Without execution, ‘vision’ is just another word for hallucination ~ Mark V. Hurd (CEO – Oracle)

Eureka! After much contemplation and long hours spent in a high-level strategic meeting, you finally come up with a strategy that you think is an absolute killer. You believe you’ve finally got a formula that is not only going to beat the hell out of your thriving competition but will also stabilize your organization’s descending financial scores.

After reaching a decisive point, you enthusiastically conclude the ‘super-successful’ meeting and thank other participants for their contribution in placing all the puzzles in the right order. You’re glad as the hardest part of conceptualizing a strategy is done and now others will take care of the execution phase right? Wrong!

Mckinsey’s research reveals that as much as 70% of the overall change efforts fail in achieving the desired results. 9 out of 10 strategies fail in implementation, cites Robin Speculand, a research in his book Beyond Strategy. Moreover, a research conducted by The Economist, reveals that while 88% of the respondents acknowledged the importance of strategy execution, 61% of them find their organizations struggling to make proper execution.

The execution phase perhaps received its worthy importance after when Fortune Magazine published an article Why CEOs Fail written by Ram Charan and Geoffrey Colvin. The article highlights the importance of execution and reveals that it’s not the vision that fails but poor execution.

Numerous organizations articulate impeccable strategies and introduce great visions every year and yet despite showing great concern and emphasis over them, they terribly fail in getting well-executed.

Being a trainer myself, I have been asked this question by literally hundreds of executives so far that why their flawless strategy couldn’t survive beyond papers? After researching and reading a lot about it, I have come up with a list of underlying reasons that perhaps are the killer of your successful strategy execution and also handful suggestions what you can do about it. Let’s just look at what strategy execution is:

Strategy Execution (or Implementation):

Strategy execution is the phase in which collaborative measures in the right direction are taken by a team or staff members to successfully deliver a conceived strategy.

Although it must have sounded pretty basic to you but trust me many of the leaders fail in sticking to this basic definition. If we convert this definition into an equation, it will be:

Collaboration + Right Measures = Strategy Execution


Most of the time, we either forget to work collaboratively or don’t take measures in the right direction and as a result, we never get our strategy implemented successfully.

Key Points Regarding Execution:

Recently while reading a book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Ram Charan & Larry Bossidy, I came to know 3 crucial points that should be kept in mind regarding execution:

  • Execution is a discipline. Thus, an integral part of the strategy (equally important to crafting a strategy)
  • Execution is the primary job of a manager/leader which cannot be dedicated (after all, leaders are primarily judged by the results)
  • Execution should deeply be ingrained into the organization’s culture (people should be held accountable and valued for what they do to drive the execution process ahead)

Reasons to Why Execution Fails:

There are a great many enemies that conspire against the successful execution of strategy. Let me briefly pen down major reasons that fail your strategy (first 8 have been taken from the aforementioned book of Robin Speculand, Beyond Strategy):

  1. People (Employees are not properly engaged)
  2. Biz Case (organization & staff members are not sensing the urgency to adopt the new strategy)
  3. Communication (ineffective and incoherent communication)
  4. Measurement (the direction is not properly measured and performance is not tracked)
  5. Culture (Organizational values don’t support the change)
  6. Process (Processes and/or systems have been updated to support the strategy and overloaded with unnecessary tasks)
  7. Reinforcement (Neither people are encouraged to take right actions nor well performers & ‘heroes’ are properly recognized)
  8. Review (Execution process is not being timely reviewed)
  9. Authority (People are given responsibilities without authority to make timely decisions)
  10. Information Flow (Information flow has been hindered or manipulated)

1. People

“Change doesn’t come from a slogan or a speech. It happens because you put the right people in place to make it happen” – Jack Welch

It’s people (more specifically, your subordinates) who implement strategies. If they aren’t skilled and/or motivated, you cannot move any further. In fact, your growth will become stagnant if not moving backward.

Before you dedicate responsibilities over their shoulders for the new strategy, they must know why they are being given those responsibilities, what new strategy is and why it matters. In order to make them relate to the new strategy, you must first have the answers to following questions:

  1. Do you have the right set of people who possess both, skills & knowledge to execute the strategy?
  2. Are they motivated enough to do so?

As suggested by the author, you must sell your strategy to them in order to get maximized engagement from them. You must consider them your strategy customers. Making them your strategy customers means that they should be given the same care and persuasion you give to your clients and customers while making a deal. They should not forcefully be given additional burden on their shoulders as they think they’re already carrying enough. You must help them relate how does this strategy impact them personally and professionally? what impact does this strategy have on their department’s progress? what they should change in them or learn (such as new skills) for successful execution and what they should do differently every day to meet the objectives.

Four Groups of People

Just like many other thought-leaders, Robin Speculand divided the organization workers into 4 categories:

  1. Mavericks (20% of the people in your organization who embrace change and play a positive role in implementation)
  2. Groupies (the middle 60% of the work members, who neither support or oppose implementation and go with the flow)
  3. Saboteurs (the bottom 20% who wish to block the implementation and resist change)
  4. Double Agents (Among the saboteurs, reside double agents who initially oppose the implementation process but when they find the management serious about the change, they become strong supporters)

 Focus on Mavericks

For the strategy to gain the initial momentum and seriousness, it is important for a leader to focus on mavericks and reward them for their positivity. Mavericks when encouraged, not only work diligently but also provide with important feedbacks as how can the execution process be improved further. They also positively influence the groupies which create a critical mass.

It is important, not to waste time and efforts to please saboteurs, you cannot please everyone at the same time.

Identify New Skills & Attitudes Needed

A leader should continuously identify new skills, attitudes and behaviors required in his team to ensure successful execution. Many leaders don’t holistically view their team and thus, fail in identifying the essential elements missing in them. When failure occurs they start to blame them afterwards.

2. Biz Case

“To spark an epidemic, ideas must be memorable and move us to action.” – Malcolm Gladwell

Despite developing the right strategy that fits the company’s needs, leaders fail in developing a sense of urgency among his peers. In simple words, leaders fail to make their people realize why there’s a need to change now.

In order to generate a sense of urgency, you should have the answers to the following questions:

  • What do you need to develop a sense of urgency among your staff members?
  • Do employees know why is a new strategy needed?
  • What is the story behind the strategy?
  • What numbers will articulate the need for a new strategy, both financial and non-financial (e.g., customer satisfaction rate, turnaround time and on time delivery)?
  • What are the supporting arguments for selecting these numbers?
  • What’s in it for the staff members?
  • What is expected from the people?

It is important to note that the biz case doesn’t explain the strategy, communication does. Biz case specifically answers why there’s a need to adopt a new strategy. When leaders fail to present the biz case properly, the rejection rate among employees across the organization gets higher. If the people aren’t aware of the reason behind the change, it’s rare for them to change their actions.

To present a successful biz case a leader must:

  • Be Crystal Clear

In the light of the aforementioned questions, a leader is required to propagate the importance of the strategy in a clear and apprehensible manner to his staff members. They must fully understand the strategy and its implications before they are expected to deliver it.

  • Brand the Strategy

When explaining the strategy, it is essential to brand it and make it catchy to the employees (as we do it for customers). No matter how complicated the strategy, it should be translated into easy to understand format.

To do this, a leader must identify the core messages ideally one or not more than four and then translate them into images and catchy taglines. The launch of the strategy should be aligned with the culture of that organization.

3. Communication

“The art of communication is the language of leadership.” – James C. Humes

Almost every leader admits the importance of communication in business strategy but a very few of them properly communicate the essentialities of a strategy to their people. Many leaders don’t realize that strategies are designed at the top but implemented from the bottom and communication is the only bridge that links the two. Leaders today falsely believe that communication for the strategy is just about making people aware of what strategy is, it’s about letting your people know what they should exactly do for the successful execution.

Following are the critical questions that a leader must answer to ensure effective communication:

  1. Do all your staff know what the new strategy is and why it has been adopted?
  2. Is the strategy communicated in a way that it comes alive?
  3. Do you provide ongoing communication?
  4. Do they know what they should do to assist strategy implementation?

To get these questions answered, a leader must:

  1. Become the Voice of the Strategy
  2. Create a Sticky Strategy Message by Adopting SUCCESS Model
  3. Ensure that the Communication is Consistent & Coherent
  4. Balance Between New & Traditional Media

a) Become the Voice of the Strategy

As stated earlier, the objective of your communication is not just to ensure that everyone knows about the strategy but they must also know what they should do to implement it. A leader should seize every opportunity to explain the strategy and once it’s understood to the people, he should start sharing the progress with the people.

As suggested by the author, a leader should not restrict himself to traditional mode of communication such as meetings or emails. He should go beyond these two modes and may use the following medium to trumpet the strategy depending upon the scope of your strategy:

  • Print newsletters
  • Celebrate heroes (as suggested under the heading of People)
  • Mention the topic at the start of every meeting regarding the strategy for at least 3 months
  • Engendering a hologram of the strategy
  • Giving away tokens that symbolize the strategy (for example if it is regarding on-time delivery, everyone can be given a watch)
  • Attend divisional off-sites
  • Create an online blog or discussion forum to discuss the strategy with staff members
  • Go out for lunch and/or hosting roundtable discussions on strategy and its implementation to talk about what he wants his people to do differently.

Remember, there’s no right combination among the aforementioned ideas which a leader can use to communicate his strategy clearly, he has to be a better judge on his own depending on the level of strategy he wants to be thoroughly communicated.

b) Create a Sticky Strategy Message by Adopting SUCCESS Model

Perhaps this should be discussed before the previous point because of its importance. Anyway, creating a sticky message means creating a message for your people that is easy to understand and they remember at least a part of it to have an impact on their way of thinking and behavior.

As cited by the author; Hollywood director (of Pretty Woman) Garry Marshall once told:

Film directors know that if people walk out of your movie repeating a phrase they heard, that movie will make money. It means audience members are taking the movie home with them. They are talking about it around the office water-cooler and to their friends; which means they’re serving as free word-of-mouth advertisers for you.1

Similarly, when your message clearly sticks to their mind, chances are there that it will impact their behavior positively and they will be more engaged under your influence.

The sticky message can be created using SUCCESS Model conceptualized by Chip Heath, Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.2 SUCCESS Model consists of six rudimentary traits:

  • (S)implicity – Messages are memorable when they are brief and deep
  • (U)nexpectedness – Parts that are obvious to common sense don’t stick, look for the unobvious part of your speech as it generates interest and brings forth curiosity.
  • (C)oncreteness – Concrete images aligned with the message should be used to grab the attention of the audience
  • (C)redibility – Develop a buy-in among audience by asking questions about their experience and relate them
  • (E)motions – Use case studies that involve people this will help you move them
  • (S)tories – Tell tales to assist people in understanding what they are required to do

c) Ensure that the Communication is Consistent & Coherent

After the initial strategy announcements and fanfare, communication often dilutes, lose unstructured and become unplanned. A leader must ensure coherence and structure in communication consistently. The communication should not only be restricted till the progress of implementation but also about the successes, feedback, and what’s going to happen next should also be discussed with the staff members.

d) Balance Between New & Traditional Media

It’s important to understand what media is more accessible to the staff members traditional or new. For example, if the employees are mostly working together within the office premises, the traditional communication media such as emails or face-to-face communication should be used.  But if employees use modern media to stay connected as well, you can leverage web 2.0, social media and microblog sites should to engage them regarding strategy execution. The balance between new & traditional media totally depends what type your employees mostly prefer.

4. Measurement

“Measurement is fabulous. Unless you’re busy measuring what’s easy to measure as opposed to what’s important” – Seth Godin

Soon as you get your people involved and the communication starts to flow in the right direction; a leader’s job is to identify the right measures to track performance. To do this, a leader must have answers to the following questions:

  1. Do we need to identify new measures to track the performance?
  2. If yes, have the new measures been identified?
  3. Are the leaders and managers adopting the new measures in their day-to-day operations?
  4. Do these measures drive the right behaviors and actions?

Following are the steps a leader must take to ensure performance is being gauged properly:

  1. Alter the Measures if Necessary
  2. Control the Complexity of New Measures

1. Alter the Measures if Necessary

This is irony, most of the leaders do not revise their measures after updating their strategies and thus, their obsolete measures fail in gauging the right performance. You need to identify the right performance indicators to rightly review the progress towards strategy execution. A leader’s role in this is to help develop and lead the right strategy map and balanced-score card to show everyone that their performance is being evaluated and management is serious about it.

It is important to keep in mind that the measures are the drivers that govern behaviors. A leader must ensure that the new and modified measures are supporting the strategy implementation and if not there’s an immediate need to alter the measures.

2. Control the Complexity of New Measures

Adopted measures should also be periodically under review and if one or more adopted measures cause trouble, consider modifying it or adopting alternative measures. Measures should not be so complicated that your staff members cannot understand that.

5. Culture

You can have all the right strategy in the world; if you don’t have the right culture, you’re dead” – Patrick Whitesell

Culture in an organization can be defined as the way we do everything; from the style of meetings to attitudes & behaviors of the employees to their dress code preferred in the organization. As a leader, you must change the day-to-day activities of your staff members and foster a culture that supports and embraces change. In order to develop a culture that supports your strategy, these questions should be in your consideration:

  1. How well your existing culture supports your newly formulated strategy?
  2. How prepared does your organization seem to adopt the new strategy under existing strategy?
  3. Is there any fundamental change you need to bring in the organization’s culture to encourage the new strategy (such as leadership style, way of discussions etc.)?

Following are the measures, you should take to mold the existing culture and make it encouraging for your new strategy:

  1. Understand the Existing Culture
  2. Change the Culture

1. Understand the Existing Culture

Before you step-up and decide to alter your existing culture, you must first carefully examine your current culture. It is important to identify those elements that already encourage the change. According to the author, one way to understand the organizational culture is to ask “Who are the heroes and what stories do people tell about them?” similar questions such as these, will help you identify what kind of values do your organization believe in, what kind of people, activities, and achievements it celebrates. You need to understand your existing culture at the core of it to identify friendly and contradictory elements in it.

2. Change the Culture

Once you have understood your existing culture, you must have the answers to the following questions:

  • What behaviors & actions should staff members adopt?
  • What elements of the culture must change that hinders execution and change?
  • What sort of support is required to encourage these elements? (Such as to get fast and responsive database, new technology is required)
  • What behaviors should leadership adopt first in order to encourage the required behaviors in staff members?

Changes should be made keeping these aforementioned questions in view, and it is important to remember that culture is forever evolving and dynamic.

6. Process

“Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all” – Peter Drucker

It is one of the key reasons why strategies fizzle out. When what you say and what you do mismatch, failure is inevitable. It important that old ways, systems, structures, and processes should be altered accordingly if you expect different results. To get the processes aligned with the strategy, these questions should be well kept in mind:

  1. Do the existing processes support the new strategy?
  2. If not, is the organization prepared to redesign the existing processes?
  3. How well are you informed about the processes that are needed to be redesigned?

Following are the steps that a leader should take to get the organization’s processes aligned with the conceived strategy:

  1. Remove Non-Value Adding Tasks
  2. Adopt Best Practices from Previous Initiatives

1. Remove Non-Value Adding Tasks

As per an estimation, one-third of a typical process is non-value-adding in medium and large organizations. Which means that employees in organizations waste at least 33% of their day doing non-essential tasks. The new strategy implementation also brings great opportunity to redesign the process and eliminate non-valued tasks. Therefore, key process redesign not only essential at this stage but also relatively easy to do it.

2. Adopt Best Practices from Previous Initiatives

To better enhance the processes, a leader can look for the initiatives and redesign efforts taken previously that improved the overall process quality. Analysis of the past initiatives will also provide you with the opportunity to identify where failures in the past occur.

7. Reinforcement

Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence” – Sheryl Sandberg

Right measurement systems, right KPIs and right people in place but still companies fail in getting the right behavior and actions from the people demonstrated. Why? because their reinforcement system is not aligned with the desired outcomes. To attract the right behaviors and actions from your staff you should design proper rewards, recognition and penalty system. However, it is a highly sensitive issue as any loophole in this system can be the cause of downfall of the entire execution process. To design a proper reinforcement system, a few questions should be in a leader’s mind:

  1. When staff members demonstrate right actions and behaviors, are they properly recognized and rewarded?
  2. Does the reinforcement system continuously encourage them to demonstrate right behaviors and actions?
  3. Are leaders supporting and encouraging performers by being visible and leading by example?

Following are the measures you can take design effective reinforcement system:

  1. Review Rewards & Recognition
  2. Review the Organization’s Competencies
  3. Align Measures

1. Review Rewards & Recognition

Since rewards & recognition are required to be carefully reviewed against the objectives, Robin Speculand suggests it be handed over to a task force consist of HR representatives & line managers as you need to have a balanced perspective.

The task force team should address these 3 questions:

  • What additional actions and behaviors should staff members adopt for strategy execution?
  • What current rewards & recognition system encourage others to do?
  • What changes are mandatory in rewards & recognition system to drive the desired actions & behaviors?

Based on these aforementioned questions, the task force should submit their report within 90 days depending on the size of their organization and no later than that. The recommendations should be made to the leader to take proper action on that basis.

2. Review the Organization’s Competencies

Organization’s competencies consist of each employee’s competency which can further be divided into two elements: personal & job factors.

A leader is required to ensure that each employee individually possesses the right skill set, knowledge, and competency to deliver what is required from him to deliver the new strategy.

This task is also a gigantic one and it is suggested to be delegated to another task force. If the new competencies are identified, it is essential to conduct their relevant training to fill the gaps.

3. Align Measures

If people are just being measured to perform any action or behavior but not being rewarded or recognized, they will only perform it for the short term. In order to get their behavior & actions constantly arrayed with the desired outcomes, you need to align rewards & recognition system with the measures.

8. Review

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results” – Winston Churchill

As stated by Robin Speculand, it is the weakest of all 8 factors he identified. Leaders don’t review the strategy properly and thus fail to ensure that the right actions and behaviors are being adopted continuously by the staff members:

To rightly review the overall execution process, you must have these questions in sight:

  1. Are the actions & behaviors adopted producing the desired results?
  2. Are you aware of the lessons that have been learned from the implementation process so far?
  3. Do you know what you need to do differently from today?

Following are the steps that a leader should take to get execution process appropriately reviewed:

  1. Conduct Strategy Reviews
  2. Resolve Problems before they become Troublesome

1. Conduct Strategy Reviews

As a leader, it’s your job to ensure that the strategy is comprehensively being reviewed at least every 3 months. The strategy review process can be broken down into small aspects which should be reviewed individually every 2 weeks. During your review meetings as a leader you should:

  • Demonstrate the importance of the newly conceived strategy
  • Shift the discussion from operational issues to strategic issues
  • Ensure the strategy discussions are cascaded through the organization
  • Ensure that the strategy remain on the leaders’ radar

2. Resolve Problems before they become Troublesome

It is important for a leader to understand that no matter how excellent the planning was; strategy will still face problems in execution as there are numerous variables affecting it. Therefore, your reviews should help identify the problems that hinder the progress of your strategy as planned. Also during your review, if you feel that a part of the strategy should be molded, then you should do it lest your efforts to get the overall strategy producing fruitful result so far, not go wasted.

9. Authority

“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others” – Bill Gates

As far as my experience is concerned, I have seen various strategies fizzle out for one specific reason, leaders burden their staff members with responsibilities without providing them authorities. Responsibility without authority is, I believe, a perfect recipe to a destructive failure. If you would like to have your staff members, especially managers taking the right actions, give them the freedom and support for making decisions.

Following are the questions that should be in your mind while sharing the authority with your staff members:

  1. Are they required to make essential decisions in their specialized domain?
  2. Are they empowered to make decisions?
  3. Do they have the access to information to make decisions on time?

To ensure everyone has the right amount of authority they deserve, as a leader you should:

  1. Delegate the Right Authority to the Right Person
  2. Give Feedback on their Decisions

1. Delegate the Right Authority to the Right Person

It is important to grant the right authority to the right person, if the dedication is not being made properly or the wrong person is given the authority, the entire strategy execution process can be razed. The authority to make decisions will develop a sense of responsibility among your staff members and they will further immerse into the execution process.

2. Give Feedback on their Decisions

A system should be developed to evaluate the decisions made by your staff members. Their right decisions should be recognized and wrong decisions should be provided with a detailed analysis. As they will be given on-ground feedback, their understandings about the strategy will deepen and their next decision will be more deliberate.

Important Mind shifts:

Robin Speculand also identified 6 mind shifts need to take place for implementation to be successful:

  • Crafting strategy is the hardest part (no, implementation is twice as difficult as crafting strategy)
  • People resist change (no, they embrace it if it’s communicated in the right manner)
  • It’s about taking the action (no, it’s about taking the right action)
  • Communication is about creating awareness what strategy is (no, communication is letting your staff members know what strategy is and what actions do your staff members exactly need to take for proper execution)
  • Past strategies will work today as well (no, strategies have to be constantly reviewed and changed as per the need)
  • Strategy should be reviewed twice a year (no, it should be reviewed at least after a couple of months)

Execution is often the most overlooked part of the strategy but in fact, it is the most important one. Remember Without execution, your breakthrough ideas are just a waste. The strategy itself is just a blueprint of your dream, the rest of the construction and material needed lies under the execution part.

End Notes


Ranjeet Kumar

Management Consultant & Success Coach

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