The fundamentals of strategy.

How well are you set up to execute?

It’s rare for leaders to go back to a previous strategy document and take a serious look at how well it fared, but invariably it’s instructive.

I recently revisited a client I’d worked with in early 2019, and as I walked towards the very same meeting room we’d used back then, I remembered one of our first sessions together. It had been just me and the CEO, and we’d walked back through their strategy from three or four years prior, and I remember asking about one big initiative in the document that had a huge growth forecast against it.

“Ah yes,” he’d reflected, “we had high hopes for that, but it didn’t really lead anywhere”. When I’d asked what had happened, he wasn’t exactly sure: “I remember there was some squabbling about who should run it and how it should be delivered, and then I think once the lead guy left it never got going again. I think it just got lost in the works after that if I’m honest.”

And thus, a great idea had died, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

It had fallen afoul of the three biggest pitfalls of delivery: lack of clarity, loss of accountability, and low visibility. So, there and then we agreed, that when we came towards the end of the strategy process this time around, we would set up a formal programme management structure. And we did.

When the time came, we agreed an owner for each Big Idea and a process for managing them – some as planned programmes, some as agile initiatives, some much more speculative and exploratory. But for all of them, right up front, we made sure that we got the clarity, accountability and visibility well and truly nailed. Specifically:

Clarity: each programme was absolutely clear on two things: “purpose” and “lead measure”. Some had detailed plans, other just had KPIs and measures of success, but all of them had that clarity of purpose and the single headline measure that would be their North Star for the duration.

Accountability: each idea was formally owned by someone around the executive table. It was written into their performance goals on an equal weighting with their day job, and yes, that went right through to incentives and bonuses. If the owner left, the CEO would be personally accountable for it until he passed it to someone else, formally incorporating it into their goals instead.

Visibility: the CEO brought in a Programme Manger with a dual brief: to coach people on project management, and to pull together, every month, a summary of their objective view of where each project was, both in terms of progress versus plan, and delivering on the lead measure. Every month the exec team went through his report, line by line, and took actions – whether recognising success, stepping in to assist, reallocating people or resources, or pulling the plug entirely.

And this time around, as I entered the room, he was already there with his copy of the strategy we’d developed, open on the table and covered with post-it notes. He took me through every project we’d started – what had worked, what had crashed and burned, what had changed along the way, and what had outperformed all expectations.

I already knew from the emails we’d exchanged that they’d had an impressive three years and grown even through the pandemic, so a selfish part of me was probably looking for that little bit of praise and validation. But another part of me was also genuinely curious to find out what had really made the difference, and what he had learned from the experience. So I waited until he’d finished, then asked.

“One word,” he said, “Visibility.”

“Some of the stuff did lose clarity along the way. Stuff changes, goals change, we’ve had a lot of change in the last two years. And a couple of people changed too. But having that visibility, sticking to that monthly call, going through every project, and making proper decisions, that was transformational for us. We still do it, you know. Every month.”

And yes, I’ll admit, I felt that little glow of validation.

You see, here’s the thing: I help a lot of organisations develop strategies. They take work, and thought, and creativity, and passion. But without great execution they’re all just words on a page.

So, let me ask you: how well are you set up to execute your strategy?