Strategy Execution – Establishing the Conditions for Success

The purpose of strategy execution is to turn strategic intent into operational reality. It’s the series of decisions and actions aimed at changing an organisation’s trajectory, from one taking it to its default future to one that takes it to an improved future. These decisions and actions are usually undertaken within some form of transformation programme.

However, all the evidence indicates that only about 5% of large-scale transformation programmes achieve their target outcomes. Or to put it another way, 95% of transformation programmes do not achieve the target trajectory set out in the strategy. Why is this the case and what can be done to increase the chances of success?

Three common mistakes

While there is no simple answer to this question there are three common mistakes that are often made. Firstly, the strategy does not articulate the strategic intent with sufficient clarity to enable people to understand the trajectory the organisation aims to take. Only by having this clarity can people make informed choices on what needs to be done to change the trajectory. Secondly, it’s assumed that organisations are deterministic and programmable, and can therefore be transformed through the execution of a predefined plan. Yet we all know that organisations are not predictable, particularly during times of significant change. They are dynamic systems that respond – often in unforeseen ways – when attempts are made to change them. Finally, initial focus and effort are given to the wrong things. While developing transformation roadmaps and delivery plans, preparing steering group packs and designing target operating models (TOMs) are important and need to be done, the initial focus must be on establishing the necessary conditions for success (CfS).

Conditions for success

One of the best ways of describing conditions for success is through a gardening analogy. All gardeners know that certain conditions need to be in place for a garden to flourish, with fertile soil being the most obvious. Good gardners also know that while soil quality can be improved, certain plants will never do well in particular types of soil. While some of these conditions can be controlled others, like the weather, cannot. And we all know that if the necessary conditions for success are not in place gardening can be a very frustrating and expensive pastime.

It’s the same when executing strategy. If the conditions for success are not established at the outset considerable time and resources will be wasted. Furthermore, confidence in the strategy will be put at risk. While there are some well-known conditions for success, for example, sponsorship, funding, communication, commitment and resources, there are other less well-known ones that are equally, if not more, important and often ignored. These include:

Clarity of strategic intent: You know this condition is in place when the leadership team have an aligned view of the target trajectory and colleagues across the organisation clearly understand it. What’s more everyone understands the consequences of not changing the current trajectory, in terms of the undesirable default future it will bring.

Operating principles defined: Operating principles are a powerful way of guiding new ways of working. At one level, they are constraining as they define how the organisation should, and should not, operate going forward. But on another level, they are principles and not practices, and how operating principles are operationalised depends on the context within which they’re being applied. The translation of a principle into one or more practices enables people to become engaged in turning strategic intent into operational reality.

Anchoring organisational capabilities mitigated: In many respects organisational capabilities are the muscles an organisation has developed over time. They are formed from a combination of shared mental models, beliefs and mindset, processes and practices, conventions and norms, shared experiences and individual skills. As they are intrinsic to the organisation they are not always readily apparent and are only experienced when attempts are made to change the organisation’s trajectory. You know this condition is in place when the influence of these ‘anchoring’ organisational capabilities are identified and actions taken to mitigate their influence.

Pulling organisational capabilities in place: While some organisational capabilities can anchor an organisation to its current trajectory, others can ‘pull’ it onto its target trajectory. You will know this condition is in place when things are done differently, colleagues use different language, new concepts are applied and it just feels different.

Clarity of decision rights: In all but the simplest of transformations it’s impossible – and definitely impractical – to foresee every eventuality and plan every detail. While some planning is obviously needed, it’s more important having people who clearly understand the direction the organisation is taking and are able to provide guidance and deal with issues as they arise. What’s essential is having clarity on who has the decision rights to make the necessary mid-course corrections, reallocate funding, ensure that resources are in the right place and deal with the inevitable ‘that wasn’t supposed to happen’ twists and turns.

Opportunity to experience the target future: It’s often said that ‘if you live your life as if it were different, it actually becomes different’. Also, people are ‘much more likely to act their way into a new way of thinking’, than ‘think their way into a new way of acting’. Or, to put it another way people are ‘more likely to create the future once they’ve experienced it’. This condition is about giving people the opportunity to experience the target future before they have created it, either through visits to other organisations that have undertaken similar transformations or through simulations or conceptual illustrations and metaphors that tell a story in a way that facilitates conversations and creates common understanding.

Forward-focused navigation: Changing the trajectory of an organisation is a bit like changing the direction of an ocean liner – it takes time to get it onto the target trajectory, and time before it’s apparent that the trajectory has actually changed at all. It’s therefore important to have a navigation system that tells you in what direction you’re headed and at what speed. The most obvious things to monitor are the eight conditions for success we’re discussing here – after all, they are predicated on the belief that the more solidly they’re in place, the greater is the likelihood that the organisation will change its current trajectory to one aligned with its strategic intent.

Collective leadership: It’s unreasonable to expect people to commit to change unless they’re confident it will succeed, and that the benefits of the future state are worth the pain of transition. And the principal source of this confidence comes – or doesn’t – from the organisation’s leadership. But if the leadership team is not aligned, either on the strategic intent or the trajectory by which it will be realised, that confidence will be lacking. And it’s not just what leaders say that instils confidence; it’s what they do and how they behave. If they collectively act as one, use the same language and exercise judgement based upon the same criteria, then it will be evident they are aligned, and exercising collective leadership.

Assessment over time

The degree to which the conditions for success described above – and others – are in place should be assessed overtime. Only then can the transformation steering group fulfil its key accountability, which is to ensure that they are in place.

Final thought

If the degree of success in executing strategy is as low as we’re led to believe we all have a role to play in improving the chances of success. Focusing on identifying the necessary conditions for success and taking action to put them in place is an important step.

I welcome your thoughts.

David Trafford
Co-author of Beyond Default and Managing Director of Formicio, a strategy and change management consultancy