You’ve heard me say it before, and you’ll hear me say it again:
A strategy is only as good as the action it provokes.
It’s not an intellectual discipline, it’s a practical one. Aggressive, confident, coordinated implementation – that’s the actual product here. Indeed I sometimes think that rather than talking about “strategy” as this discrete thing, we should instead only talk about “strategic action”, since ultimately strategy divorced from action doesn’t make any sense at all. You shouldn’t “develop a strategy”; instead you should “develop a list of strategic actions” – with the actual “strategy” part being a mere subset of that larger process.
This may seem like common sense, but even so the fact remains that a great many strategies fail to make the leap from theory to successful implementation. There are various reasons for this, including:
- The strategy itself being a bit crap and hard to implement
- The leadership team being distracted by the issues of the day-to-day
- Implementation generally being less exciting and more laborious than strategy development
- Lack of accountability or ownership
- The general pain, fear, and expense associated with changing things
- …or likely a combination of such factors
Considering this I thought I’d pull together a little list of things you can do to try and negate these forces, and make forceful implementation as likely as possible.
1. COMMIT TO AN MVS (MINIMUM VIABLE STRATEGY)
With any strategy it’s possible to implement it to different levels of “intensity”. What links the greatest brands in the world is, I would say, extreme levels of commitment to their strategy – “overdelivery”, essentially. Being realistic however, most businesses aren’t going to achieve that. For them the goal should be more humble: just delivering the strategy at all.
A “minimum viable strategy” determines the actions that you simply must execute in order to be credibly pursuing the strategy. Any less, and you simply aren’t doing it. Any more, and it’s a bonus.
What you’ll find is that with any strategy there are a dozen things you could do, but probably only two or three things you have to do. Thus, you should start with them. What is the bare minimum you can get away with and still be credibly on strategy?
2. MAKE IT EVERYONE’S BUSINESS
There’s this tendency that exists in most businesses to isolate strategy among the senior leadership team. It’s “their thing”, while the rest of us are busy with actually running the business in the day to day.
Clearly this is nonsense. Strategy is the business of the day to day, as the day to day is where it happens. Thus you need to ensure that absolutely everyone internalises it, and knows what it means for them.
To make this happen you need to:
- Ensure that it’s articulated in the clearest “pub language” possible
- Write it out in Word document format so that it can be circulated without having to be “presented” all the time
- Schedule individual sessions with everyone to ask them what they think the strategy means for their role / department
If you don’t do this, you’re basically acting like a football coach who does all the thinking but then doesn’t bother drilling his team into a coordinated unit. Crazy right? But it happens.
3. CREATE A KILL LIST
Strategy execution will partially be a list of things you need to start doing, but it will also include some things you need to stop doing too. In all likelihood this will be the easier part of the process because you can simply “switch them off” without having to put in too much additional effort.
As a result you might want to begin with an explicit “kill list” of things which the business needs to stop doing today. This will give you an immediate sense of momentum and change, whilst also probably creating a bit of “space” to begin the additive part of the process.
Aside from being a necessary part of implementation it will show that you mean business, which ultimately is half the battle.
4. DON’T DELEGATE
Part of the problem with strategy implementation is that it’s incremental to the ordinary running of the business. You’re essentially giving people “extra work”, which, if it didn’t happen, probably wouldn’t cause any acute issues.
This is why it’s so easy to let it slide. All you’re really losing by not doing it are the potential gains the strategy will yield in the future – which of course at this point are all imaginary, so who cares?!
As a result the only thing will really provoke action in your team is good old fashioned fear: fear of you, as the boss. If you’re on top of this them they’ll be on top of it. But if you’re not, it will vanish into thin air, as that’s the way the incentives are structured.
Therefore you have to create a system – be it a weekly meeting chaired by you, whatever – whereby you keep the pressure on them to deliver. This is the only way to stop it dropping into the nether regions of the to-do list where tasks go to die.
5. GET AN EXTERNAL PERSPECTIVE TO KEEP YOU HONEST
The final danger you need to address is your own rationalisation and delusion. It’s super easy to kid yourself that you’re executing when you’re inside the business, but ultimately the true judge of execution can only ever be external.
Why? Because it’s only when a strategy can be perceived from outside the business that it will be able to get purchase in the market. After all money isn’t made by within the organisation; it’s made by what happens when the organisation meets the world at large.
This means you’d be well advised to get a disinterested external observer to tell you whether you’re executing, rather than trusting your own judgement (which, let’s face it, is probably over-generous).
The more the outside world can “read” your strategy merely by observing your business, the more it exists. And the more it exists, the more value it will deliver for you.
Can you think of any more?
I’d love to hear from you if you’ve experienced any implementation difficulties (or successes) which you think are particularly profound.
There is a whole art to strategic implementation which is totally separate from the core discipline of strategy itself – and it shouldn’t really be that way.
We need to knit the two together.