Strategy implementation is a core function for all businesses, no matter the size of the organisation, or which sector they operate in. However, whilst it is imperative, most struggle to execute their desired strategy, which leads to a range of problems that manifest into long term difficulties if not addressed. Therefore, to ensure this is avoided, what steps can firms take to ensure they effectively implement strategy?
To commence with solving the problem, it first makes sense to define it; strategy implementation is the process of turning plans into action in order to achieve a desired outcome. The success of any organisation seeking to implement a strategy rests on the capacity of the enterprise to implement decisions and execute key processes efficiently, effectively, and consistently. Whilst this may seem somewhat straightforward, the development of organisational strategy is a complex and demanding process, requiring leaders who have devoted time, effort, and resources to the selection of a strategy they believe will secure the ongoing success of their company in both the short, and long term.
However, even the most devoted leader who intends to implement an effective strategy will stand little chance of success unless said strategy is suitably applied. This is as, effective implementation is critical to the success of organisational strategy, if strategy is to develop from a mere expression of hopes and aspirations for the future, into practical development of the organisation's operations and activities. Which is why more's the pity that is exactly where most firms fall short.
One reason many strategy implementation processes fail is quite simply because the enterprise in question does not have something worth executing. This is as, devised plans which have long been threated over more often than not are not strategies at all, and fail in being implemented, despite the ample efforts of hard-working people. The reason for this is because they do not represent a set of clear choices. Instead they often take the form of goals that centre on, for example, wanting to achieve the top one or two positions in the market. This does not illustrate what you are going to do to achieve this ambition, instead it only provides you with what the organisation hopes the outcome will be.
In contrast, real strategy involves a clear set of key variables that define what the firm is going to do, and equally as important, what it’s not going to do. Once you’ve determined the goals you’re working toward and the variables that might get in your way, you should build a roadmap for achieving the required actions, set expectations among your team, and clearly communicate your implementation plan, so there’s no confusion. The simplest way of achieving this is through a concise set of actions that the new strategy should follow, which fit together to form a clear strategic direction for the company. Through this approach, communication becomes less convoluted, allowing for illustration of the firm's priorities, all of which should be reasonably attainable.
The importance of setting goals that are realistic is that the inverse can lead to the leader, and their team feeling overwhelmed, uninspired, deflated, and potentially burnt out. Therefore, rather than overwhelming those who are part of the implementation process with a list of 20 unrealistic objectives, which they simply will not remember, let alone achieve, employees should be given a more defined approach, as well as a timeframe in which to achieve it, and a list of resources available to help them complete the task. This should enable them to understand the reasoning behind the process, foster belief in the logic of the leader's decisions, and follow up the strategy in their day-to-day work.
The development of a concise strategic focus should encourage an organisation to develop disciplined processes for feeding strategic initiatives across the organisation in a meaningful, realistic and achievable way. However, in doing this, managers should develop contingency plans for unexpected variables that may hinder the team’s ability to reach targets, and work with the team to guide and support them though challenges and roadblocks they may be experiencing. This can be achieved by utilising daily, weekly, and monthly status reports and check-ins to provide updates, re-establish due dates and milestones, and ensure all teams are aligned. In doing this, leaders must be attentive, flexible, and willing to change or readjust plans rather than to blindly adhere to their original goals, which can often be the case in a top-down, two-step process, which frequently adopts the mentality; the strategy is made, now we implement it. Whereas, in reality, a successfully executed strategy is seldom a one-way trickle-down cascade of decisions.
On this topic, Stanford professor Robert Burgelman said, 'successful firms are characterised by maintaining bottom-up internal experimentation and selection processes while simultaneously maintaining top-driven strategic intent.' Therefore, in implementing strategy, firms must ensure they avoid the common mistake that many managers make in not being able to resist executing the devised plan themselves, and in doing so succumb to the temptation of being the one to solely decide what projects live and die within their firms. It is important that once a manger knows what needs to be done to ensure success, they determine who needs to do what and when, whilst referring to the original timeline and goal list, in order to delegate tasks to the appropriate team members.
Throughout the process of delegation, it is important to make change your team's default, as another reason firms fail during implementation is that they usually require changing people’s habits, which are notoriously sticky, and persistent. The main issue is that people are often unaware that they are doing things in a particular way, whereas in fact, there may well be alternate ways to complete the same process. Identifying and countering the bad habits that keep a strategy from getting executed is not an easy process, but there are various practices which can be built into an organisation to make it work. This could be achieved through triggering learning throughout the firm, reshuffling people into different units, or even identifying key processes and explicitly asking the question 'why do we do it this way?'
Once this, along with the alternate issues listed above are tackled, organisations should be able to put initiatives in place which are focussed and realisable, through an actionable process, undertaken in an orderly fashion. There are usually different ways of doing things, and there is scarcely one perfect solution, since all alternatives have advantages and disadvantages. However, the final decision should be agreed upon by the team as to what the final product should look like based on the goals set at the beginning. Once your strategy has been fully implemented, a process of evaluating how things went should commence. This should continue even if the objectives are not realised, as while failure is never the goal, an unsuccessful or flawed strategy implementation can prove a valuable learning experience for an organisation, so long as time is taken to understand what went wrong and why.