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Understanding Strategy Execution

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I often meet with executives and managers that find strategy execution a significant challenge, and they’re not alone. Strategy execution is widely reported as the number one challenge executives have to face. Interestingly, you can find several books and articles on strategy formulation, but there are minimal resources available that discuss the subject of executing a strategy. 

Generally, one would find that business executives, along with their leadership teams, have: 

  • Aligned the strategy within the organisation and have cascaded it well; 
  • Planned the strategy execution and are driving the plan; 
  • Communicated the strategy to the entire business; 
  • Developed an organisation with a strong performance culture and; 
  • Have been rigorously driving the execution of the strategy from the top.

However, they still struggle to deliver the desired results that were set out during the planning of a business strategy. This is when the question arises – why hasn’t the organisation delivered on the strategic outcome? 
In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at the most common reasons as to why strategy execution fails.

Reason One: Collaboration 
The inability of managers to rely on colleagues in other units to deliver actions and meet requirements can be decremental to a business strategy. The same can be said about business functions that are unable to connect with or work alongside other business functions within an organisation. 
Neglecting collaboration will often lead to dysfunctional behaviour and duplicated efforts from different departments, thereby creating conflicts and directly impacting the overall performance of the organisation.  

While reviewing or making changes to your strategy, be sure to take a closer look at how departments and business functions communicate and work together. As Mattie Stepanek said, “Unity is strength… when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.” 

Reason Two: Adaptiveness 
If a business struggles to adapt to changing circumstances, they will soon find themselves in deep water. 
Organisations often shift their focus to emerging threats without much consideration for the rest of the business, losing sight of the organisation’s strategy. However, at the same time, responding to emerging threats too slowly can also impact a company’s ability to focus on their strategy.  

If your organisation can respond to threats in a timely and efficient manner, you are on the right track! On the other hand, if you find that, after dealing with an issue, the business is still struggling to follow the strategy that has been set in place, consider how shifts in the allocation of people and funds could have affected your strategy. While it may have solved the emerging issue, it could have produced undesirable results in relation to your strategy execution.

 Reason 3: Portfolio 
Indecisiveness, or even being too generous with resources can lead to a company’s assets being trapped within unproductive ventures that were, at one-point, valuable. This can lead to shortages in resources and the stalling of projects.  
In fact, a recent Harvard Business Review Study found that 90% of the respondents indicated that they did not have the right resources available to deliver strategic initiatives at the time of developing business strategies.  

The most significant impact of poor portfolio management is usually on the allocation of employees. The ability of a business to shift people in order to address strategic priorities is vital, without the right talent, performance can soon falter.  
As a leader, you must be able to decide on the areas that are not a priority to invest in, so you can instead focus your energy on executing your strategy.

Reason 4: Understanding 
How well is your business strategy understood by the rest of your company?  
As communications explaining the business are communicated across the business and across geographical borders, the strategy can soon become diluted or even modified beyond recognition. Furthermore, the actual purpose or drivers of the planned targets of the strategy may not have been explained or relayed to the staff. 

The ability of understanding a strategy also depends on how well the leaders within a company connect the dots between strategic priorities, as well as with business as usual. If leaders focus onto a different area and fail to communicate this change to the rest of the company, you will soon find your business heading off in different directions.  

To improve your strategy execution, review communication points within the organisation and ensure there is a way for your team to monitor this process throughout the execution process. This will help to keep everyone on track and heading in the right direction.    

Reason 5: Agility
 “Success today requires the agility and drive to constantly rethink, reinvigorate, react, and reinvent.” – Bill Gates 

Many managers fear the idea of experimentation or are conservative with their commitments to the growth of a business, taking more risk-averse options rather than taking a leap of faith.  

An excessive emphasis on performance (either made by the manager to monitor employees or by business leaders who are focused on figures and metrics) can impair execution, especially where creativity is needed to navigate any possible obstacles. This tendency is often one that sees managers take the cost of reduction option versus driving for growth. 

Reason 6: Underperformers 
How are underperformers managed within your organisation?  
Many organisations delay direct action when it comes to underperformance – they don’t address underperformers consistently, tolerating poor performance for longer than they should. 

If you want to build a strong workplace culture that supports execution, processes must be put in place that reward and recognise performers, as well as dealing with underperformers.  

It is also useful to note that performance in strategy execution should always favour collaboration and coordination over individual performance. Micromanaging performance can shift a leader’s focus and distract them from the overall objective.   

Reason 7: Leadership 
Is your leadership team distributed across the different functions and departments within your organisation?  

Neglecting to distribute and to delegate can leave a leader burdened with unnecessary tasks and commitments. This can cause delays and broken communication, which, in turn, hinders a company’s ability to respond to risks and opportunities in an efficient and timely manner.  

Having leaders spread across the organisation helps to drive the message of your strategy across different departments, as well as to feed information that needs to be passed on to executives quickly.  
Having middle managers and technical experts spread across the business reinforce corporate culture and values. These leaders will also be better equipped to anticipate conflicts and deterioration of performance and, in response, trigger actions promptly.

So, the next time you introspect and wonder why the strategy you have implemented isn’t delivering the results you expected, do not request additional metrics to track performance. Doing so shows that you are micro-managing, reducing agility and reducing peer to peer coordination. Fixating solely on alignment often leads to worse results. Instead, it might be a better idea to review the business first, using the points above to perfect your business functions, before tightening the screws on business alignment and metrics.  

Shivendra is a highly regarded inspirational leader, well known for his collaborative work with businesses. With over 12 years of leadership experience working for reputable organisations such as Siemens and the Downer Group, Shivendra is equipped with best-in-class practices that will transform your business and deliver high impact outcomes. For more information, visit