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What is strategy development and execution?

People argue about which is more important: strategy or execution. This is a false dichotomy. Both are important. In fact, each is worthless without the other.

In strategy, development and execution are opposite sides of the same coin.

Defining strategy development and strategy execution


Strategy development is the process of deciding and agreeing what an organisation will do, when, for whom, how, and why.

Strategy execution is the process of allocating resources, changing and aligning the organisation to deliver that strategy.

The problem with strategy development without execution


The problem with strategy development without execution is fairly obvious. Without execution, your strategy will never be more than an aspiration. Nothing will change.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens with many strategies. The leadership develops a new strategy and announces it to the rest of the organisation and then... not much happens.

A popular remedy for this problem is to try and involve more people in developing the strategy in the first place. Whilst this can help, it is usually not enough. Sometimes, it can make matter worse. People, be they staff, customers, suppliers or others, can be great sources of insight. But someone still has to process that insight. Strategy is about making choices and tradeoffs. It should not be an attempt to give everyone what they want.

Instead, strategy execution requires rigour and discipline:
  • Communicate clearly and unequivocally. It should include not only what the strategy is, but why it is that. It is important to distinguish between when you are asking people for their input, and when you are communicating a new strategy.
  • Establish accountabilities, track and report against carefully thought out milestones, scorecards and KPIs.
  • Allocate resources. More often than not, this means re-allocating from what is now relatively less important to what is now relatively more important. Change structures and reporting lines accordingly. Terminate or redirect programmes which no longer fit.
All of this can be very uncomfortable. Strategy involves change. Many people resist change - especially where it challenges their existing power base.

The problem with strategy execution without development


The problem with strategy execution without development is more subtle.

If you haven't developed a strategy, what will you execute? Unfortunately, this does not seem to stop many organisations. The result is 'busy work'. People pursue their pet projects just because they can. Or they deploy resources to do things just because they worry that those resources will be taken away from them if they're not seen to use them.

Even more subtle is the problem of strategies which are not executable.

Some so-called strategies are little more than grand slogans, woolly ambitions or jargon-packed corporate double-speak.

When asked to execute them, staff don't know what they're actually supposed to do. What should change?

And so they play it safe. They carry on doing what they were doing before. Or they use the opportunity to pursue their pet projects.

If they are smart they will rebadge their existing work or pet projects as being central to the execution of the strategy. And because no-one can say for sure what the strategy dictates instead, it can be hard to contradict them.

To overcome these problems:

  • Make sure that your strategy articulates clear choices. It is as important to say what the strategy is not as to say what it is. You haven't really done strategy until you've decided not to do something.

  • Avoid unqualified comparative statements. As a general rule, avoid words like "best", "leading" and "world-class".

    For example, a company might say it wants to be "the worlds best widget manufacturer". That is a fine ambition. But what does it mean? What, specifically, constitutes best? How will this be achieved?

  • Describe as vividly as you can how the organisation will be different after executing the strategy than it was before.

    Focus on tangibles - changes to processes, resources, products and services - rather than intangibles. Focus on what you will do differently, rather than on what you will become by doing it. (What you will become is also important. But you won't become it unless you do something. So focus on that.)

    For example, a company might say its strategy is "to become the most trusted widget manufacturer". Again, that is a fine ambition. But what will the company do to achieve that?

  • Avoid sitting on the fence or delegating your strategy.

    For example, a company might say its strategy is to be customer-centric or to listen to its customers and what they need. Those are both noble ambitions, but they are not strategy. Strategy describes the choices you make after having listened to your customers, understood their needs, and decided what you will and won't do about them.

    The same goes for equivalent statements like "putting staff at the heart of our business".
Strategy development and execution are equally important parts of a holistic process. It is as important to develop strategies that are executable as it is to ensure that what is executed is the strategy.

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