The rapid pace of change in technology demands that organizations be prepared to steer new markets, unexpected market changes, competitor moves, and new customer demands. We all heard of the advent of Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain, Quantum Computing and Bioengineering. These changes, though disruptive, also offer organizations enormous possibilities to improve their products, services, and operations.
In 2017, Brightline Initiative sponsored a research project with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) to understand why many organizations fail to transform strategies into results. We undertook a global multi-sector survey with 500 senior executives from companies with annual revenues of $1 billion or more. The results show that, among the main factors, organizations face challenges dealing with cultural attitudes, poorly managed resources, and insufficient agility.
As a result, many organizations fail to meet their strategic targets, as confirmed by a recent global survey conducted by Harvard Business Review–Analytic Services (HBR-AS). We surveyed over 1,600 executives worldwide, and we found that only one-fifth of organizations achieve 80% or more of their strategic targets. The rest fail to transform their strategic goals into reality.
Sustainable growth depends on delivering the right strategies the right way. Yet this is something that organizations appear ill-equipped to do. Our work at the Brightline Initiative is examining what causes the gap between strategy and implementation and how it can be closed. Our research suggests that business leaders need to follow ten guiding principles to be more effective at delivering their strategies:
- Acknowledge that strategy delivery is just as important as strategy design.
Be aware that strategy delivery doesn’t just happen automatically once it is designed! As senior leaders, we invest substantial resources, creative time, and energy in designing the right strategy. Now we need to give equal priority and attention to delivering it—before we move on to something else. At Steelcase, for example, senior leaders encourage employees to champion new strategies, and to get on the same page by promoting team engagement. They have what they call “Strategy Jam”—more than 3,000 employees around the world participating in a 32-hour, around- the-clock, live conversation about strategy, asking probing questions and offering opinions. “With the Strategy Jam, we were able to help employees see how their role supports this broader strategy of growth,” said Thomas Cook, Director of Strategy and Corporate Development.
- Accept that you’re accountable for delivering the strategy you designed.
Let’s not underestimate entropy! According to the Economist Intelligence Unit 2017 Global Survey in partnership with Brightline Initiative, 63% of senior executives admit that implementation is not seen as a strategic task, despite its crucial contribution to organizational success. 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. As leaders, we 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.
- Dedicate and mobilize the right resources.
Inspire and assign the right people to get the job done! We need to actively and constantly balance running the business with changing the business by selecting and securing the right resources for each: initiatives to run vs. change the business have different needs. The biggest challenge facing Sightsavers, an international non-governmental organization dedicated to preventing avoidable blindness, was uniting a wide range of partners with varying mandates and vested interests. “The early part of the work was trying to get these partners to sit together,” said Simon Bush, Director of Neglected Tropical Diseases at Sightsavers.
- Leverage insight on customers and competitors.
Don’t forget to look outside! Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a century-old agro giant facing global competition, smaller profit margins and a more tech-savvy consumer, started its transformation by monitoring the landscape for key market trends and gathering new insights from its ever-evolving business environment. Advantage in the market flows to those who excel at gaining new insights from an ever-changing business environment and respond quickly with the right decisions and adjustments to both strategy design and delivery.
- Be bold, stay focused, and keep it as simple as possible.
Be bold, but keep strategy simple. Many of the delivery challenges you will face will be complex and interdependent. 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. To stay focused and keep things as simple as possible, Steelcase divides its strategic initiatives into three main categories: Now—projects that are closest to the core business and demand immediate attention; Near—near-term initiatives that require building internal capabilities to respond to market shifts; and Far—investments in future projects with long-term shelf lives.
- Promote team engagement and effective cross-business cooperation.
Beware of the “frozen middle!” We need to govern through transparency to engender trust and enhance cross-business cooperation in delivery. A recent global survey conducted by Harvard Business Review–Analytic Services, sponsored by Brightline, indicated that leading organizations place a paramount focus on organizational agility and bring cross-functional teams to the forefront when needed. At Saudi Telecom Company (STC), the key to successful strategy implementation is a strong foundation based on three elements: executive buy-in, stakeholder accountability, and clear communication. “It’s really important for different groups to understand the role they play in achieving the company’s vision, and how their role contributes to the greater success of the company,” said Mohammed Alabbadi, Vice President of Strategy Execution and Corporate Affairs.
- 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. For example, Gail McGovern, President and CEO of the American Red Cross, says that when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston in the summer of 2017, the Red Cross loaded its volunteers onto Houston City dump trucks to help ferry residents to shelters. “That was quite a risk,” she said. “But when you’re in the business of disaster, you need to be able to constantly make fast decisions.”
- 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. According to the HBR-AS Research Report, the number one barrier to successful strategy implementation is “too many strategic and/or change initiatives at one time.”
- Develop robust plans but allow for missteps—fail fast to learn fast.
Proper planning and preparation prevent poor performance! 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. At ING Group, employees are trained to adapt execution, but even the best-trained employees can experience failure. “Some of our most ambitious programs have had to change course in the last 12 months,” said Dina Matta, Head of the Global Transformation Office. “In an extreme case, we may need to stop a program and do something else, or fundamentally change our approach to strategy execution.”
- Celebrate success and recognize those who have done good work.
Inspiring people is part of your job! As a leader, you have to drive accountability and focus on delivery, but you also need to motivate those who do the work. 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. “We’ve always recognized when someone writes a paper that gets published in The Lancet,” said Carlos Carrazana, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Save the Children. “But now we’re actually recognizing
our employees’ ability to help others within the organization deal with change in a positive way.”
Follow these 10 guiding principles to help successfully conduct transformations and implement strategies in your organization.