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Strategy Implementation Tips for Launching New Ideas Effectively

Executive Summary

Disruption is a constant in today’s business environment. Companies can no longer afford long lead times between ideation and execution when a new strategy is proposed.

  • Organizations rarely reach the strategic goals they put in place, and strategy implementation is almost always the reason for coming up short.
  • Many challenges can get in the way of strategy implementation, ranging from poor communication and mismanaged resources to a lack of agility and outside forces or events.
  • To bridge the gap between design and delivery, stick to Brightline’score principles for project managers looking to launch new ideas effectively.

Is your next strategic initiative doomed to fail?

Consider these numbers: according to a Brightline Initiative survey, conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit with 500 senior executive leaders across the globe, only one in ten organizations successfully reaches all of their strategic goals.

On average, organizations fail to deliver 20 percent of their strategic projects. Clearly, at an organizational level, this is deeply worrying. Between 2016 and 2040, the world requires $94 trillion of investment in infrastructure projects—in areas such as energy, telecoms, airports, ports, railroads, roads, and water. With a 20 percent failure rate, we are poised to waste resources worth $18.8 trillion. This is almost equivalent to the GDP of the United States for 2017.

Even worse, we know from conversations and interviews with executive leaders that the 20 percent failure rate is almost certainly underestimated and affects not only the private sector, but governments and not-for-profit organizations.

Understanding more about what we call the “strategy design and delivery gap,” and figuring out practical solutions to it, lies at the heart of the work of the Brightline Initiative, a coalition of leading global organizations. We cannot afford to waste this amount of resources. So, what can—and must—we do to ensure that strategic projects and programs are effectively implemented?

Why Most Projects Aren’t Successful

In reality, multiple factors contribute to the strategy implementation challenges faced by organizations. Consider Tesla Inc., the electric car company. Its visionary CEO and co-founder, Elon Musk, shared Tesla’s (not so) Secret Master Plan in a blog post. The plan can be summarized in a couple of sentences:

  • First, build a high-performance electric sports car.
  • Use that money to build an affordable car.
  • Use that money to build an even more affordable car.
  • While doing the above, also provide zero-emission electric power generation options.

Of course, this is Tesla’s pared-down core strategy rather than the full and detailed version. It is neat and alluring, but is proving particularly challenging and complex to turn into reality. Late in 2017, Tesla was in the media headlines once again but this time because its shares had been predicted to fall 40 percent in the next 12 months.

“Tesla is doomed,” concluded former General Motors executive Bob Lutz, going on to explain, “Tesla does not have meaningful technological advantages compared to the overall auto industry. . . . Tesla is cash-compromised when compared to its competitors who sit on strong balance sheets.”

However persuasive a strategy, however charismatic a company founder, and however laggardly the competition, execution is always challenging. We certainly believe that Tesla is going to overcome some of these challenges, but they remain real and substantial. The 2017 EIU research report identified the leading challenges in strategy implementation as:

  • Cultural attitudes
  • Insufficient or poorly managed resources
  • Insufficient agility
  • External developments
  • Strategy not understood or poorly communicated
  • Poor coordination across the organization

And the challenges change over time. The Keys to Strategy Execution, a global study published by the American Management Association, identified the current factors with a score that shows how much they affect strategy implementation today and are likely to in ten years.

(Above: Top ten factors influencing strategic execution today and in ten years. Adapted from American Management Assn. The Keys to Strategy Execution, p. 6.)

This is just a small selection of the most common challenges. Their profusion means that the solution to close the strategy-implementation gap must be tailored to each organization and business context. In addition, the inherent strategic value of delivery capabilities to organization success must be recognized by organizational leaders.

10 Principles of Strategy Implementation 

At the Brightline Initiative we have crafted a set of guiding principles to help leaders close the gap between strategy design and delivery.

These principles point the way toward more effective behaviors and attitudes, and guide the use of appropriate practices, tools, and techniques aligned with the business’s needs and challenges.

Principle 1. Acknowledge That Strategy Delivery Is Just As Important As Strategy Design

Strategy delivery doesn’t happen automatically. The importance of active and visible leadership cannot be overstated. Organizations invest substantial resources, creative time, and energy in designing the right strategy. They need to give equal priority and attention to delivering it—before they move on to something else. It’s an essential part of a leader’s role to ensure that their organization has the program delivery capability it needs to implement the strategy.

Principle 2. Accept That You’re Accountable for Delivering the Strategy You Designed

Once you have defined and clearly communicated the strategy, your responsibility shifts to overseeing the progress of implementation so that the strategy delivers results and achieves its goals. You need to know where in your organization change happens and who manages the programs that drive that change. You are accountable for proactively addressing emerging gaps and challenges that may impact delivery. Without this discipline, rigor, and care, your strategy has little chance of success. Do not underestimate entropy!

Principle 3. Dedicate and Mobilize the Right Resources

Inspire and assign the right people to get the job done. Actively balance “running the business” and “changing the business” by selecting and securing the right resources for each, as they often have different needs. Recognize that team leadership skills are at a premium, and assign the best leaders with sufficient capacity to tackle head-on the most challenging programs and those essential for successful strategy implementation.

Principle 4. Leverage Insight on Customers and Competitors

Don’t forget to look outside! Continue to monitor customer needs, collect competitor insight, and monitor the market landscape for major risks, unknowns, and dependencies. Advantage in the market flows to those who excel at gaining new insights from an ever-changing business environment and quickly respond with the right decisions and adjustments to both strategy design and delivery.

Principle 5. Be Bold, Stay Focused, and Keep It as Simple as Possible

Encourage smart simplicity. Initiating or rapidly reacting to dramatic changes in the business environment is an increasingly important capability for success. Many of the delivery challenges you will face will be complex and interdependent. In the face of this, the best way to remain nimble is to surround yourself with simplifiers rather than complicators. You need people who can get to the core of an opportunity or threat, understand the drivers, deliver the information, and take the action you need in the way you need it. That way, you minimize bureaucracy, explore ideas, take appropriate risks, prioritize work, ensure accountability, and focus on delivering value through your strategic initiatives.

Principle 6. Promote Team Engagement and Effective Cross-Business Cooperation

Beware of the “frozen middle.” Gain genuine buy-in from middle and line managers by engaging and activating them as strategy champions rather than just as managers and supervisors. Don’t just assume your people will “get it”—leadership must firmly establish a shared commitment to strategy-delivery priorities and regularly reinforce it. This isn’t the time or place for subtlety. Govern through transparency to engender trust and enhance cross-business cooperation in delivery.

Principle 7. Demonstrate Bias Toward Decision-making and Own the Decisions You Make 

Follow your decisions through to delivery. Commit to making strategic decisions rapidly. Move quickly to correct course, reprioritize, and remove roadblocks. Accept that you likely won’t have all the information you want, and rely on those you can trust to deliver sufficient reliable input to allow thoughtful decisions. Consider and address risks and interdependencies explicitly—both up front and regularly throughout delivery. Build a lean and powerful governance structure to reinforce accountability, ownership, and a bias toward action, based on agreed metrics and milestones.

Principle 8. Check Ongoing Initiatives Before Committing to New Ones

Resist the temptation to declare victory too soon. With the right governance, leadership, rigor, and reporting capabilities in place, you can regularly evaluate your portfolio of strategic initiatives. Add new initiatives in response to new opportunities, but first be sure you understand both the existing portfolio and your organization’s capacity to deliver change. Actively address any issues you discover. In the long term, strategic initiative management discipline—critical for effective orchestration of a dynamic initiative portfolio—will work only if robust assessment, support, and course-correction are in place.

Principle 9. Develop Robust Plans but Allow for Missteps: Fail Fast to Learn Fast

Proper planning and preparation prevent poor performance. The old axiom is as true as it ever was, but in today’s business environment, strategy planning cycles must be more rapid, dynamic, and agile than in the past. Empower program delivery teams to experiment and learn in an environment where it is safe to fail fast. Discuss challenges openly, and adjust the plan as needed for success. Learn to reward failure, or at least accept it as valuable input.

Principle 10. Celebrate Success and Recognize Those Who Have Done Good Work

Inspiring people is part of your job. Yes, you have to drive accountability and focus on delivery, but you also need to motivate those who do the work. Actively shape a winning culture by engaging and exciting the people responsible for delivering strategic change programs. Celebrate successes and quick wins. Generously and publicly acknowledge those who demonstrate the leadership behaviors and program delivery capabilities that make strategy succeed, and ask them to share their experiences. Effectively reducing or eliminating the expensive and unproductive gap between strategy design and strategy delivery is a complex task, but it is possible. Its complexity is the result of too many moving parts. Organizations can design very thoughtful and innovative strategies that will support sustainable growth and competitive advantage. But, the benefits and outcomes of a well-thought-out and effectively designed strategy will come only if there is the same level of dedication and commitment to develop and sustain strategy delivery capabilities. Both strategy development and implementation are essential.

Excerpted with permission from The AMA Handbook of Project Management by Paul Dinsmore and Jeannette Cabinis-Brewin, copyright Paul Dinsmore and Jeannette Cabinis-Brewin.

Bring It Home

What is the perception about the importance of strategy implementation capabilities in your organization when compared to strategy development/definition capabilities? Does your organization have a process to identify and discuss the strategy implementation gap and implementation challenges and how to properly address them? Continue the conversation in the comments. ~ HarperCollins Leadership Essentials

Paul Dinsmore

Paul Dinsmore has been part of the Project Management Institute (PMI) since 1977, and was deemed a PMI Fellow in 1994. He has started two PMI chapters in Brazil, and sits a chairman on the board of a consulting and training company.

Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin

Jeannette Cabinis-Brewin is editor-in-chief for PM Solutions and a principal at WordSource. She has published several books for AMACOM/HarperCollins Leadership around project management and strategy implementation.

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