Sir Winston Churchill once stated, “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” Arguably, the biggest challenge facing any executive leader, especially those with a strong strategic orientation, is execution. Research has shown that most organizations are terrible at execution, yet the company’s success rests on its ability to implement its strategy. In their book, The Balanced Scorecard, authors David Norton and Robert Kaplan note that 90% of organizations fail to execute their strategy successfully. Before we begin discussing why organizations fail to execute their strategy, let’s first admit that the easiest part of strategic planning is developing the plan.
Over several years, I have helped organizations develop strategic plans. It doesn’t matter if it is a strategic plan for a small hometown restaurant or a billion-dollar organization; the strategic planning process is always similar. The individuals responsible for the organizational strategic plan evaluate their corporate mission, vision, overall objectives, actionable tasks, timelines, and budgetary constraints.
Sitting in a room and developing a strategic plan has several constraints; however, it allows for creative thoughts and assumptions. Creating a three-year strategic plan inevitably encompasses some attributes of looking into a crystal ball. Today’s business environment is dynamic and ever-changing, and when developing a strategic plan, the organizational leaders must be flexible and somewhat creative. The business environment can change radically—as we have all experienced in recent years.
The most challenging part of the entire strategic planning process is the execution of the strategies. This is where the process sometimes comes to an immediate halt. The time it takes to develop the strategic plan is only a fraction of the overall resources required to implement all the strategies developed in a room of creative minds.
The development of the strategic plan is like building a boat. But if I leave that boat in a garage or on the docks, it has no purpose. The boat only serves its purpose if it is in the water—thus the execution of the strategy. For any strategy to be worth the paper it’s written on, organizations are required to move the document from the shelves to the execution process. There is no doubt that this is where the work and resource allocations come in—and where many companies fail to realize the importance.
I could write a dissertation on the benefits of strategy execution; however, we can all agree that simply planning to win a game is great, but actually getting players on base wins games! Therefore, I will give you three reasons (out of many) that organizations plan well but execute poorly:
Lack of Employee Buy-In and Commitment
Leaders who plan and try to execute organizational strategies without input from employees may find that the employees do not agree with or even understand the strategies. When this occurs, there is lackluster motivation to execute anything successfully. Obtaining employee buy-in in the strategic planning process is not complicated; when done correctly, employees walk away feeling involved in the process, committed to change, and are more likely to drive toward results.
Unachievable and Unrealistic Strategies and Goals
I would fail if you told me I needed to run a marathon next week! My first reaction would be to throw up my hands, give up, and accept defeat. I can’t even run 2 miles, let alone 26! When strategies and goals are so far beyond possible success, there is a good chance that employees will grab a white flag and immediately surrender. To successfully execute strategies, they need to have some possibility of being achieved. Several variables play a part in achieving goals. Smart organizations analyze their current and future resources and consider possible changes to determine the probability of execution success. Stretch goals are fine, but unrealistic goals are defeating.
Lack of Follow-Up and Accountability
There is a saying: “What gets measured, gets managed, and what gets managed gets done.” Therefore, follow-up, performance management, and individual accountability are essential to successful strategy execution. If there is no consistent follow-up to plan success and nobody is held accountable for plan execution, how can the organization know if results are happening? If strategies are not being accurately executed, then why? Who is responsible? Why are goals not being met? What has changed? What, if anything, needs to be revised in the plan? What is the reason for not hitting the mark or falling behind? If periodic and consistent strategy updates are conducted, there is no reason why there should be any surprises for missed targets. Proactive monitoring of the plan and holding those accountable for results is essential to the entire successful process.
Understandably there are several other reasons why strategy execution fails. A simple Google search will outline a plethora of reasons. For now, the most critical elements to remember are:
- If you don’t have a strategic plan—develop one.
- If you already have a strategic plan—then make sure you effectively execute the plan! Only then will your plan become a reality.