Spring 2015
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Strategy Without an Execution Plan Is Just Theory
Delivering on a strategic vision is very different from the pure process of strategic planning. It requires a mix of tactical and visionary thinking.
We’ve all seen it at some point before: A strategic vision that looks like a slam dunk for success. It envisions a product everyone will buy, a marketing campaign no one can resist, or a technology solution that will make operations run perfectly.

However, fast forward a year, and these visions are often still unrealized or poorly implemented. What is the hold up? How did we miss realizing those benefits? Who’s at fault? What should we be doing differently?

Delivering a strategic vision is challenging. It differs from pure strategic planning because it requires a different mix of visionary and tactical execution skills. Strategic execution requires more critical problem-solving skills to define and rationalize how to scope and manage the strategic initiative. Those skills may not be the strength of your chief strategy officer or whatever group is on point for sponsoring a strategic initiative.

Whether the strategic effort relates to a product, a service, or an operational change, it requires an execution plan that aligns bottom-up insights with top-down vision. Although the executive team may set boundaries on the timeframe, budget, and scope that are part of the mission, the overall value and success of a strategic initiative is predicated on the quality of the execution plan, the accountability framework, and the people managing the project.

Prepare for the Journey (Plan)

Before starting a strategic execution effort, organizations must realistically assess the capabilities, culture, and attitudes of the people involved. Setting strategic goals that are too lofty or too insignificant for the stakeholder group often leads to underwhelming results.

Aside from its people, the organization should also understand its available technology and process capabilities. Without that assessment, the organization cannot establish the right budget, timeline, and scope for the plan. With that information, the organization can define specific focus areas, expected outcomes, and key roles. It can make sure the roles align with both its strengths and its strategic goals when it defines the program’s scope, timeline, and budget.

Almost every strategic initiative requires a set of assumptions to get started. Companies should collect input from both subject matter experts and executive stakeholders when defining assumptions to limit the risk of underwhelming results once the journey begins.

  • Have the right people been engaged to support the plan?
  • Are the people who will be affected aware of the project’s importance and what may be expected from them?
  • Do we understand our starting point?
  • What known gaps do we have? What issues may we face once we start?
  • When and how will we check our progress to determine whether we need to change our plan?
  • Are we willing to assume the risk of the unknown and take corrective action when necessary?
  • Do we have adequate resources in place to proceed?
  • Are team members clear on who is accountable for what?
  • Is there preliminary consensus on the priority and success criteria for what we are striving to accomplish?

Balancing the number of tactical versus visionary contributors, and setting the right amount of time and effort for the plan will improve the project’s likelihood for success.

Investing too little effort or too few people increases the risk of poorly defined scope, bad estimates, and unrealistic timelines. On the other hand, too much effort or too many people may delay the benefits or drive up costs, both of which can undermine the project’s business case. Either scenario can result in canceling the project or delivering it at a loss.

Being prepared to start executing on a strategic plan initiative means the program stakeholders have a common understanding of the vision, scope, and desired outcomes. They acknowledge who needs to contribute and who is responsible for various aspects of the program. It does not mean you have to answer all the “what if … ” or “how will … ” questions. However, the team is aware that such questions might need to be factored into the more detailed execution and change-management plans.

Focus on the Key Activities (Execute)

Assuming the team has spent the right amount of time on the high-level plan, the next step is ensuring the right people are doing the right things. A good execution plan will provide direction and autonomy, acknowledging the dependencies among contributing stakeholder groups. The plan should empower each group to take the plan down a level and instruct team members on what to do and how to do it.

Program-level work streams are an effective method for enabling teams to define and take action on the key activities efficiently. Before commencing, work streams should have:

  • Clear goal(s): Objectives that complement and align with other program work streams.
  • Engaged stakeholders and contributors: People with authority, knowledge, and passion for enabling strategic outcomes.
  • Success criteria: Quantitative and qualitative measurements to manage progress and areas that require additional assistance.
  • Timeline and communications plan: A schedule of key decision dates, deliverable milestones, and formal communication dates, with an outline of activities that support those outcomes.
  • Program-level engagement model: The guidelines for when and how work streams and underlying support teams work with one another to ensure alignment and quality of strategic outcomes.

Once the execution framework is defined and communicated, the people responsible for driving specific outcomes should solicit “bottom-up” input from the people who are expected to benefit from and support the program. Beneficiaries commonly include customers, vendor partners, internal teams, and leadership.

Support teams are typically specific internal and vendor teams that are responsible for supporting the execution of tasks. They often double as beneficiaries of the program. The notion that “you don’t know what you don’t know” is a key reason to solicit bottom-up input. It’s critical for achieving the desired results.

Execution success criteria should include:

  • Whether specific results and benefits were delivered on schedule, on-budget, and with the right scope.
  • Whether customers or end users can effectively use the solution and feel like it was an improvement.
  • Whether the benefits received were greater than the cost to implement and maintain the solution for a foreseeable time period.

Front-line operations and other subject-matter experts are critical for enabling a program team to design and deliver an efficient and successful solution. Their experience and critical thinking about how people, process, and technology changes will affect the organization should not be discounted by any means.

The keys to maximizing delivery of strategic benefits are:

  • Ensuring the program lead is effective at managing and translating top-down strategic expectations with bottom-up tactical realities for the program.
  • Empowering sub-teams and subject-matter experts to contribute and be responsible for aspects of the solution.
  • Fostering a “team first” program execution attitude. That means maximizing constructive collaboration and minimizing defensiveness and self-interest.
  • Defining who should be doing what, when, and explaining why some proposed recommendations are better than others.

Companies will greatly increase the probability of success by using the right subject-matter experts and end users during the design and execution phase of a strategic program. They are the experts for what and why some changes are more important than others. They can also uncover potential risks and issues that can significantly affect the quality, cost, and timeliness of program outcomes. Challenges arise with all strategic initiatives. Any challenges that a team can avoid or address early will enhance the overall value.

Evaluate and Refine (Adjust)

Results matter and situations change. A team’s ability to effectively evaluate and refine a strategic execution plan is critical for maximizing the program’s value. Unexpected events and oversights will almost certainly occur. How the program proactively identifies and manages those events is key to achieving strategic goals.

Again, engaging and facilitating the appropriate mix of subject-matter experts and leadership participation is very important. Subject-matter experts and end-user stakeholders understand how risks and issues will affect operations and results. Leadership, on the other hand, understands the vision and trade-offs that may be needed to meet strategic goals — potentially at a cost for a specific team or stakeholder.

Regardless of what kind of strategic initiative is planned and executed, the plan should include periodic evaluation and refinement processes to ensure the results align with stakeholder expectations. Periodic reporting is critical for identifying areas for improvement and informing people when adjustments need to be made to scope or expectations.

Strategic planning and execution are very much related, but require different skills and activities for ensuring value to the business. Recognizing and aligning the organization to optimally support these related activities can improve speed to market, customer satisfaction, cost, or quality. Ensuring top-to-bottom alignment and accountability is essential for achieving optimal results on strategic plans and investments.

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