I recently spoke to a client who was newly promoted and entrusted with leading the execution of a crucial strategic change initiative. Despite the apparent promotion, she was overwhelmed with anxiety. The strategic plan had been stagnant for three years, with her predecessor’s repeated failures to deliver results. Yet, the company leadership remained adamant that this strategy was still viable. It seemed like a classic case of “let’s assign a new person and hope for the best.”
How to execute strategic change
Of course, my client was right to be worried here. If no progress is made on a strategy for three successive years, evidently, something is going seriously wrong. If my client wanted to have any chance at changing this situation, she would need to figure out exactly what the problem was. So my client and I decided that we would first focus on making a clear diagnosis. For the first two months of her job, she was going to learn as much as possible about the root causes and the necessary changes. She would report the findings to the Board and make an argument that, if they wanted to finally deliver this plan, they must invest in the strategic competencies of the organization.
To help her, we developed a checklist that encompassed all the crucial success factors for effective strategic execution. We ended up calling it the Strategic Maturity Scorecard. What we’ve found is that there are 7 main causes of strategic failure or stagnation in organizations, related to specific types of strategic immaturity. They are:
- No burning platform. Change takes a lot of energy. So to preserve energy, complex systems (like organizations) naturally tend towards homeostasis and stability. If you want people to adopt a meaningful strategic change, that means they need to be convinced that expending this energy is necessary. That’s why organizations should create a so-called “burning platform”: the current situation must be experienced as unsustainable. Only then will people be prepared to make the jump into an uncertain future. For my client’s strategic plan, three straight years of failure seemed to have no consequences at all – the plan would just come back unchanged the next year. Her team had no sense of the negative consequences of this failure. So naturally, they just kept ignoring the plan!
- Leadership doesn’t lead the way. This is closely tied to problem #1: if leadership does not embrace the need for change or isn’t able to communicate the urgency to the organization, a strategy is likely to fail. Embracing the need for change goes beyond an annual presentation – leadership must be on the ball and personally carry the torch for the strategy. If the leaders of an organization don’t lead the strategic transformation, others aren’t going to follow. Because the implicit message will be: “this isn’t really that important for us.” It is crucial that leadership shows the right example and that their priorities visibly align with the plan!
- Strategy of poor quality. A poor strategy is a major and obvious risk to effective execution. There are several ways in which this can go wrong. One common problem is lack of clarity: if it’s not well-defined what the organization wants to achieve, how to get there, and how to measure progress, strategic execution becomes extremely difficult. The main culprits are goals that are not sufficiently SMART, ineffective KPIs, and an excessive number of projects without a clear (strategic) focus. A second danger is that a strategy is simply unrealistic with a particular budget, timeline, and team resources. If people don’t believe the goals are reachable, they are not going to invest energy into trying.
- No regular processes to report and review. A strategic plan should not just be an annual document. It’s very common that organizations define a plan top-down, send it over to management for execution, and then only look back at the end of the year. Strategy execution needs to be a continuous process that demands attention on a very regular basis. You should adjust the plan based on lessons learned during the execution. And your plan should be broken down to the level of bite-sized tasks, so that progress can be tracked every week. (Short!) weekly progress meetings (with clearly defined agendas!), as well as quarterly strategy review meetings, are crucial to disciplined execution. This ensures that the strategy stays front-of-mind and that people feel personally involved and motivated to achieve results.
- No coordinator. Strategy – who has the time for it? In most organizations, middle management has too much on their plate. Managers are already leading their teams, planning projects, solving acute problems, overseeing day-to-day operations, communicating with other business units, implementing organizational changes, making sure everything gets done on time, et cetera. In many cases, it’s not realistic to expect them to facilitate the strategic execution process as well. We believe all teams should have a trained strategy coordinator. This is someone who hunts down relevant data ahead of meetings, who knows how to ask the right questions, who regularly consults with the customer or end user, and who understands the intricacies of what makes a good KPI or how to define a project.
- No framework or tooling available. Another problem for my client was that the strategy was brought to her in the form of a big slide deck. It involved a lot of text and complicated flow charts, and my client didn’t have access to a clear model or tooling to communicate and monitor the strategy. In other cases, the strategy is designed in alignment with a particular strategic framework (usually with the support of consultants), but the team doesn’t have the strategic competencies to use it effectively. That’s why it’s important that your strategy coordinator understands the framework and can teach it to the team. Dedicated digital tools, such as OGSM Software, can make your strategy execution far more efficient by streamlining your processes and providing a logically structured format for your plan.
- No strategic execution culture. Effective strategy execution isn’t simple or self-evident. It requires constant attention, critical discussion, and sustained motivation. It is very difficult to maintain these qualities in the absence of a conducive culture. Many organizations are simply too chaotic to do this well: ‘firefighting’ is the name of the game, and management has a reactive approach to every problem that appears. Oftentimes, strategic planning and priorities are sidelined in favor of urgent matters and problems that leaders feel compelled to fix immediately. Besides maintaining a culture of discipline, you also need a culture of emotional security. Constructive criticism should be valued and incorporated in the strategy. If people are afraid to share their points of view on the strategy, or they feel that it won’t matter, they will tend to only show their disagreement through inaction. Finally, successes should be celebrated, even on an everyday scale. It’s only human that we all want to hear “good job!” once in a while!
These are the 7 crucial strategic success factors. A strategically mature organization will perform adequately on all these points. Failure to meet any one of these factors will seriously damage the ability of an organization to successfully execute a strategic plan, especially if it’s ambitious and requires significant changes.
Curious how your organization performs on these dimensions of strategic maturity?
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