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Strategy Execution: A Comprehensive Guide
Wondering what makes some organizations succeed at strategy execution while others fail? Here are the five elements needed to get it right (and one practical tool that supports them all).
No organization can achieve its goals without a plan, but good planning is only half the battle. Actually, most management experts would probably argue it’s less than half, with strategy execution representing the lion’s share of the work (and the skills) required to make forward progress. For most organizations, it’s poor execution that stymies growth, not poor planning.
The importance of strategy execution is clear, but why is it so hard? Because few organizations have all the right elements in place to sustain strategic activities over the long term. Based on the ideas presented by Balanced Scorecard creators Robert Kaplan and David Norton in “The Strategy-Focused Organization,” the following five elements are key to strategy execution:
Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements in the sections below.
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Strategy Execution: 5 Key Elements For Getting It Right
The purpose of the following activities is to help sustain your strategy focus over a period of years; implementing them will significantly improve your performance when it comes to strategy execution.
1. A leadership team that has bought into the plan.
Some organizations don’t have a documented strategy; others rely on a small group of individuals to measure and manage the strategy on an ongoing basis. Both scenarios set the stage for failure. When the leadership team isn’t involved in the process of creating the strategy and/or tracking performance on it over time, strategy becomes less important. As a result, leadership is less likely to make the necessary decisions or allocate the appropriate resources to get the job done.
Management support is essential for strategy execution. Commitment starts at the top; the tone they set will trickle down through all levels of the organization. Plus, their active engagement and advocacy will help keep things moving in the right direction. You’ll know your leadership is bought in if:
- They signed off on the plan (even if it was created by a planning department).
- Their compensation and goals are linked to the plan.
- They talk about the plan in meetings with the organization.
- There are strategy communication documents around the office and in the hands of the people on the front lines.
2. An easy-to-understand version of the strategic plan.
Strategic plans range in length; we’ve seen some that are five pages and others that are 50. But no matter how long your plan is, you’ll need an abridged version—just one page—that sums up your strategy in a nutshell.
Strategy execution best practices dictate that everyone in the organization should be able to describe the strategy in three minutes or less. So whether you create an informal elevator pitch to describe it or a more formal strategy map, it’s crucial that you find a simple way to communicate your big-picture plan to both executives and employees. If all you have is a 20-page document, no one will truly understand it or be able to interact with it. A short, uncomplicated description—preferably a visual representation—is the best way to keep your strategy front and center, and your people on the same page.
3. Alignment between the organization (its departments and activities) and the strategy.
The key to strategy execution is to have everyone rowing the boat in the same direction, not creating currents that are at odds with each other. If individual departments are allowed to create—and pursue—their own priorities, you run the risk of getting sidetracked from your organizational goals, and squandering your resources for little return.
All departments should be doing things that support the overall strategy. If your consolidated strategic plan has five key themes or 10 key goals, get all departments to align their activities around these goals. To help define departmental activities, ask:
- Which goals does the department directly contribute to?
- Which ones do they support?
- Are there currently activities they do that do not support the strategy? Can those activities be justified?
As a leadership team, you can also look at organization goals that have little support from departments and determine the best path to get these goals accomplished. Do you need more support or are these the right goals?
4. Clear linkages between individuals and the strategy.
Organizational goals are achieved through the efforts of individuals, but employees often have a difficult time connecting their everyday activities with the larger strategy. Successful execution depends on their work—and their understanding that what they may perceive as seemingly small tasks are in fact the building blocks of strategy execution (as long as the previous element is in place!).
You can help employees make those connections by:
- Communicating to employees how they contribute to their department, and how their department contributes to the enterprise. If they understand the big picture, then, when they have the opportunity to make independent decisions, they will make ones that help the organization move one step closer to its goals.
- Implementing personal scorecards that link to strategy. If you’re like many organizations, you may already be tracking individual performance—but you may not be tracking the right things. Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) is currently a popular framework, but the idea of creating individual short-term measures and tracking progress only works if the key results are linked to the strategy. If you hope to motivate employees with measurements, make sure you’re measuring the things that matter.
5. A way to manage the strategy execution process.
You can’t just write a great strategy, put it on the shelf, and check in five years later to see if you’ve achieved it. To stay focused and be assured of making incremental progress, there’s a lot of work to be done:
Create a meeting schedule and accompanying reporting calendar.
Progress evaluations and strategy reviews are necessary to stay on the right track; you’ll also need a reporting process in place to support those meetings. High-performing organizations meet monthly, quarterly, and yearly. (You can read more about planning and conducting effective strategy meetings here.) Departments should have a similar cadence, with meetings taking place a week earlier than enterprise-level meetings. This timing ensures that executive-level meetings have up-to-date departmental information to discuss.
For these meetings to be successful, you need:
- Consistent information—Preparing for meetings is time-consuming, so, to the extent possible, put standardization processes in place. Determine a set calendar for meeting dates and reporting deadlines, and then stick to it. Standardize forms for collecting data or invest in strategy execution software that can greatly reduce staff burden and free up time for them to do a more substantial data analysis.
- Consistent attendees—Organizational leaders, members of the executive team, and business unit managers should attend meetings consistently. Their input will always be crucial to big-picture discussions; for example, you can’t discuss finances without the CFO. (One client we work with ensured 100% attendance by sending out the dates of monthly reporting meetings one year in advance, asking attendees to schedule vacations and time off around them.) In meetings where you’re planning to take a deep dive into a particular strategic goal or activity, you might also invite relevant guests from other parts of the company.
- An established decision-making process—Is one person ultimately making decisions, or will decisions be made by consensus? Attendees need to know what to do at a meeting—should they build a coalition of supporters around their idea, or appeal to the decision-maker alone?—and what to expect. If the process isn’t clear, participants will likely be working toward different goals. The result: frustrating and unproductive meetings.
- Pre-reads and recaps—Pre-reads (meeting agendas and reports) are important so attendees can prepare; after-meeting recaps are also helpful for summarizing discussions and decisions, keeping everyone on the same page. Recaps also outline follow-up actions, noting the person accountable and a timeline. Software can also help with this step, automatically sending pre-read and recap documents to all attendees.
Link projects to strategy.
Every project your organization wants to accomplish needs a purpose. Without clear alignment between your organizational strategy and your piles of projects, you and your employees are simply wasting time. The project management office must work collaboratively with the strategy management office to determine which projects qualify as strategic (and how they connect to your organizational objectives), and which are non-strategic (but necessary).
Because organizational objectives change over time, it’s wise to review your projects periodically to assess if you’re still doing the right things. Strategy refreshes offer a good opportunity to evaluate the appropriateness of current projects, and generate new projects—all of which will help you get where you want to go.
Link budgets to strategy.
Projects require resources, which is why your budget and your strategy need to go hand in hand. Say you design a major strategic change in your organization, and during your annual budget process you increase some areas by 1% and decrease others by 2%. If your budget isn’t linked with the strategy, you won’t have the ability to enact your strategic changes. Unfortunately, this is often the case.
Some organizations create a StratEx (strategic expenditure) budget, but others fully integrate their budget into the strategy management process. In local governments, we see priority-based budgets, zero-based budgets, etc. Whatever your approach, budgets should occasionally be reevaluated for effectiveness.
Link your communications to strategy.
Make your strategy as visible as possible. The same way you see consistent branding in advertising (think Coke’s “Taste the Feeling”), brand the strategy internally. Do you have three themes? Brand them in three colors and make posters for a vibrant visual association. Create internal case studies about individuals who go above and beyond in contributing to the strategy or living the values. And acknowledge failures as well—if you tried something and it didn’t work, talk about it. (One company I know of had a funeral for part of its strategy before moving on to the next idea. Another one had a birthday cake for the annual review of its strategy.)
Finally, talk about the strategy frequently. If people don’t hear about it regularly, they’re more likely to forget about it. To keep strategy top of mind (and keep employees motivated), share monthly and quarterly progress with the entire organization. Offer results at a summary level—for instance, performance on the top five measures using green/yellow/red statuses; identifying parts of the business that are growing or shrinking; initiatives that are being paused, etc.
Create a governance process.
You want your strategy to be flexible, but you don’t want everyone making changes to measures and targets throughout the year—that makes it more difficult to keep track of a target and the responsible parties. To achieve the kind of flexibility you want, create a management reporting guide that outlines the calendar, ownership and responsibility, and a process for making changes to the strategy. Such a process keeps things consistent for reporting purposes, and helps keep your eye on the final goal.
Simplify Strategy Execution With Software
Feeling overwhelmed by strategy execution? You wouldn’t be the first. (Some of these popular strategy books might help put things in perspective, too.) This is complex, which is the whole reason we wrote this article. But there are a lot of ways to make the process more manageable; in fact, I’ve dedicated my career to it. At ClearPoint, we’re now helping thousands of people to execute their strategies successfully with strategic planning software. Check out some of our most recent strategy execution examples and success stories.
Our 20+ years of experience with strategy execution and performance management is the reason why ClearPoint is so effective. We know all the strategy execution best practices inside and out, and our software provides an organized framework for you to transform your strategy ideas into action. Plus, we’re all-too familiar with how much time it takes to manage and report, so we’ve automated some of the most time-consuming components for you. ClearPoint helps tackle a number of key activities discussed above, no matter what strategy execution framework you’re using, including:
- Tracking progress on goals, KPIs, and projects
- Implementing process governance by assigning accountability to run workflows, and using permissions to make qualitative and quantitative updates easy
- Automating tasks like loading data on a schedule, calculating and evaluating statuses, and building charts and reports
- Running workflows for reports, including emailing owners and tracking their updates so you know who to nudge as needed
- Scheduling reports to automatically generate and email out as pre-reads and recaps
- Alerting the right people if items fall behind where you want them to be
- Promoting your strategy by making it accessible on any device (phones, tablets, computers)
- Branding it with the color and style of your organization
There is one thing software can’t do—it won’t make decisions for you! But it does make management reporting simple and efficient so you can focus on having better discussions and making better decisions. If you have any questions about our software—or about how you can improve your strategy execution efforts—please reach out.