A popular question used to assess senior leaders involves asking applicants to reflect upon why excellent strategy/policy ideas often fail in execution. Responses commonly focus on lack of support from key executives, gaps in consultations, lack of involvement of key stakeholders, a dispersion of responsibility for implementation across multiple divisions or agencies or changes to corporate priorities.
A recent article in McKinsey Quarterly by Cynthia A. Montgomery, entitled “How Strategists Lead”, provides a well constructed discussion around the critical link between strategy and execution that is central to this question.
The key role of an effective leader is noted – “in the end it is the leader who bears responsibility for the choices that are made and indeed for the fact that choices are made at all” – but it is also recognised that many key factors are givens and beyond the scope of leaders or companies to shape or change.
Understanding the environment and the forces at work that will create difficulties as well as those that will assist is an essential adjunct to the implementation of good strategy or policy ideas.
Another assertion in this article is that “Strategic planning has become more of a ‘check the box’ exercise than a brutally frank and open confrontation of the facts”. Simply acknowledging the hard issues is not enough. Understanding them and how they will affect implementation is critical and the discipline and rigour required here is sometimes not the strength of the inspirational strategic leader who prefers broader perspectives and fast paced change.
The author’s conclusion that “The only way a company will deliver on its promises, in short, is if its strategists can think like operators” perhaps takes that argument a little too far, but the requirement for integrated and thorough strategic planning and implementation is the important point. It then also follows that ongoing analysis is also required to be aware of new circumstances or market shifts that will require an adjustment of strategy and perhaps another round of changes to implement.
And so perhaps the final part of any answer to questions around implementing strategy has to reflect on the ongoing nature of the process. As the author concludes “Achieving and maintaining strategic momentum is a challenge that confronts an organization and its leader every day of their entwined existence. It’s a challenge that involves multiple choices over time—and, on occasion, one or two big choices”.