It’s become a truism of corporate life that transformation is difficult. According to Harvard Business Review, over 70-80% of transformation projects fail, and reflecting on my thirty years of leading change there’s clearly a gap between developing a strategy and successfully implementing the organizational changes required to make it a reality.
A traditional Japanese proverb highlights this gap, stating that “A vision without execution is a daydream. Execution without vision is a nightmare.” It can be tempting to think that strategy development is the role of the leader, whilst it’s someone else’s job to execute it. This makes no sense.
Transformation requires three distinct elements. The first is external change. It’s clear we live in challenging times whereby the pace of change from artificial intelligence, climate change, technology, geo-political forces and a range of specific industry trends is accelerating and creating disruption. Astute executives respond to this change with the second element: they develop clear corporate strategies to address the disruption they perceive. So far so good.
The third element, execution, is where things typically get tough. Execution requires executives to understand the ‘levers of change’ – such as business process, technology, structure, facilities, people & culture – they can pull within their companies to make real and sustainable change.
They also acknowledge that successfully pulling these levers can set them on a collision course with the established ways of doing things and cause a range of people who will be negatively impacted by the change to actively (or passively) resist.
Nothing happens with just a strategy
Developing a strategy document – full of graphs and clear descriptions of external forces at play, combined with precise and clever statements of intent – is relatively straightforward.
Perhaps the hardest part of the strategy process is getting executive alignment on the problem to be solved, and consensus on the actions that’ll be taken. However, whilst blunt and not recommended, the leader can always override the protests of their team and simply mandate their strategy. In both cases, you’ll have a strategy.
Incisive, colourful, innovative, with quality paper and well bound, even the best strategy will then sit on the shelf gathering dust unless action is taken. In fact, at this point, the status quo is the only strategic option with momentum because nothing happens until someone actually does something.
Closing the gap between strategy and execution
Five clear steps will help you close the gap between strategy and execution:
#1 – Do the Work: personal commitment of the leader
Your personal leadership and commitment to the transformation must be complete. You must both do the work, and be seen to do the work. Making it clear to all stakeholders that your success is fully linked to the transformation will help build momentum, energy and commitment.
#2 – Make Decisions: choose, own and communicate a clear strategy
Whilst you’ve already developed the strategy, it’s now time to communicate it to everyone in simple, easy to understand terms. Avoid the use of a 30-page PowerPoint deck and instead tell a story to take your team on the journey. Use simple sentences such as: “Because of A, B and C [forces playing out], we are now committed to doing X, Y and Z [actions you’ll take].”
#3 – Build the Team: get the right people
Surround yourself with people who have the right temperament for transformation (they’re curious, ambitious, and determined) and the right skills (change, technology, business analysis). Seek to engage the very best internal talent you have to signal your commitment and the seriousness of the transformation.
#4 – Be Thorough: follow a proven methodology and approach
Use the levers of change (such as those mentioned previously) to redesign how the company works. Then take the necessary actions – such as process change, technology implementations, staff moves, etc – to bring the strategy to life. Be prepared to move on those people who can’t or won’t get behind the change. No single individual is more important than the success of the entire enterprise.
#5 – Keep Score: use KPIs to align and provide regular feedback.
Finally, use specific KPIs to keep score. You must be able express your strategy as a set of measures that can be objectively assessed. Track them as you proceed and make adjustments to ensure you deliver against your commitment to bring the strategy to life.
Our world will continue to change, and its incumbent on all leaders to identify these forces and develop a thoughtful response. However, this has never been enough. As Thomas Edison, the legendary American inventor and founder of the General Electric company, stated ‘Strategy without execution is hallucination.’ Leaders must therefore know how to close the gap between strategy and execution to actually get their strategy done.
Written by Adam Bennett.
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