Making Your Strategy Work

Most strategies fail to achieve their objectives. In most cases, the problem isn’t the strategy, but the implementation—focusing and moving the organization toward the future vision. Strategy implementation is a lot more than having an action list of projects and a strategy presentation to show the organization. Here are five keys to ensuring the success of your strategy.

  1. A Powerful Start: Make sure your strategy is concise and clear Strategy implementation is flawed from the start without a clear strategy. Without it, aligning individuals’ goals with the strategy is impossible. People implement strategy and they need to know what it is. The acid test is to ask managers at each level of the organization what the strategy is. If you don’t get the same response, you have work to do. Business strategy is all about creating a unique and sustainable competitive position in an industry. Such strategies are most effective when they are clear and concise. For example, Wegmans Food Markets’ strategy has three elements: To target customers who want “great food, incredible service, and a one-of-a-kind shopping experience;” to “make great meals easy so our customers can live healthier and better lives;” and to focus on a small number of priorities.
  2. Emphasize Strategic Fit: Your organization can be a competitive advantage Successful companies create organizational practices that fit the strategy and are mutually reinforcing. It sharply-focuses the organization on the strategy, ensures effective use of resources, generates added value for customers and creates organizational capabilities that are extremely difficult to replicate. A good example is Southwest Airlines. Their strategy focuses everything they do on achieving fast gate turnaround times. The more their planes are in the air, the better their return on assets. Southwest is more unionized, pays higher average wages, yet they have led the airline industry in profitability for years because of their flexible work practices, use of low congestion airports, obsession with using only one model of airplane, and other mutually reinforcing practices. While other airlines have tried to copy them, not one has been able to duplicate their success. Strategic fit is more important than alignment or best practices.
  3. The Heartbeat of Your Strategy: Building strong accountability Every successful strategy implementation needs to have an action plan identifying objectives, responsibilities, measures, and timelines. And the action plan must be diligently managed with regular follow-up. Accountability is the key to the plan’s success—you must build both an accountability process and culture. Accountabilities must be clear to those who are accountable for them, and senior management must model the right behavior to make it work. One key mistake managers, and organizations, make with accountabilities is to use them as a way to criticize and abuse people. That approach will produce results, but the impact is short-term and creates fear which suppresses innovation and risk-taking. It causes people to avoid failure rather than maximize success. It also drains energy and excitement, creating a work environment where people become resentful. All of this is dysfunctional and a detriment to longer-term organizational strength. High performance organizations breed managers who hold people accountable, but do it in a way that brings out the best in people, challenging them to exceed expectations and grow their value to the organization. The accountability focuses on both results and support of operating values.
  4. The Power Behind Strategy Implementation: Make all employees owners of the strategy Make the vision compelling, then show them how the strategy will achieve it, and what you need from them. Use emotion as well as intellectual appeals. You want nothing less than the enthusiastic support of all employees. You need every employee to be a change agent, and to do that, they need the trust, authority, and responsibility necessary to make the right decisions when it comes to customers and carrying out their jobs. That comes, not from micromanaging, but from involving them, and especially including them in what you want to accomplish. In short, you need empowered employees who believe their self-interests are closely tied to company results. When you have that, every employee becomes a leader. Customer attitudes improve when problems are solved at the lowest level s of the organization. This is not “soft,” and it’s not easy. It is the only way to practically move an organization as a whole toward strategic objectives.
  5. The Conductor: Capable leadership from start to finish Leading a strategy implementation effort involves moving an organization into the future. It requires vision, buy-in, and change in how the organization thinks about itself. It requires far more than managing projects and timelines. The leader’s first task is to envision where he/she wants to take the organization—the vision. Next is to lead the process of solidifying the vision and selecting the strategy to achieve it. This is strategic thinking focused on the future, on external opportunities, and how to best take advantage of them. The skills involved are very different from those of managing operational improvement, quality, customer service, budgeting, people development and the like. One of the key challenges is to forge buy-in at the top of the organization. It’s not enough to have consensus or agreement, what’s needed is for each senior executive to understand and embrace the strategy and his/her role in actively sponsoring the strategy and executing it in collaboration with other members of the team.

In Summary: How you implement your strategy will make all the difference in its success. The work required to plan and launch the strategy is every bit as important as the strategy itself. If your strategy is a highperformance jet requiring a 5000 foot runway, a 2500 foot runway, no matter how beautiful, won’t do the job. Effective strategy implementation is the key to realizing both profitable growth and achievement of strategy goals. It requires an action plan backed by a distinctive strategy, strong leadership, and an organization configured to make it happen.