Strategy Implementation

in Strategy

Nine out of ten strategies fail to be implemented successfully. We are starting to understand the very important lesson that implementing strategy is harder than creating the right strategy from the study of success and failures of previous strategy implementations.

When we triumph over implementation it can become a blue ocean strategy - that is a competitive differentiation and while there are many tools and techniques for crafting strategy there are very few for implementing it. Rosabeth Moss Kanter put it very eloquently when she said: "Ethical standards and our ability to groom future leaders inevitably decline. That's why execution, or "making it happen," is so important. Execution is the un-idea; it means having the mental and organizational flexibility to put new business models into practice, even if they counter what you're currently doing. That ability is central to running a organization right now. So rather than chasing another new management fad, or expecting still another "magic bullet" to come along, organizations should focus on execution to effectively use the organizational tools we already have."

To further support Rosabeth Moss Kanter comment, consider the fact from Barons that only 15% of the 974 programs reviewed in Fiscal 2005 were rated effective.

In addition, from 1917 to 1987 only 39 of the original Forbes 100 survived and only two outperformed the market, GE and Eastman Kodak.

Many strategies are expected to deliver growth. This creates even more issues due to the "Growth Paradox". As businesses grow they create new and larger challenges which again emphasizes the need to be good at strategy implementation.

It is time to switch the focus from just crafting strategy to crafting and implementing it. If for no other reason, it is estimated that U.S. managers spend more than $10 billion annually on strategic analysis and strategy formulation. If 90% fail then that is a waste of $9 billion.
Strategy implementation is a relative new field that's genesis was the high failure rate and lack of a framework. The field is about 10 years old and the research on the subject is just being gathered. There has been various research:

1. Kaplan and Norton, the originators of the Balance Scorecard, published also that 90% of organizations fail to execute their strategies successfully.

2. In a study of 200 organizations in the Times 1000, 80% of directors said they had the right strategies but only 14% thought they were implementing them well, no doubt linked to the finding that despite 97% of directors having a 'strategic vision', only 33% reported achieving 'significant strategic success'. (Source: Why do only one third of UK organizations achieve strategic success?)

3. Harvard Business School teaches that at least 70% of all change initiatives fail.

4. A long term study by Newcastle University, (1973 - 1989) showed that business success is governed more by how well strategies are implemented than how good the strategy is to begin with.

5. The Economist Intelligence Unit reported that organizations realize only around 60% of their strategy's potential value because of failures in planning and execution.

With the pendulum now swinging away from leader's main responsibility of crafting the strategy to the recognition that they are also responsible also for its implementation and that can be even harder, there is a fast growing global interest in the field.

Strategy implementation is defined as the actions an organization takes today to deliver the strategy, tomorrow. The key word is "action". People in an organization are always taking action.

The critical question is, "Is it the right action?" Are the actions that their staff members are taking today driving the implementation forward? We know staff members are always busy and frequently have more work than they have hours in the day but strategy implementation is the collective individual actions taken every minute of every day by every staff member. If there are not enough of the right actions being taken then the strategy is heading for the graveyard.

"One of top management's biggest blind spots is the failure to recognize that any significant shift in strategy requires changes in day-to-day activities throughout the organization. Small shifts may require only minor changes. Significant shifts require significant changes-from subtle to sweeping-that can only be successful if implemented systematically. And people at all levels can either help or hinder the transition."

Executing Your Strategy, Morgan, Levitt & Malek

Leader's also have a fundamental responsibility to create the right conditions in the organizations. They must, for example, encourage the right people; clearly communicate the strategy objectives, create the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs); align the culture to the implementation; redesign processes, change the way staff members are reinforced to encourage the right behaviors and actions for the new strategy to be implemented and then review the strategy implementation every two weeks. This can be an overwhelming list but if it was easy to deliver the promises of a new strategy then nine out of ten implementations would not fail. And the pass mark is when the leaders deliver at least 50% of the objectives of the new strategy.

The leaders must identify what needs to be done and where to put the organization's focus.

Although it is not unheard of for two organizations to have the same strategy, for example number one in the industry or differentiate through customer service or leading product, each organization's implementation of the strategy is unique and the leader must first identify what needs to be done and then lead staff members to perform the required behaviors and actions. The leader's role is to translate the strategy in to daily actions that staff members can take. Strategy implementation is not the same as change management.

Change management is a systematic approach to dealing with change, both from the perspective of an organization and on the individual level. It is applied as the solution for running out a new sales program as it is for strategy. Strategy implementation is a specific approach which drives the right actions today to deliver tomorrow's strategy. The challenge is for leaders to stop doing what doesn't work.

Change management is flawed as a methodology for implementing strategy as the research is revealing. If we keep doing the same thing then no wonder we keep failing and the strategy fails! It is time to change the way we think about change. We must go beyond change management as we know it and focus on implementation.

Consider that 30 years ago management was about control and change management was designed as command and control. But business has dramatically changed. We have moved to empowerment and a teaming methodology. Many leaders use change management out of ignorance, as they are not aware of an alternative and end up taking the wrong the actions.

After crafting the strategy for the organization's future the leader's role is to ensure that staff members are set up for success in its implementation by being guided by the leadership on what actions to take. The problem on many occasions is that even the leaders do not know what the right actions to take are. In addition leaders often have the wrong mindset. Leaders often underestimate the implementation challenge and what is involved. They believe that once they have created a new strategy, the hardest part is over. Not true. The hardest part - implementation - is just beginning.

In the 10 per cent of organizations that successfully implement their strategies the leaders double the effort compared to what they had spent crafting it. In some cases, leaders are cognizant that implementation requires extra effort. In reality, however, very few are able to free up valuable time and resources to do justice to the implementation process. In other cases, leaders become so caught up in managing the day-to-day business that they lose sight of their goal to implement the new strategy and as such are taking the wrong actions.

The research in the field of strategy implementation started to become part of the mainstream awareness in 1999 when Fortune Magazine ran a front page on "Why CEO's Fail". The article, which has since been quoted on numerous occasions, explained that "organizations fail to successfully implement strategy not because of bad strategy but because of bad execution". This was one of the first times the field of implementation (execution and implementation are interchangeable), had received major exposure.

In 2002 Ram Charan followed up the article by co-authoring with Larry Bossidy Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, Crown Business, 2002. The book made execution a common word in business conversations. Since its publications there has been a greater focus on the topic by leaders and a handful of books and articles have followed on the same topic.

There is, however, still a vast gap of knowledge, techniques and tools in the field.

For much of the last 40 years the focus in business has been how to create the right strategy and quite rightly. It is the leader's responsibility to create strategy, it is what they are paid the big bucks for and it is critical to the success of the organization that they get it right. A plethora of tools and techniques have been created to assist in the strategy formulation. Hundreds and even thousands of books have been written on the topic and in every city, consultants are standing by to offer leaders their support and wisdom.

As a result we have improved at understanding strategy and how to create it. Although it is worth noting that even strategy is still being developed. Consider the simple fact that we do not have a globally common definition for the word "strategy".

There is a change in the wind. In the last ten years we have started to ask, "What happens after we create the strategy and why are there so many failed strategy implementations?" These questions are just starting to be asked because we are just discovering from the research that so many strategy implementations fail.

Instinctively most leaders know that implementation is tough and can recall at least one corporate wide implementation; they participated in, that failed. It is, however, only in the last few years that strategy implementation has started to become a recognized field in its own right. We are starting to understand that implementation fails not because we have the wrong strategy, in most cases, but because the challenge of implementing the strategy is tougher than most CEOs and leaders anticipate and they underestimate the whole challenge.

Professor Joseph Bowler of Business Administration at Harvard Business School recently said, "One of the criticisms we would have of some of our colleagues who have studied strategy (and some consultants who advice on strategy) is that they assume that once you design strategy it gets executed. They don't look inside the process and realize that it's much more complicated."

Author Box
Robin Speculand has 1 articles online

please visit

Add New Comment

Strategy Implementation

Log in or Create Account to post a comment.
Security Code: Captcha Image Change Image
This article was published on 2010/04/01