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Getting practical about strategy

The value of a strategy is in its execution, not its planning. It may seem obvious, but many organizations struggle to shift from the planning phase to the implementation phase.


Why is it difficult to move from planning to implementation?


Planning feels like doing.

It is easier to plan than it is to do. Doing requires us to change direction and get into the zone of discomfort. As Ed O'Malley and Julie Fabris McBride note in When Everyone Leads, "Real progress on the toughest challenges facing your company or community requires more people looking at the gap [the space between the present and the future], voicing concerns and aspirations, balancing pragmatism an idealism." It is deeply uncomfortable and often just easier to avoid. Still, as Heifetz et al. have explained, change only happens if you can keep people uncomfortable enough to want to change.

Or, as Oliver Burkeman has noted, we procrastinate because it is less painful than actually doing the work. Strategy is like this. It gives us an excuse to keep planning to analyze and identify challenges without changing anything. It is seductive because it provides a sense of productivity without accomplishing anything or requiring us to implement difficult decisions.


There must be a right answer, the perfectionist trap.

I've been guilty of making strategy processes more complicated than they need to be. I've created processes that try to solve future problems rather than creating the space for future adaptation. It is a mistake because the future is unpredictable, and we can only sometimes know what problems we'll need to solve. An involved strategy process might seem like a good idea, useful for producing additional information and detailed analysis, but the result is always stagnation. If you aren't taking action, you aren't learning, no matter how much research you do.

Instead, make your strategy about doing, not planning.

An object in motion tends to stay in motion. Newton's first law. It applies to organizations as well. It is much easier to make progress and to change course once you've started than it is to try and plan for all possible outcomes.


I saw this recently with one client. We discussed changes they needed to make to their organization, the strategy for dealing with the individuals involved, and the required roles. Eventually, we agree to try something – in this case, writing it all down. They started progressing and seeing different solutions and ideas when we made the exercise tangible – not a big complex document. We moved from trying to devise a plan to do – planning out the conversations and ideas to test to make progress.

What matters is taking action. Planning for every eventuality is impossible, so sometimes you need to get moving and see what happens. The story of Hungarian soldiers lost in the Alps in World War 1 brings this idea home vividly. As they stumbled in the snow, lost and without clear direction, one soldier remembered they had a map in their pocket. Using this map, the soldiers navigated their way back to base. Only after they returned did they discover it wasn't a map of the Alps. As related by strategy theorists, the moral is that you must try things to find your direction.

With another client, they've been very focused on their vision and wider company purpose for the last year, and they've become a bit stuck. In the process of unsticking, we've worked on getting a practical understanding of what good looks like in their different business areas and what measures – ideally leading metrics – of success will look like. So while a good strategy matters, finding ways to implement and take action on your strategy is far more important.

How can you make a strategy into an actionable activity?

Making strategy actionable can be simple. In fact, the simpler it is, the better. Looking across my work, what I see working in making strategies actionable is the following:


Don't make your strategy too big.

Break strategy into smaller manageable chunks, avoid coming up with a ten-year vision, and focus on a timeframe people can grasp and work backwards. Ask yourself what needs to be true by when for us to have achieved your goal, and keep doing this until you get to the actions you need to take today.


Agree on leading and lagging indicators for your strategy.

We might care about profitability and turnover, but these are lagging indicators. You only know you've met your goal once you've achieved it. So, incorporate leading indicators that you can use to hold you and your team to account for what you need to achieve to deliver your objective. This might be the number of calls you need to make or key trigger points when taking a different action.

Trust the experts in each area to build their strategy.

Unless it is a very small company, you are likely not the expert in every area of your organization. Give your exerts the responsibility of identifying what works for them and hold them to account for this. Don't try and overanalyze.


Build it into your daily and weekly process.

Strategy is often a once-and-done activity, updated yearly at best. That doesn't work, build the conversation on strategy into the day-to-day – what are you talking about, where are you making progress, and what needs to change?


Be bold in changing course.

No plan survives first contact with the enemy. How often do you hear this? How often do you apply this? We need to be willing to change. Expect that you will change, and it will become easier to do. Also, the less time you invest in getting the strategy right, the less invested you will be.


Ultimately, all organizations need a plan and vision - people need to align behind a direction of travel. They are unifying purposes for a group of people. But we need to be more strategic about where we invest our time. Trying to get lots of documents and information written down and thought out in advance is a disaster when it comes to really making progress. Be clear on the direction, agree on what success looks like and what will help you know you are making progress and then don't overanalyze.

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