushed

Many of these beliefs make a lot of sense when taught in top business schools. Yet, given the intense quarterly pressure of Wall Street, we take revenue wherever we can get it, and often don’t take the time to think ahead before making a quick decision to pivot. Leaders just hope their people get on board and adapt. But this typically negatively impacts an organization’s culture and the employee experience. Leaders need to remember that with careful planning and execution, a strategic plan can be the gateway to sustained success.

August 25, 2021

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