According to a recent survey(1) a staggering 67% of well-formulated strategies fail during execution. Let that sink in for a moment: two thirds of all strategies fail. With the following 11 secrets of successful strategy execution, your strategy won’t be among them.
- Have a clear strategy
- Cascade your strategy throughout the business
- Communicate your strategy and appeal to your team’s heart and mind
- Make execution the leaders’ top priority
- Integrate strategy execution into your company culture
- Create a dashboard to track your progress
- Hold monthly check-ins
- Review execution in-depth once per quarter
- Communicate progress on execution and celebrate successes
- Keep in touch with initiative leaders informally
- Review your strategy once per year
Knowing these 11 secrets does not automatically guarantee strategy execution success. You do have to put in the work and actively drive execution. However, by living these 11 secrets, you are a giant step ahead. Read on for a detailed description of each of these secrets to execute your strategy successfully and deliver excellent results.
1. Have a clear strategy
Sure, having a strategy is key to executing it. The emphasis here however is on the word clear. Clarity about the business strategy is in my experience the number one success criteria for successful execution. And this is easier said than done.
It is mission critical that everyone in the business is clear about where the business is going and how it is going to get there – and how everyone in the business contributes to making sure it gets done.
Imagine your team is not clear about where you are going. Imagine your team is not clear how you are going to get there. Everyone might be working very hard but it may seem like a hamster in a wheel: a lot of effort, but little progress. Worse still, different teams may be working on projects that pull in opposing directions. Clarity about the destination and how to get there helps to align everyone’s efforts in the same direction.
When the strategy is not clear and the business is not aligned, execution will feel like sitting in a dragonboat in which the rowers are not synchronized. If you have ever sat in a dragonboat, you will immediately know what I mean.
Although varying with the size of the dragonboat, there are typically 18-20 rowers in a boat sitting in 9-10 rows of 2. The rowers in a dragonboat aim to synchronize their rowing movements to the beat of a drum. The rowers move the paddle at the same time into the water, leaning back with a deep, long pull, and then taking the paddle out of the water, leaning forward to do the motion again. When all 18 rowers do this motion in exact synchrony, the boat effortlessly glides forward as if floating on top of the water. If the rowers are not in synchrony, the boat sits and drags deep in the water as if pulling a weight.
A clear and well aligned strategy is like the drum in a dragonboat. It synchronizes the organization and ensures it can glide forward towards its destination. When the strategy is not clear, each member of the business may “row” at their own speed and hamper progress towards the organization’s objective and goals.
Here are a few symptoms of unclear strategies
- Too high level: the strategy may be defined in terms that are too broad and generic, which leaves too much room for interpretation. Make sure your strategy is defined in unambiguous, self-explanatory terms that apply directly to the situation of your business.
- Strategies not broken down into connected activities: The strategy may outline a clear general direction, but the detailed initiatives and actions needed to move the business towards its goals are not clear.
- No clear measures what success looks like or when it is reached: The strategy may outline an inspiring future with clear actions but the goals and metrics are not defined. The business may not know what milestones need to be reached by when.
- Not clearly communicated: The strategy may be well defined and clearly discussed among the leadership team and the board of directors, but it may not be clearly communicated to the rest of the business.
- Not clearly connected to people’s jobs: The strategy may be clearly defined, but people’s roles and responsibilities do not clearly align with what needs to be done to reach the future destination. Make sure that your team understands how each individual’s role aligns with the strategy and can contribute towards its achievement.
Check your strategy for clarity before finalizing and make sure it is understood by the entire organization.
2. Cascade your strategy throughout the business
Cascading your strategy throughout the business is the next important secret to execution success. A cascade is “something arranged or occurring in a series or in a succession of stages so that each stage derives from or acts upon the product of the preceding”(2).
“Cascading” strategy means arranging the strategy along the organization’s hierarchy so that the organization is fully aligned behind the organization’s objective and works together to achieve it.
In essence, this means ensuring that the strategy is translated into meaningful activities that allow each group or function to work towards the overall company objective and goals.
Vertical cascading means breaking down the strategy from a higher level of the organizational hierarchy to a lower level. In large corporations this may look like the graphic below. In small businesses, this might be much simpler but works the same way.
Horizontal cascading means breaking down a business strategy into the various functions that work together to deliver the business strategy. Again, in large corporations this might mean formally cascading across large units or departments of the company. In small business, this might just be across a smaller team or individuals. Irrespective of the size of the business, the key aspect is translating the business strategy into meaningful objectives and initiatives for each function that align with the overall business strategy.
In practice, cascading a strategy is typically a mix of the vertical and horizontal process. The important part is that the strategies align seamlessly to ensure that the organization works together to achieve the overall business objective and goals.
Strategies align best when cascading the strategy is a reiterative process. The higher level strategy gives input to the lower level strategy. And it also receives feedback and modifications from the lower level based on realities in the business, feasibility, and availability of resources.
This reiterative process makes the strategy more realistic and creates understanding and buy-in.
One more thought: when cascading your strategy, make sure each team or function has the skills, knowledge and resources needed to execute their part of the strategy.
3. Communicate your strategy and appeal to your team’s heart and mind
Communicate, communicate, communicate. When it comes to your strategy, you cannot over-communicate.
In fact, according to the earlier quoted survey(1) on strategy implementation, the top 3 reasons why strategies fail are
- Poor communication
- Lack of leadership
- Using the wrong measures
Poor communication is the top reason why strategies fail! In fact, research described in an article(3) in the Harvard Business Review in 2008 revealed that information mattered most to strategy execution. So when you communicate, include relevant, up-to-date information that covers the following:
- Explain what external and internal realities led to this strategy
- Explain why this destination is meaningful for the business
- Explain what it will look and feel like when the destination is reached
- Explain how the business aims to reach its destination
- Explain how everyone’s roles and their work contribute to taking the company to its destination
- Convey full confidence that the business can and will get there – leave not an iota of doubt
Information by itself however is not sufficient to have the impact that you aim for. Before you communicate anything, you have to make sure that your audience is receptive to what you have to say. Don’t assume that your team will automatically listen because you are the leader or because it’s about the strategy. You need to “open” your audience first by appealing to their hearts and their minds. Make an emotional connection first, then share what you have to say.
When you communicate, consider the following pointers:
- Customize your message to your audience – focus on being understood
- Make an emotional connection with your audience right away in the beginning before sharing any information
- Use practical examples that are meaningful to your particular audience
- Summarize the key takeaways at the end of the communication
- Include a call-to-action so people know what to do or where to start
In addition, take into consideration that different people learn differently or might be receptive to different types of communication, such as personal interaction, written information, video etc. When planning your communication, explore different media types to get the message across. And if you can afford it, do not only choose one, try to use all media types available to you. You may consider using the following means to communicate your strategy:
- Town hall meeting
- Personal letter or email
- Video recording or animation
- Detailed strategy document, such as a white paper
- Infographics etc.
Strategy communication should never be a one-off, but should be a continuous stream of information. Create a clear communication strategy about how you aim to launch your new strategy (as if it was a product launch) and design the communication by audience, message, timing, and media. Communicate thoroughly and consistently over time about your strategy and its progress during implementation.
If your strategy requires a transformational change in your company, it is particularly important to communicate clearly and consistently so that your team understands why the change is necessary and how it will impact them.
In that case focus on “selling” the problem first, before offering the solution, i.e. the new strategic direction.
4. Make execution the leaders’ top priority
It’s the job of the business leader and his or her most senior team to drive strategy execution. Period. If execution is not on the leadership’s agenda, it will fall off the team’s agenda as well.
I have seen this time and again in my personal experience – both when driving execution as a mid-level manager in a large company myself and when consulting with other business leaders. When the strategy and its execution is top of mind of the business leaders, the implementation progresses. When the leadership’s attention turns elsewhere and does not come back to strategy execution, the organization will turn accordingly.
This is like whipping ropes in your local gym. The movement of the end of the rope travels throughout the rope like a wave. This is like the motion created by the leader of an organization. If the leader moves in one direction, the business will eventually follow. If the leader moves away from execution, the rest of the business will as well.
But what does that actually look like being “top of mind of the business leader”?
- Put strategy execution on the agenda of every leadership meeting
- The business leader personally runs formal strategy execution reviews (more on that later)
- Key initiatives are led by the business leader personally
- The business leader informally checks on execution progress when “walking the shop floor”
- The business leader uses every opportunity to touch on the strategy and execution during communications such as round tables, town halls, one-on-ones, business trips, site visits, even customer/supplier/partner meetings (as appropriate)
It is important that the business leader holds him-/herself and the team accountable for doing what they said they would do in the strategy. The business leader has to walk that talk, or no one else will.
5. Integrate strategy execution into your company culture
For strategy execution to be a sustaining priority, it must become deeply ingrained into your company culture. But what is culture exactly and how can strategy execution become part of it?
According to businessdictionary.com, organizational culture refers to “the values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization”(4). Investopia.com says “corporate culture refers to the beliefs and behaviors that determine how a company’s employees and management interact and handle outside business transactions”(5).
I always simply like to say that culture is “how things are done around here”. Hence, culture encompasses the norms and behaviors deemed expected and acceptable for people and by people working in an organization. In companies and especially in small businesses, the culture is strongly influenced by the values and behaviors of the business leader. So integrating strategy execution into company culture is actually closely tied to the previous point of making execution the business leaders’ priority.
For execution to become part of the culture, execution has to become a norm and expectation that plans are implemented, activities are finished, and work is getting done. A high sense of responsibility and accountability must exist in the organization and it starts from the business leader and does not only apply to strategy. This holds true for all actions:
- Do what you say you will do
- Honor promises and commitments
- Follow through on activities
- Bring things to an end
- Hold others’ accountable for their actions and commitments
For strategy execution to become part of the culture, similarly make it an expected norm and behavior that strategy execution is prioritized and followed through on. How? Consider the following pointers:
- For each strategic initiative assign a clear caretaker, targets, timeline and milestones.
- Make sure each strategic initiative is well resourced and the team has the necessary knowledge, skills and tools to get the job done.
- Follow up at regular intervals and make sure the work gets done.
- Rigorously prioritize what the business is working on. Move up the activities that lead the business towards its strategic objective and goals. Move down or eliminate the activities that don’t.
- Check how each new idea, project or initiative helps bring the business closer to its destination.
- Celebrate successes and reward achievements towards the strategic objectives.
Read more about how to drive execution in your business in the book “Execution – The Discipline of Getting Things Done”. Find this and other book recommendations on our resource page here.
Most important of all, however, culture is about people. Be there for your people and help them execute. Listen to their needs, their questions, their concerns, their difficulties, and their aspirations. Be present, be available, be genuine and act on what you learn. Take them with you on this journey of strategy execution and together execution will become part of the culture.
6. Create a dashboard to track your progress
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”Peter Drucker
Reality is that what you measure gets done. But measuring alone will not be sufficient. It takes three things:
- Measure those metrics critical to your strategy execution
- Make those metrics transparent in a dashboard
- Create practices around reviewing the dashboard regularly and taking appropriate actions
In his insightful book “Measure What Matters”, John Doerr emphasizes the importance of setting goals – the right goals – and tracking those metrics that are directly linked with your strategy and achieving your objectives.
Carefully select those metrics that directly measure your business’ performance towards implementing your strategic initiatives. In other words: measure what really matters. Let go of the notion that you must measure and report everything. Deprioritize those metrics that are nice to have, but do not provide the necessary information to move the business towards its strategic goals.
Create a dashboard that tracks all selected metrics and reports your performance on a monthly basis.
For each metric on the dashboard, define a clear target. This is important so that the organization is clear about the expected performance. This also sets a clear standard for acceptable performance and guides the team in what is expected from them.
Add to the dashboard a traffic light system that highlights in green, yellow, and red how each measure performs versus its target. This allows you to quickly identify those metrics that require your attention.
I have done well with the following classification, but feel free to create your own based on your business’ needs.
|Metric meets or exceeds target||Green||On Track|
|Metric <10% below target||Yellow||Needs Attention|
|Metric >10% below target||Red||At Risk – Urgent Action Needed|
It is important that clear accountability is established for each metric on the dashboard. This is the person who is responsible for the metric’s performance. So assign clear accountabilities for each measure and make sure that the respective person has the ability to influence the metric and is clear about what is expected of him or her.
Make the dashboard available to your team so that its performance is transparent and can jointly be monitored. Consider to hang a print out in the pantry or coffee corner. Put it where people get together and where they can see it. Do weigh off confidentiality vs. transparency. If you are concerned about showing certain metrics, consider whether they were the right metrics to begin with.
Be clear what is expected to happen when the dashboard indicates that a measure is not on track. Discuss with the team and identify appropriate actions to get back on track.
Finally and just as importantly: Celebrate successes! Compliment the the team behind metrics that are on track and clearly exceeding its targets. Likewise identify the drivers for performance and thank the team for its efforts and its success.
7. Hold monthly check-ins
A monthly check-in is a monthly review of the progress you are making in executing your strategy. The purpose of the check-in is to monitor progress, identify roadblocks or concerns and decide on appropriate actions and countermeasures.
The monthly check-in should be attended by the team responsible for strategy execution. That certainly must include the business owner and the most senior leadership team as well as the strategic initiative caretakers.
Monthly check-ins are typically 60-120 minutes long depending on the nature of the business and the magnitude of the change your strategy is driving. Larger changes or strategy implementation processes that are facing significant challenges might require a bit more time. Strategy execution processes that are running smoothly might require less time.
Center the discussion of the monthly check-in on your strategy execution dashboard. Let the traffic lights guide your discussion, starting with the red lights first, then discussing the yellow lights and finally looking at the green lights. Your primary focus here should be on those metrics and initiatives that are ‘at risk’ or require urgent attention.
During your discussion of the metrics, focus on understanding what drives performance. Identify the root causes why certain metrics are falling behind or why others are ahead. Once you have identified the root causes, identify effective actions to improve the metrics. Ensure for each action that you have clarity about what is expected, that there is a caretaker and a timeline for action.
Hold your monthly check-ins on a fixed schedule. For example devote one hour every second Tuesday of the month to reviewing progress with strategy execution. The advantage of a fixed schedule is to create a habit in your business to review strategy execution. It allows you to plan ahead. There are no surprise meetings or sudden requests. There are also no excuses for not being prepared to discuss the performance of your metric. Set a date and stick with it.
Once you have fixed a regular date, plan ahead for the entire calendar year or fiscal year. Set reminders or send out recurring calendar invites to all participants. That way the date is blocked in everyone’s calendars ahead of time and you can avoid short notice schedule conflicts.
For the monthly check-ins to be effective, make sure to follow through on agreed actions. Start each check-in by reviewing the actions from the previous month and ensure all actions have been closed. Strong follow up is critical to establishing an execution culture as noted before.
8. Review execution in-depth once per quarter
In addition to monthly check-ins, conduct in-depth reviews of your strategy execution once per quarter. While monthly check-ins are brief reviews which focus on initiatives and measures that require attention and corrective actions. The purpose of the quarterly review is to monitor progress of the entire strategic plan in more depth, addressing progress of each initiative.
In order to conduct the quarterly review, plan for 2-3 hours to half-day to have sufficient time to cover the entire plan. Similar to the monthly check-in, participants must include the business owner, the most senior leadership team and the caretakers of the strategic plan and its initiatives.
While a strategic plan is typically built top-down, starting with long-term objective and goals of the business and then designing strategic initiatives and actions to get there. The review of the strategic plan is conducted bottom-up beginning with a review of key metrics and actions and then moving up to strategic initiatives and finally reviewing and confirming the long-term direction.
As such, the owners of each initiative report on the progress of their initiatives highlighting the following key points:
- Objective and status of the initiative
- Progress and achievements of the initiative to date
- Challenges or roadblocks that need to be overcome
- Next steps or next actions
- Support needed from the leadership
The update of each initiative should not take longer than 10 minutes and should be crisp and to the point. Encourage the initiative owners to report openly and transparently on the status of the initiative. No sugar-coating or exaggerations. A simple one-page template for each initiative can help support initiative owners with their update and keeping things on track.
Depending on progress, the team agrees for each initiative on appropriate actions and countermeasures. Should any of your strategic initiatives hit major roadblocks, consider whether a pivot is needed. A pivot is simply a change of direction and the very reason why you conduct the quarterly review. Document any changes in your strategic plan.
As part of the initiative review, conduct a review of the needed resources to ensure that each initiative is well funded and able to achieve its objectives – especially when changes are needed. Again, make sure that the initiative owners are aware what is expected from them for the quarter ahead. Define clear caretakers and timelines for all agreed actions.
During the quarterly review, include a brief assessment whether your assumptions about the external environment and the internal situation of the business are still valid or whether anything has changed. Confirm that the long-term objective and goals are still in tact and achievable.
9. Communicate progress on execution and celebrate successes
An important part of strategy execution is keeping everyone in your business apprised of progress. Communicate frequently and openly to maintain clarity about the direction of the business and uphold momentum.
Include in your regular communication the following highlights:
- Achievements/accomplishments to date
- Challenges and countermeasures
- Dashboard and traffic lights
- Priorities for the upcoming quarter
- Potential market news or changes in the external environment
In your communication, place a particular emphasis on celebrating successes! Make accomplishments as public as appropriate and reward the team for their achievements.
Make celebrations an integral part of your execution plan. Successes – large and small – build positive momentum for your strategy execution. Even small victories can be important to create confidence and solicit buy-in. Strategy execution is a movement and every successful step in the right direction helps.
A great way to provide a platform for successes and to reward the behaviors needed for the strategy to succeed is to create awards that are directly linked to the strategic initiatives.
For example, if sales growth is an important measure for your business, consider creating an award that celebrates the most successful customer projects or largest closed deals. If cost savings are critical for your business, reward cost saving ideas. You get the point: again measure what matters and reward the right behaviors that lead to success. And when you’re having success: celebrate!
The importance of celebration cannot be underestimated. You don’t need to throw a major party every month – even though that can certainly help shape your company culture… A small nod to recognize a person or a team for reaching a milestone or delivering a project or achieving a goal can go a long way!
Regularly stop what everyone’s doing to celebrate successes: a closed deal, a new sale, a dollar saved, a target achieved. Buy a cake, invite the team for lunch, have flowers delivered, or simply write a “thank you”-note (hand-written notes will never go out of style!). The point is to catch someone doing the right thing and to create a joyful moment or postitive experience to recognize the success. Besides, celebrations are fun and a great team-building activity!
Celebrate your successes and speak about them. As my grandma would have said: do good and talk about it.
In order to communicate effectively, consider to publish a regular internal newsletter shortly after the quarterly reviews. Or consider sending a brief email update to the business after the monthly check-ins. Don’t leave your team wondering what’s going on and how the business is doing.
Here are a few examples that have served me well:
- Internal newsletter devoted to strategy execution
- Email updates from the business leader
- Quarterly town halls or “all hands on deck” team meetings
- Webcasts or video conferences for remote team meetings
- Installation of a physical strategy execution board in the pantry or cafeteria
When it comes to strategy execution you almost cannot over-communicate. Be creative, involve your team. But whatever you do, communicate often, regularly and frequently, celebrate successes and take your team on the journey with you.
10. Keep in touch with initiative leaders informally
In addition to more formal monthly and quarterly reviews, keep in touch with initiative leaders informally. Be present, support execution, ask how things are going.
The key point here is to be available to initiative leaders, to lend support and to know what’s going on in the business outside of what’s formally reported in the monthly or quarterly reviews.
When you are well-connected and you know what’s going on in the business, you have the ability to sense when challenges are brewing or support is needed. Even in a very open culture, not everyone in your business may be comfortable to speak up or may know when to ask for help. By keeping in touch with your colleagues, you get to know when help is needed.
Keeping in touch with colleagues from all across the business also allows you to put into perspective what is being reported in the formal monthly or quarterly business reviews. You have a better understanding about the situation of the business and can take more meaningful and appropriate action.
A great opportunity to keep in touch with initiative leaders informally is to “walk the shop floor” or engage in social activities. Invite your colleague for lunch or sit down over a cup of coffee. Create chance encounters in the pantry or cafeteria. Create opportunities for the initiative leaders to share information about their project, the progress they are making, or obstacles they are facing.
When you are having an informal chat, create an open and comfortable atmosphere. Ask open questions and let the other person lead the conversation.
Caution: do not micromanage! When you frequently check in with your initiative leaders, you may come across as controlling and micro-managing. Your colleagues need space to execute. Don’t be overbearing with control and oversight. Even though different people require different degrees of freedom to operate, nobody likes a micro-manager. When you micro-manage you effectively communicate that you do not trust the other person with completing the task. That’s the opposite of what you want.
So when you have informal encounters with your initiative leaders, focus on being available, focus on listening and go with the flow of the conversation.
11. Review your strategy once per year
Last but not least, the 11th secret to successful strategy execution is to review your strategy once per year. The purpose is to review the overall direction of the business and your strategy.
So once per year, gather your senior team to conduct an in-depth review of the external and internal environment, your objective and goals, your strategic choices, and the progress you have made thus far.
The purpose is not to re-invent the strategy every year. The purpose is to confirm that you are on the right track. Having said that, if your analysis shows significant changes in the external or internal environment or the progress of your execution, this is very much the time to revisit whether a change in direction is needed.
In my experience, devoting 1-2 days per year to this exercise is helpful. It’s an intensive workshop that requires good preparation and optimally the help of professional facilitation.
I like to schedule the annual strategic review in mid-year – typically July or early August. It’s a good time to take stock and to review your course before planning for the following year begins.
The strategic review follows the strategy process and revists in turn the situation of the business, the external environment, the internal environment, the long-term objective, the strategic choices and the strategic plan. In short, review where to play and how to win.
I can recommend from experience to follow this process for any business – large and small.
When your analysis suggests that you are on the right track and that your fundamental assumptions about the market, your competitors, and your products & services hold up, the annual review should result in few changes.
When you see significant changes however, plan to take more time and to re-do the strategic process in more depth.
In any case, go through the full process every 3-5 years to re-cast your strategic direction and set sail to new horizons.
You can read more about the strategic process and simplifying your strategy to deliver excellent results on rockyourstrategy.com. Just follow these links to read more about the strategic process above and how the OGSM methodology can help you crush your strategy execution.
Where to go from here
Winning at strategy and winning at business are not rocket science. However, companies fail time and again to execute their strategy and deliver the intended results.
With these 11 secrets of strategy execution, you are a giant step ahead to successfully implement your strategy and avoid the 7 deadly sins of business strategy.
Now over to you! What is your experience with strategy execution? What has worked for you and what hasn’t? What secrets have you come across?
If you have any questions or comments, why not drop us a line below? We’d love to hear from you.
Good luck to you. Rock on!
- “Strategy Implementation, 2016 Survey Results” by Bridges Business Consultancy Int Pte Ltd (2016). http://www.implementation-hub.com/resources/implementation-surveys
- “The secrets to successful strategy execution” by Gary L. Neilson, Karla L. Martin, Elizabeth Powers, Harvard Business Review, June 2018. https://hbr.org/2008/06/the-secrets-to-successful-strategy-execution