A new year brings with it new hopes, such as a newly developed strategy ready to be launched into the organization with fanfare and excitement. But let’s stop for a minute. What are the chances of this strategy actually taking hold? What is your organization’s track record in successfully launching strategies? How soon would you start compromising the objectives due to unforeseen circumstances and other excuses?
If you are like most organizations (which most organizations are, by definition), you have a 1 in 10 chance of strategy success. That’s not much to bet on.
“I expected it to be self-sustaining,” admitted our client’s president. It was a sad moment in a year’s journey to transform his organization. Like many senior executives, he was captivated by the illusion that strategies are about making tough decisions and being resolute about them. As important as the strategy was for him—like many senior leaders, it was a career-defining strategy, his intended legacy—he failed to execute it throughout is organization.
So what happened?
The strategy followed a path similar to many strategies that came before it, and it ended up dying a thousand small deaths because of employees and managers who didn’t care to change. It ended up in the classic cemetery of great intentions with little action.
Lost In The Storm
Does that mean the demise of executive power? No. People were simply too busy with other tasks to focus on the future of the organization. They heard the president; they just chose to ignore him. How can that be? It’s simple. Combine lack of purpose with lack of time and you will very clearly see the fast path to strategy disappearance.
Organizations are pursuing multiple strategic initiatives these days. Employees and managers are bombarded by the strategy-of-the-day messages. Everything seems to be important to a point that nothing is important. Imagine facing the arrivals and departures display at Chicago O’Hare International Airport during a winter storm. All flights are delayed or canceled—where do you start? Everything is urgent, everything is important, and most of all, everything is strategic. In such strategic overload, the organization fails to prioritize. It is simply unclear what option is more strategic than the others.
The first step to successful strategy execution is simply defining what the strategy is and what is not. Several years ago, a leading analysts firm approached me to discuss an emerging topic. They sought my viewpoint on digital strategy. I responded by rejecting the notion that digital is a strategy. (Yes, I fully recognize how some of you will find my opinion nothing short of heresy, but please allow me to finish my argument). I argued that the strategy is creating and retaining profitable customers. To reach and engage those customers, we need to apply multiple channels of communication, and digital channels are among them.
“What do you think the ROI is on Instagram participation?” they persisted.
“Nothing,” I insisted back.
Instagram is a customer engagement channel. It is not a strategy on its own. If you find it is important to engage your customers through this channel as part of your customer strategy (and not only because they are there or your competitors are using it), then do it. And if it does not serve the purpose of your customer strategy, then don’t.
A Better Way
The better way to strategic engagement and execution starts by defining what is a strategy and what is a tactic. A strategy is focusing on customers and developing profitable relationships. A tactic is finding cost-effective ways to engage them such as digital tools. As a leader, your first task is to define the strategy and tactics. Minimize confusion and maximize clarity to enable everyone in your organization to understand what you expect from them and what would be the right outcome. This clarity will help focus their efforts and achieve greater engagement.
The second step on the journey to strategy execution success is contextualizing the strategy. Contextualizing the strategy transcends the typical CEO idea of strategy execution, which is announcing it on stage at the annual leadership conference and expecting that people will simply follow. There is no such a thing as a “self-sustaining” strategy. What needs to happen is that the new strategy ought to be contextualized within the other efforts and initiatives within the organization. Specific tactics should be defined, and existing efforts should be linked to support the strategy so that, together, the strategy execution will be holistic and cohesive. One theme with multiple paths for execution has a far greater chance of commitment than multiple disjointed efforts.
What The CEO Must Do
The third and probably most difficult step is active follow through. No, you can’t delegate it. If the strategy is your legacy, you can’t place it in the hands of busy, distracted people who are not living the mission. If it is an important mission to follow, you should be the first one to lead it. Be the mission you want to see in everyone. Make sure that people do not get distracted and that small excuses do not send your strategy straight to the cemetery of possibly-great strategies.
If you truly believe that the future of the organization is dependent on the strategy’s success (isn’t it the reason why you launched in the first place?), then act as such. Demonstrate to others that you are not letting the strategy go until they all align and execute on it. Expect updates frequently. Make it top priority in every meeting, and most importantly, reward or penalize based on progress. Make following the strategy’s execution something people will care about.
The number one reason for strategy failures is not lack of intentions—it’s lack of action. The root cause of lack of action is lack of human commitment. It is time to manage strategies differently. Like ideas, it’s not the fact that we have one—it’s what we do with it and how we usher it into the world of success. It is time to make tough choices. Select a clear strategy. Engage people to champion it and not let it go until it reaches the finish line in its full glory. Hold onto it like your legacy depends on it. After all, it is true. Success or failure: it will be your legacy.