Only 10% of organizations actually execute their strategy.
The hard lesson many organizations learn in this scenario is, it’s not. (Unless, of course, you’re on board the starship Enterprise and your name is Captain Jean-Luc Picard.)
Planning is the foundation of strategy, but it isn’t everything. Your plan alone doesn’t include crucial elements that coordinate and sustain your activities over the long term, like monitoring and reporting on progress.
Why are these elements so important? Strategic plans are carried out over the course of three to five years; over time, plans may be forgotten, distractions arise, and people come and go. Maintaining focus and directing a coordinated set of activities over such a lengthy period of time is an ongoing exercise that requires dedicated leadership and a systematic approach.
That ongoing exercise is known as the strategy implementation phase—the act of executing your strategic plan. It’s the detailed and meticulous process of reviewing your strategy on a regular basis, talking about how you’re doing, considering the implications of where you are in your progress, and determining necessary changes going forward.
Most business literature about strategy tends to put more emphasis on the planning stage than the implementation stage. That’s unfortunate, because most failures are rooted not in the planning but in organizations’ inability to follow through. Companies that fail to develop their strategy implementation process tend to fall prey to some common problems:
All these scenarios threaten to sink the ship, so to speak, reducing the chances of success.
Now that we’ve covered the importance of the strategy implementation phase, you need a solid understanding of the activities that will help you stay focused. (Hint: There’s more to it than just pulling together an annual report!) This guide includes everything you need to know about strategy implementation, from reporting and conducting effective strategy meetings to overcoming common challenges, using strategy software, and more. Dive in from the beginning or skip around to the chapters you’re most interested in. And don’t forget—we’re only a click away if you have any questions!
Before we go deeper into strategy implementation, let’s rewind a bit: It’s important to note that a successful implementation starts with a solid strategic plan.
Think of a strategic plan as both the destination your company wants to get to and the roadmap that describes how to get there. Most companies look five years out, consider what they want their company to look like at that point in time, and then begin to lay out activities that will help them achieve that vision. Your leadership team must agree on what your company should look like in five years and how you’ll get there; otherwise, there’s no path forward.
For smooth implementation, your strategic plan should include the following:
(If you aren’t sure whether your strategic plan is up to snuff, take a look at some of the additional resources in the “Additional Resources” box below.)
Once you have the strategic plan solidified, it’s time to implement it. There are five steps involved in the implementation phase, each of which is outlined below. Note that you can find more information on the activities involved in each of these steps either through linked articles in the resource boxes or throughout the remaining chapters of this guide.
In order for employees to actively work toward the strategic goals, they must know how they can contribute. So in this stage, you’ll focus on getting people on board with the strategy so they are bought-in and motivated. Explain the objectives clearly, show how success and progress will be measured, and assign each element or component of your strategic plan to a responsible party or owner.
Once your strategy is in motion, you need to know whether or not you’re making progress. Performance monitoring paints a picture of how well you’re doing when it comes to reaching your goals.
Your strategic plan already includes measures that will determine if your organization is on track. In this step, you’ll gather and track measure-related data from across the organization, and organize it in one place for future analysis (preferably using software like ClearPoint, which makes collecting, organizing, and analyzing data easier).
Next, it’s time to analyze the data and review your performance. We recommend reporting on your entire strategy on a quarterly basis. The report you issue should highlight progress on your measures and projects, and how those link to your objectives. The point is to show how all these elements fit together and relate to the strategic plan as a whole. (See Chapter 4 for more information.)
It’s important to note that strategy reporting trips up many organizations; most aren’t prepared for the time and effort it requires. See Chapter 7 for information about how strategy implementation software like ClearPoint makes reporting time a non-issue, and boosts the value and usefulness of your reports.
A strategy review meeting is exactly what it sounds like: a meeting focused entirely on assessing and improving progress in achieving the organization’s goals. During these meetings—which usually happen at least quarterly—participants review the performance data as presented in the progress reports, and discuss if action needs to be taken to continue making progress or get back on course.
Finally, you’ll need to adapt your actions as your strategy unfolds. If you’re off-track on some of your measures, implement initiatives that will steer you back on course. Or, you may want to consider adding measures or updating your measure targets.
All the above-named activities in the strategy implementation process serve to keep your strategic objectives in focus throughout the duration of your strategy. Leaders play a large role, so they should be prepared to allocate sufficient time to the process. In essence, performance management should change the way they manage; they need to understand that concept in order for it to succeed.
Similarly, performance management will also fail if you don’t plan how it will be implemented, implement all aspects of it appropriately, and take action where needed. This can’t be viewed as a simple business change—it’s a strategic overhaul.
This change in mindset is just one of the challenges associated with strategy implementation; other things may also be standing in the way of your success. In the next chapter, we’ll cover some of the most common obstacles and what you can do to overcome them.
Once you have a well-defined strategic plan, it’s time to put the pieces in place to execute it. Through decades of strategic planning experience, we’ve seen companies encounter a range of obstacles during the implementation process. To help smooth the way, we’ve outlined the five most common mistakes and a solution to each.
Take General Electric, for example. GE has a longstanding strategy of being the leader (or second in line) in industries where it competes. But what does that really mean? Do they need to acquire to get to that position? Do they need to sell or shut down businesses that are not in first or second place? And what happens if the company reaches first or second place, but isn’t profitable? Clearly, all the leaders of GE need to make sure they have the same understanding about this strategic statement.
Solution: Create objective statements.
Write objective statements that describe your top strategic goals. They may range from a few sentences to full chapters of guidelines. You may also want to consider holding strategy-related workshops or sharing information through various forms of company-wide communication to keep everyone on the same page. This helps prevent any misunderstandings or unintended consequences.
On the surface, this may be a head-scratcher. “How can we execute strategy without the executive team?” Believe it or not, this could be happening without anyone even realizing it.
Many organizations turn their strategy over to a small “core team” to measure and manage. But the problem is that this core team—no matter how well-connected in the organization—doesn’t have the power to make strategic decisions. When the leadership team isn’t closely entwined in the process, strategy becomes less important to them. But it’s inevitable they will be shocked when an annual reporting document doesn’t show any real progress toward strategic goals.
Alternatively, your organization may not even have a documented strategy, which is another strategy execution challenge. If this is the case, it may be tempting for a core group of people in a division or department to “reverse-engineer” a loose strategy based on clues from conversations, meetings, or company documents—but don’t do it. Even a go-getter team will never get the attention and resources necessary for the strategy to be successful.
Solution: Confront the issue of executive involvement head-on.
The leadership team has to be involved in strategy execution—it’s non-negotiable! It is part of their job. They can delegate some of the nuts and bolts of the execution, but they still need to be involved with regular strategy review meetings and be part of the conversation when decisions and resource allocations are made.
Let’s face it: Developing a strategy is hard. If done correctly, the leadership team (in conjunction with a facilitator) could easily spend weeks to months developing a five-year strategic plan.
Then come the details—goals, measures, and projects included—until it’s all refined, beautified, and added to a neat, formatted document accompanied by visuals. In summary, this is no walk in the park.
But too many companies make the mistake of creating the strategy and never looking back. The leadership team may be so ready to move on from strategy development that they’ll be tempted to report on it yearly and revisit it at year five. But if you only look at your strategy once every 365 days, you aren’t giving yourself time to adjust and react to changing conditions. Basically, this is a recipe for failure. Take it from Winston Churchill, who once famously said: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.”
Solution: Commit to reviewing your strategy on a monthly or quarterly basis.
We highly recommend reviewing parts of your strategy on a monthly basis and reviewing the entire strategy quarterly. Of course, you’ll need to have the right people in the room for this meeting—and all of them will need to be well-prepared.
Pro Tip: At the end of year two of a five-year strategy, set aside time for an all-day macro-level strategy review. You need to be certain that the goals, measures, and projects you have in place are moving the organization in the right direction!
Perhaps you’ve developed a great strategy that your team is excited about and you’re ready to execute on it. But three to six months later, when it’s time for a strategy review meeting, you can’t find any of the data you reviewed at the off-site company meeting. Furthermore, it seems the key projects you discussed then haven’t gone anywhere or been updated at all.
Or, perhaps one person (or a small group of people) are trying to take on the responsibility for everything associated with the strategy execution. They may have decent support from some areas in the organization, but they aren’t empowered by leadership.
Solution: Assign ownership of your strategic objectives to an individual on the leadership team.
This leader should be responsible for high-level analysis of your KPIs and managing the investments in projects that drive change around your strategy implementation. Of course, you should also have project managers and analysts to stay on top of collecting and presenting the data. But to make strategy work, ownership should be spread across the leadership team.
Data-based decision-making requires accurate data. Unfortunately, many people don’t spend the time to determine whether the numbers they’re using for reporting are accurate. Or, they have no way to check the data because they don’t know where it’s coming from. Both situations are toxic to strategy execution.
Solution: Don’t accept the data given to you at face value.
Ideally, someone with the authority to do so (maybe that’s you!) should be charged with creating a data policy. The responsible party should work alongside the IT team to get data structured in a proper format or dig deeper to find other data sources, and should also communicate the data policy (an official source of certain data points) via training sessions to everyone involved with the strategy. So if you are going to report information per capita, there should be an official population number. Or you may have rules against changing data that comes out of key systems.
The challenge with high-quality data is when individuals (including managers and executives) take data from their source (like HR systems, sales software, finance software, etc.), manipulate the data locally, and then use the changed data in a strategy review meeting. This becomes data that you cannot reproduce without the individual’s involvement. Your strategy execution data policy should guide you to correct the data in the source location, rather than change it after it has been exported to a spreadsheet.
By implementing the solutions above, you’ll have a strategy based on high-quality data that is well-documented, valued by the leadership team, reviewed regularly, and updated when necessary.
After reviewing the challenges and solutions in chapter 2, you know how important it is to have leadership on board and have clear accountability. Your leadership team is ultimately responsible for the success or failure of your strategy implementation, and whether or not your company meets its goals, they’ll need the support of someone in the strategy management office to take the reins on managing the implementation process, including strategy review sessions.
This strategy management officer, or strategy execution manager, should have certain qualities to be successful in the role:
Your strategy management officer will spend a lot of time interacting with people in various departments in your organization as you introduce your strategy. While this concept may be exciting to the strategy execution manager, it’s going to feel like additional work to everyone else. The strategy manager doesn’t have to be popular, but they do have to be trusted to lead others in the right direction. They should also be trusted to understand the challenges in each department and how to position the ups and downs in an appropriate way without throwing department heads under the bus. They should be seen as a partner and helper to each contributor.
Strategy implementation managers should live and breathe the organization’s vision and mission, and know the company’s long-term (likely five-year) strategy inside and out. They’ll have to field frequent questions about the strategy (like “How does this activity fit in with our vision?”), and should be able to respond clearly and authoritatively. Additionally, proper scorecard management requires them to see the big picture, understanding how all departments and divisions fit into the vision.
Excellent strategy execution involves hearing people’s feedback and taking it to heart. This person should prepare for some emotional feedback when your strategy is unveiled. Some people may be resistant to trying something new, and others may be upset that their project isn’t part of the strategic plan. Listening, validating people’s concerns, and providing strategic guidance is a big part of the job.
The strategy implementation process will change and evolve over time, and it’s this person’s job to change and evolve with it. Further, they should work to anticipate that change beforehand. That being said, there will be rough patches where a change isn’t the right solution. Having the ability to discern the right path forward is the sign of a great strategy implementation manager. There are a lot of materials online and in books about managing strategy, and the strategy manager should know about theory and then be flexible in the implementation of this theory. If the process isn’t working for the organization, he/she should be willing and able to change the process to ensure its success.
A key part of the job is strategy meeting preparation. To organize meetings effectively, they need to have a keen eye for detail. There are also other benefits to being detail-oriented. For example, if this person executes on your reporting calendar precisely, they’re more likely to gain trust and respect from others and get buy-in across departments. It is also important to have consistent reports (where the dates all match, and the data on the summary page matches that of the detail page). Errors in reporting will cause leaders to question the reports and all the effort that went into creating them.
No one can work efficiently without the help of others, so your strategy execution manager should know how to empower those around them. Provide people with the tools they need to understand how strategy management works. This may include giving each department the freedom to create their own strategic plan. At the end of the day, some level of autonomy will help those around this person take ownership of the process.
This person needs to be able to manage up. In other words, they’ll need to steer the management team toward the idea of consistent strategy management. Their leadership style should result in those around them feeling participatory in the development of the strategy, not that they’ve been pushed into it. (Check out this scorecard management article for more details.)
Finally, we recommend that strategy implementation managers connect with other people involved in strategy management inside and outside their organizations to avoid “lone wolf syndrome.” This is a great way for them to develop the qualities listed above and learn from those in the field.
Yet another trait of a stellar strategy execution manager is knowing how and when to report on progress toward strategic goals.
Reports are the push-off points that guide discussion about where you’re at with your strategy and where you can improve. Too many organizations only review progress at the halfway point (or at the end of the strategic planning horizon) to see how they are performing. But this is like keeping the scoreboard covered until the last minute of a basketball game—you don’t know whether the game is in the bag or you need a change of tactics to win!
Say your five-year strategic plan states that your company will increase revenue by 40%. If you check in for the first time at year three, you’re already past the ideal point for taking corrective action if you need to—either striving to catch up or raising the bar higher. All that said, flying blind is not advised, and can easily lead to failure.
Since reports should initiate action, they need to be easy to understand and include only relevant information. Ask yourself the following questions about your reports:
As we mentioned in chapter one, key performance indicators (KPIs) are critical in understanding if you’re on track with your company’s objectives. Each quarterly (or monthly) report should touch on the progress you’re making with each KPI.
KPIs differ for every company depending on strategy and industry; take a look at these sample KPIs to decide which ones your company should put into place:
For additional KPI libraries that span a number of areas and industries, take a look at the links in the resources section below!
Just because you’ve created a great management report doesn’t mean that others in your organization will interpret what you’ve written the same way. For example, someone responsible for the implementation of a large IT project could be aware of all its difficulties and the solutions that will be used to fix them before the end of the year, while someone not involved in that project might panic at the complexity in front of them.
This is why bringing your leadership together to openly discuss the reports is so important. But productive strategy execution meetings don’t happen by accident. In order for a meeting to be effective, you have to:
Here’s everything you need to know to have effective strategy implementation meetings in your organization, including what you can do before, during, and after to set yourself up for success.
In preparation for your meetings, take the following into account:
There are three different types of management meetings:
Each of these meetings “feed” into one another in the following way:
The purpose of monthly review meetings—typically an hour or two long—is to review your current progress against your ideal performance. These meetings are typically about parts of the strategy (rather than the full strategy), sometimes referred to as the key themes or strategic thrust. During the meetings, you should capture a set of key decisions and some action items that will also contribute to your quarterly review meeting.
During the monthly meetings, we suggest dividing up your time like this:
All in all, monthly review meetings allow you to analyze your performance for the month to see how well you’re progressing on your strategy implementation plan.
The purpose of quarterly strategy review meetings—which can last half a day to a full day—is to review progress against your overall strategy and discuss your key action items.
Quarterly meetings should proceed as follows:
In summary, quarterly reviews are for refining your strategic issues or reviewing your strategy, and making sure you’re still on track. This is the time for you to decide if money or management attention needs to be reallocated as well. If you review key components of your strategy only once a year, you may be faced with some serious challenges or surprises—the kind you don’t want to have at the end of the year.
Also, ensuring your team is on the same page quarterly means you're always prepared to report your progress to your board if that's something you need to do.
The purpose of annual strategy refresh meetings is to review year-to-date performance and adjust your strategy as necessary. This meeting typically lasts 1-2 days. By the close of the meeting, you should have an updated strategy map or scorecard.
During the annual meetings, you may want to divide up your time like this:
In review, an annual strategy review meeting is a forum used to question your strategy as a whole. It should answer the following questions:
Following your meetings, you’ll need to take the following into account:
Keep In Mind…
Your first few management meetings might be overwhelming; it’s helpful to have a designated facilitator in the meetings to keep you on track. (Choose someone who isn’t on the management team!) There are a lot of moving parts involved in effective management meetings. Give it some time and you’ll be having more effective meetings shortly.
A lot can change in a company over a five-year period—and the conclusions you draw during your strategy review meetings will help you determine whether your strategy is still valid or not.
For example, you could be facing unexpected issues at the end of a five-year period, such as:
Disruptions like these could mean you need to make some adjustments—which is why we strongly recommend you look at the validity of your strategy on an annual basis. This is a great way to check up on your goals, ensure your KPI targets are set correctly, and reassess the relevancy of your projects and their funding sources.
There are four primary components to a strategy refresh in the strategy execution process:
Consider all the steps we’ve covered so far: validating your strategic plan, addressing potential strategy execution challenges, appointing a person to champion your strategy implementation process, streamlining your reporting process, structuring your strategy meetings, and scheduling an annual strategy refresh.
There’s a great deal of work involved in completing these steps. To make the strategy execution process run as smoothly as possible, you need to find software that supports your entire strategy execution process. Software like ClearPoint can help pull all the pieces of your strategy together in an organized, consistent format.
Let’s take a look at how software factors in to each of the four key components of the strategy execution process.
You’ll need an effective way to track the progress you make on your goals, measures, and projects, but the very nature of the tracking process can make your strategy implementation difficult. For instance, you could have 20 or more individuals involved in different projects at any given time. Gathering up details from each contributor is a tremendous amount of work, and if one or two people don’t participate, it can throw off the whole strategy execution plan.
Without software, it’s your job to follow up with all the people involved in each goal, measure, and project to ensure they update a single spreadsheet. They may never do the updates, or they might unintentionally alter the report in ways you didn’t intend. Or, they might show up to the meeting claiming they have the updated numbers—and your final spreadsheet does not.
With software, reporting is simpler for everyone involved. Each owner is automatically notified to load their data into a central, cloud-based system. They have a structured way to update their data—and they are all kept apprised when the strategy report is complete, so they can prepare for the meeting.
As we’ve discussed, it’s critical to discuss your strategy on a regular basis so you can adjust it based on tracking results and progress. The focus should not only be on “How did we do?” but on “What can we do to improve our results?” This leadership team meeting is a key step in the strategy execution process.
Without software, you’ll face a wall of challenges. Most notably, it will be difficult to get everyone on the same page before your meeting. You run the risk of some people coming to the meeting with a detailed, 10-page project update, and others coming with a brief overview of how things are going. This can cause a long, disjointed meeting.
With software, you can gather information in a consistent format at a level of detail you choose. If you need more detailed information during your meeting, you can easily access this data through strategy software. Plus, using technology as your presentation medium allows you to move naturally through areas of discussion instead of flipping from page to page. Finally, you can send out meeting and information update reminders, so everyone is prepared ahead of time.
Do you have a system in place to reevaluate your strategy in response to external changes? Economic or political events, environmental disasters, or strategic shifts from a competitor could all impact your organization’s strategy. You’ll need to a simple way to evaluate your options, make decisions, and follow through.
Without software, your team may gather in a conference room to discuss strategic issues and make decisions—then walk away, leaving discussion notes on flip charts or white boards. There’s rarely any follow-up on how those decisions are impacting your strategy as a whole, and no one seems to be responsible for taking action on the decisions made.
With software, you can base your discussions on clear, thorough data reports, track those decisions, see the outcome of those decisions over time, and record any analysis or recommendations. Essentially, technology removes the guessing game! The next time you meet you can brief your team on the actions that have taken place, or still need to take place, since the decision was made.
Now that you’ve taken on the task of strategic planning, you’ll want your key stakeholders to know you’re tracking and implementing the strategy in an organized, planned fashion—and that means generating reports.
Without software, you have to create your reports manually. And since different people want to see information in different ways and in varying levels of detail, manual reporting presents a unique challenge. On top of that, you have to be certain that every person creating or updating the reports uses the same data. You wouldn’t want to report two different revenue numbers to two different groups, even if there’s a good reason for it.
With software, you can use a common set of data to create reports for division heads, enterprise employees, boards of directors, city council members, the general public, etc. With the click of a button, you can create templates for easy reproduction every time, and you can publish certain data online—all while knowing with certainty you’re using the most up-to-date version of the report. (Every report is time-stamped and dated.) Using software for report creation is one of the ways technology can be most helpful in implementing your strategic plan.
You made it! Don’t be overwhelmed—once you get in the rhythm, this will become a “living” strategy implementation process ingrained in your organization.
When everyone in the company starts to automatically consider how the decisions they make will impact the overall strategic vision, you’ll know you’ve nailed your strategic implementation. Beyond that, you’ll likely be saving thousands of hours and potentially tens of millions of dollars by shifting your focus away from goals and projects that aren’t relevant to your long-term strategy. You can make it all happen simply and seamlessly using a tool like ClearPoint, which keeps you on track with consistent monitoring and reporting.
If you feel certain after reading chapter 7 that technology will help you better implement your strategy, why not give ClearPoint a try? ClearPoint has made strategy implementation a breeze for hundreds of companies. If you’d like to learn more about it—and see how it works—schedule a demo and we’ll show you around!