You have initiated a strategic review……having carefully crafted and lovingly prepared the document, used a raft of strategic planning tools and held a series of well-attended workshops with your top team. So what can possibly go wrong with your shiny new strategy?
But eighteen months later, when you dust down the document during the mid-term review, everyone wonders why the strategy has stalled, morale has dipped and confidence is on the slide. In short, it is likely to be because not an awful lot has changed. But don’t worry you are not alone – the statistics are as stark as they are revealing. Believe it or not, around 70% of mid-market organisations struggle to implement their strategies. So why do these strategies stall so often?

The simple truth is that the strategy is just the beginning of a journey and not an end in itself. It has to be translated into results. If you want to make sure that your strategy doesn’t stumble, then what are the 6 key questions that you need to check out before you start the journey?

Is the strategy built on firm foundations?
Firstly like any journey, you have to start from the right place. This can only be done by drawing a stake in the ground and asking the market the right questions.

So many strategic reviews start off with “well we know the answer to this; or we know the answer to that.” Well do we, and on what basis? We think we are clever and knowledgeable but actually we are just being complacent and have not defined what it is that we really need to know.

A strategy has to be built on a firm foundation and you have to start from the right place – which invariably translates into capturing evidence based information.

Can we join up the dots?
In many companies there are well practiced methods to disseminate information and cascade goals downward. But the systems for managing horizontal performance commitments are less well-honed and lack effectiveness.

It is all so very good introducing MBO’s (Management by Objectives) or Balanced Scorecards (see Norton & Kaplan) but all the best practices in the world and the most careful alignment does not account for a lack of co-ordination across functions. Given the hierarchical approach in many companies and a top down/bottom up loyalty system, the conditions are always ripe for an infectious silo mentality. But any silo, by its very nature, is unlikely to operate effectively with other units or functions. If different departments don’t fully co-operate with other departments and merely follow their own agendas, and pursue their own objectives, then you are likely to join the 7 out of 10 who fail.

Greater structure in the processes to co-ordinate activities across units is required – a classic case of ensuring that nation shall speak unto nation and joining up the dots.

How do we define the best form of attack?
In today’s changing marketplace and in particular with so many disruptive strategies in play, sticking too closely to the plan can be a bad thing. Deviation is often a necessity and no longer to be frowned upon. Agility, not slavish adherence to the status quo, is the new reality.

No plan is so good that it can anticipate every eventuality and likewise there is no plan so good that it can’t be changed. There is a wonderful saying that no gantt chart has ever survived contact with reality. Using the modern term, companies should “pivot” to take advantage of new opportunities – always providing that they contribute to the achievement of the defined strategic goals.

Executing a strategy does in fact mean seizing opportunities and introducing creative solutions, rather than sticking resolutely to the script over a 3-5 year span.

Is experimentation encouraged?
Given that agility is the new reality, is there a culture of openness and transparency? A “play it safe” culture will inevitably result in managers forecasting and settling for easier goals and focusing on low hanging fruit rather than tackling more stretching targets.

If managers are not able to try new things and flirt with failure without the fear of witchhunts; then their approach will result in an attempt to tinker with existing strategies rather than considering the bigger picture. This attitude will also have the malign effect of dramatically increasing the likelihood of less cross-functional collaboration.

Does everyone understand the strategy?
There is a view that many strategies fail because they are not communicated fully around the business. This is a pernicious myth – most strategic plans are communicated energetically around the business through normal channels. Many of the messages are repeated time and again. The mantra goes up “we have a plan.” But any communication often ends up as Chinese whisper and does so does anyone really follow the strategy? No, not really. This is because there is a view that communication is all. This is not so – the key is about understanding.

Awareness and understanding are two very different things and if people don’t fully understand the plan then there is little hope that it will be successful.

Can the strategy be executed bottom up – rather than top down?
Top down execution of a strategy has many drawbacks – not least the likelihood of it unravelling after any senior personnel changes. If the senior management indulge in hero management and make all the decisions themselves then they diminish their decision making skills, crush initiative and deny ownership.

It is therefore important to have champions, who can be relied upon to be evangelists for the cause and are fully versed in the strategy, at all levels of the organisation.

In addition, a solution culture is critical to the achievement of a strategic plan. This involves the eradication of a “denial of decision making” culture whereby middle managers and more junior people escalate conflicts as problems and do not propose solutions.

The pitfalls of micro-management are there for all to see and re-enforces the point that execution of the strategy should be guided from the top – but ideally not driven.

So, if you are sure that you can cover off all these points then you can be confident that you can join the chosen few and complete the whole journey by converting strategy into results.

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