The biggest challenge for leaders comes with their responsibility as a leader. I know it sounds circular, but leadership is the most ambiguous role your organization has, and that’s why it’s so important and valuable. Here’s the reality. Strategy, which is solely your responsibility as a leader, has a context that’s set in the future—and the future is unknown. To make it even more difficult, strategy is not a one or two year vision, but a three to five year vision, and the further you extend from today, the more uncertain conditions get. So, although your vision anchors you into the future, your approach must be flexible. That’s why eighty percent of strategic work is implementation.
Strategy implementation is so tricky, most organizations get it wrong. Due to its extended time frame and the level of uncertainty that goes along with it, strategy implementation operates under a different paradigm than any other sort of execution. When most organizations complete their strategy formulation (and all the high-priced consultants leave), if they do any work on implementation it is in the form of long-range planning. Usually this looks like an extended version of project planning with more graphics and animations for the executives. I hate to break the news to you, but most one-year project plans fail because of uncertainty; so, how do you expect a three- or five-year project plan to have any relevance? For strategic implementation then, make these three adjustments in your approach:
Tip # 1: Document and Track Your Assumptions
As you build your vision, you will be making assumptions. You should build your vision in three successive cycles: macro-environment, competitive environment, and internal environment respectively. With each cycle comes a set of assumptions, typically many. Some assumptions will have good supporting evidence, and some will be educated hunches. In all cases, be sure to carefully document these assumptions, and track them throughout the execution of your strategy. If certain key assumptions don’t obtain, your execution will need adjustment. Strategy execution is more about fine-tuning based on realized or unrealized assumptions, and less about following a successive set of tasks or projects.
Tip #2: Think About Probabilities and Alternatives
A strategic implementation plan looks nothing like a typical project plan. Strategic implementation plans should have key pivot points where the path can diverge, unlike project plans which typically have one critical path. Probabilities and assumptions play a key role at each pivot point, as the path of execution can take one of two—or several—different paths based on conditions at the time. The finesse of strategic implementation planning is making sure all divergent paths end up at the same place—your vision. Progressive elaboration also becomes more important, as not all execution paths need to be fully defined, only the ones which have a reasonable probability of taking course.
Tip #3: Mind your Capabilities and Culture
To achieve any strategy you must have your culture and capabilities aligned. If your vision is ambitious or otherwise radically different from today, both your culture and capabilities will need to shift. This is reminiscent of a human resources or team morale plan of an integrated project plan (which rarely shows up in the first place), but it’s much more critical and robust. It’s more critical in the sense that most projects can get by without a team morale plan, but a strategy will fail with the wrong culture or insufficient capabilities. This is also the reason why this segment of your implementation must be more robust than what’s typically seen in a team morale plan.
It’s common to see organizations spending huge amounts of money on consultants to formulate a strategy, only to have it fail in implementation. After spending many years as a consultant in this area, I can understand why. Strategy implementation and execution is very, very difficult and has a lot of sand traps, but most importantly takes a complete mental shift from almost any other process in the organization. Take some time today to work through the differences in approach—the future of your organization depends on it.