Executing Strategy — How to get your strategy understood and actioned.

October 13, 2022
5 min read
Photo by drmakete lab on Unsplash
”Without strategy, execution is aimless. Without execution, strategy is useless.”
— Morris Chang

True story, with changed names to preserve the innocent.

Clive was a new CEO with a big vision. He was going to take his one-hundred-year-old company and drag it, kicking and screaming, into the twenty-first century. 

His plan: heavy investment in a better, SaaSier mousetrap and a new business model to go with it. He and his company would take on the behemoth of the space: Bloomberg.

But Clive was increasingly frustrated. 

He saw the future. He had buy-in from the board. And most importantly, he had a great new product waiting in the wings. 

But he had no movement.

He couldn’t get from strategy to action. Every time he explained his vision and strategy to anyone outside of his inner circle, he would get reactions ranging from polite applause to bemused looks.

People carried on with the day-to-day business. No change.

Clive went on road shows. Clive used analogies to build excitement. He explained. He edicted. He cajoled.  But, no dice. The very literal culture he was speaking to was confused. Every time Clive tweaked his tale, his audience thought he had changed his mind and changed the strategy.

They were confused, and inertia settled in.

Clive’s problem isn’t a new one; it’s a common one.

People don’t know your strategy.

I get sent strategy decks all the time.

They are all the same. Dense PowerPoint with no wasted white space. An executive summary at the front that would have been better written in Word than on a PowerPoint slide. The words are shared: Purpose. Vision. Mission. Goals. Value(s). Principle(s). Digital, technology, and customer.

They are hard to read and more difficult to make sense of.

It’s no wonder, according to research by The Strategic Agility Project, that less than a third of executives and managers (28%) can list three of their company’s strategic priorities. 

Even at the top, teams are disjointed. It’s not uncommon to agree on a set of goals or even agree on PowerPoint on how to execute those goals. 

Strategy means change, and people don’t like it. They revert back to their center of gravity—to do what they did yesterday, to play it safe.

When the rubber of decision-making hits the road of real life, teams spin.

Would it not be a wonder if everyone understood the strategy? A holy grail if everyone worked towards it?

So why don’t they?

Your Vision, Mission, and Goals are a synonymous mess.

Throw in purpose, objective, and initiative, and you have a hexawhat of corporatese, a confusing cocktail of corporate jargon. Bureaucratic buzzwords immortalized on PowerPoint and passed from employee to employee. 

There is no simplicity, no clarity, no narrative.

This is part of the mystique of strategy and planning. The goal of all strategy is to have people execute on it, yet it’s the first hurdle that strategy falls over. People don’t understand it, they can’t remember it, they don’t buy into it, so they revert back to what they did yesterday.

It’s why Clive didn’t get traction.

Strategy, mission, vision, goals, and purpose are all connected. 

But how much effort do you put into connecting those dots—to translate strategy into something that people can clearly understand, remember, and act upon?

To connect those dots, you need to answer, for yourself and your team, the following questions.

Why are we doing this?

Where are we going?

What will we do?

How will we do it?

Why is the purpose. It gives us urgency and agency. It’s what motivates us and gets us energized and proud of our work.

Where is the vision. The clearer it is, the better it is. You want people to see themselves in that picture.

What is the mission. A why and a where give you a reason and something to move towards. The mission gives you specificity.

How is the strategy. All strategy is choice. Your strategy is a choice between left, right, and straight ahead. In making that choice, you begin to specify what you will not be doing.

Execution validates strategy.

This truism is a favorite of Rose Fass, author of the Leadership Conversation..

If people aren’t executing your strategy, culture and its cousin inertia have won. Your strategy rots on a set of PowerPoint slides. 

There are four increasingly difficult tests for a strategy on the path to execution.

First, can people repeat it? You’re not looking for a verbatim repetition. You’re looking for people that can get up and tell the story throughout all levels of the organization. Just as everyone in the organization can repeat a joke or tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Each telling might be different, but the tenets and the punchline is the same.

Second, is the strategy translated through every level of the organization? Are people taking the strategic narrative and do they know how their work executes on the strategy? Do you see yourself as part of that future?

The third test: do people have “other work” — a day job before they can get to the strategy? If they do, your strategy has failed. Strategy is a choice. Strategy means sacrificing. It’s equally important to stop doing things as it is to start doing things. This means everything people are doing is, in some way, executing the strategy.

Finally, the fourth test. Is the work of your colleagues and other teams helping to execute the strategy? Is their work complementing and intersecting with yours?

Taken together, these four tests increase the likelihood of execution. Execution validates strategy.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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