Here is an excerpt from an article written by Graham Kenny for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.
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In survey after survey, the execution of carefully developed strategy comes in as a key problem that evades solution by executives. They acknowledge that they can’t seem to get it right. It’s one thing to design a strategy in the boardroom and quite another to get it operating at all levels of the organisation.
Here’s an example involving an oil and gas company I’ll call Pacific. Their implementation issue started when the board and senior executive team flew to Hong Kong for a “strategy retreat.” Over the course of three days this group of six board members and eight executives listened to presentations, reviewed financials, and developed 26 “strategy statements.” They didn’t use a theoretical framework to come up with these statements, the details were simply thought out by the assembled group. Twelve months on and the needle on execution had barely moved. This was the second year in a row this had happened. The CEO decided it was time to do something – anything.
That’s when I was brought in as a strategy consultant. When I reviewed their “strategies” I could see that they used the word loosely – not that this is uncommon. They were really a mixture of nice-to-happen results, e.g. “become an operator of .…” and goals, e.g. “an engaged workforce ….”. But, in the main, the list was composed of descriptions of corporate-level programs, e.g. “enter into strategic alliances with .…”
The question was: how could Pacific move this material forward to make a genuine difference to business performance? Here are a few principles that guided me in the task of helping Pacific to answer it.
[Here are the first two.]
Narrow Your Focus
Pacific’s recurring nightmare on execution started with the number of strategy statements it had decided to implement. I could see from reviewing the 26 that they required much resources and considerable executive time. It would be a mammoth task.
I recalled a previous client’s experience. One of the senior managers at their strategy retreat said: “I don’t know why we do this. Each year we meet. We write all this stuff down and hardly any of it gets done.” I sensed a feeling of disillusionment and described this to the group as “setting yourselves up for failure.” I suggested, “better to aim for a few important things for the year and celebrate success when they’re achieved.”
So the first step to successful execution in Pacific’s case was to identify three of the 26 strategy statements that were most important to performance and focus on them. The remaining statements would be implemented over time, just not in the next 12 months.
Don’t try to achieve too much and set yourself up for failure. The more you try to achieve, the less you’ll accomplish.
Make the Statements Imperative
Each of the three chosen statements had to be translated into action. So one of the first things we did was to design an action-plan to capture the actions as they were developed in the subsequent workshops.
What’s an action? You might think it’s obvious – but no. “Action” is often confused with “activity.”
As I pointed out to the teams, an action starts with an imperative. “Train staff in the new customer relationship management system” is an action that I can assign to someone for completion by a certain date. By contrast, the use of a gerund like “training staff” denotes no more than an ongoing process. It’s not addressed to anyone.
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.