Strategy and Execution – an art or a science?

Strategy and Execution – an art or a science?

As Businesses prepare for yet another round of Strategy Planning, it has become trendy to schedule away-days, and workshops organized by Strategy Offices, costing a small fortune, but whose main effect is to pull out functional managers away from their busy work schedules, into hotel conference rooms to ask them the usual repetitive question: “Work as a Team and brainstorm: what do you think we should do for the next horizons…?” What should our direction be? However, most well-regarded thought leaders have a different view about how to go about drafting strategic objectives.

Because of the insight obtained by talking with Customers, it is true that managers – especially in Sales, Marketing & Product Development – act as the eyes and ears. However it is equally true that customers don’t always know what they want. If Henry Ford had asked customers, the answer would have been a carriage with more horses. Instead he created the motorcar. If we had asked people back in history using candles as form of light to see at night, they too would have answered that they wanted longer, wider and slower-burning wax candles. Instead they got the light bulb. Yet, I don’t want you to confuse strategy with creativity or innovation or ideation, all of which nevertheless do have a close nexus with Strategy.

Equally, Strategy and the objectives that fall off it are not a PMO exercise for the sake of collecting initiatives & actions and monitoring whether the milestones have been hit or missed. In its simplest form, a Strategy is nothing more than the alignment of a company’s next 3-5 years direction with its vision and mission. The clarity required and thereafter infused both horizontally and vertically within the fabric of the organization and through an all-engaging process, as to the “things” to do and execute that are good for both customers and business alike. Things to execute that take into account past Operational & Sales performance, customer insight, benchmarking best-in class, innovation, and R&D to then signpost leaders to the next “lighthouse”, bearing in mind the commercial, political and social environment in which the organization operates.

In some cases, take the LEGO Group as an example, the Strategy was to have no strategy and instead to get back to basics, to its heritage to its vision/mission and to re-launch that wonderful brand that has been keeping children and adults entertained for decades. Lego leaders asked themselves the question “what are we at Lego great at” and “what are we able to achieve”? No other ambitious (possibly unachievable) plan was needed.

In some other cases, the Strategy might simply be to fix all of the company’s issues and pain points caused to Customers as a priority, along with adopting a mature risk management approach.

At the end of the Strategic Process, the real leaders’ job – and the CEO’s in pole position – begins. Current capabilities need to be carefully assessed, including human capital and organizational structure, to ensure alignment with the strategic objectives. Support functions need to clearly understand what exactly they need to do differently to support the core business. And we must walk the talk at budget level, where financial investments must be granted as previously decided. A clear line of sight emerges top to bottom and vice versa, along with a change management sub-strategy to ensure that the organization can execute what has now become the agreed roadmap for the next 3-5 years.

In essence, a Strategy must be fully aligned both horizontally and vertically, and most of all it must be executable. Once kicked off, results must be monitored and based on outcomes the strategy can and should be modified along the way.
As they say, the proof is in the pudding. Meaning that execution is where strategic (often academic) assumptions clash with reality. And it’s never an easy clash. Leaders must be competent enough to deal with steering and counter-steering their units to navigate through the inevitable storms. With agility.

However, research shows that only about 8% of leaders can handle both strategy and execution. Yet that’s what Businesses need. We need leaders that can create big promises to customers, and help their organizations deliver on those promises.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz set the vision for its chain of coffee shops to complement the home and the workplace, and called his locales the “third place”: he focused on offering customers a warm and welcoming ambiance not merely from a deco perspective (furniture, music and lighting) but also by aligning the skills, attitudes and capabilities of the baristas to this strategic goal. I will never forget those hours spent in my Starbuck sipping cappuccinos and reading a book or studying for the next university exam. It was not home, nor was it the office. It was my “third place”. Schultz invested heavily on his customer-facing workforce.


In today’s age of excellence, where differentiating your Company from the competition is becoming increasingly hard, strategic thinking and innovation meet at the creativity crossroad.

A major challenge for many organizations is to ensure that employees understand how what they do is connected to their company’s strategy and how they fit in it. Research has shown that only 28% of them knows. It is the intrinsic role of the leader to explicitly communicate and connect the dots. To coach and train their people to enhance their skills and capabilities to meet the challenges of the future and remain relevant.

To use a strategy warm-up questionnaire first published by HBR on 17th November 2017, below are some useful questions pertaining to (1) building the strategy, (2) translate the strategy into the everyday and (3) execute the strategy.

1. Build the Strategy

• Are you very clear about how you add value to customers in a way that others don’t, and about the specific capabilities that enable you to excel at that value proposition?

• As strategies are being developed, are you using the classic approach of “build the strategy, then think about execution,” or are you asking yourself the question, “Do you have the capabilities needed—or can you build the capabilities needed—to execute the strategy?”

• As you’re dealing with disruption, are you shaping the world around you with your given strengths, or are you waiting for change to happen, and therefore playing by someone else’s rules?

2. Translate the Strategy into the everyday

• Are you diligently following through on what you have decided? You need to be very clear about what the strategy is and what it takes to succeed—and to communicate it so that everyone in the organization understands what they should be doing.

• Are there visible programs (for example specific new technologies, new processes, or training programs) to build the key capabilities your organization needs to win with its strategy?

• Are you building specific connections between strategy and the budgeting process so you’re reallocating funds to where they matter most? And do you have mechanisms in place that translate the strategy into personal goals and rewards for managers and employees?

3. Execute the Strategy

• Are you motivating employees every single day to understand how what they’re doing connects to the important strategic levers that you have focused on?

• Are you enabling employees to work together across organizational silos to tackle the cross-functional challenges that allow the company to win?

• Are you keeping track not just of your performance, but of how you’re building and scaling up those few key capabilities that enable you to create value for customers in ways that others cannot?

• Is your management team engaged in how you are executing the strategy—not just by measuring results, but by constantly challenging the organization and supporting it in improving its key capabilities? Are you setting your team’s sights high enough for what they need to accomplish, and by when?

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