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Strategy without execution is just another New Year’s resolution

These articles have been written by the latest cohort of the Practice Makes UnPerfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices.

By Virgita Abaravičiūtė, Vice President, Global Customer Operations, Adform

It is that time of the year again, when every business leader starts planning for the next 12 months. This is one of the busiest seasons of the year and, at the same time, the most exciting one, as you reflect on: 

1. the challenges you are faced with;

2. the potential solutions to solve them;

3. what investments are needed;

4. and your direction and goals for the next year.

Ideally, you wouldn’t do this not on your own, but together with your team. 

And then, like clockwork, in December or January you share the strategic direction with all the relevant stakeholders and execute for success. Right? It is that simple… isn’t it? 

But wait. 

How many of you reading this are still working on the goals you set at the beginning of this year? 

And how many of you can’t recall what the objectives are? 

How many of you come together regularly with your team (and manager) to review and realign on the strategy and goals, identify obstacles and agree on adjustments for the next month?

*cue awkward silence* 

Back in 2016, according to Harvard Business Review article, it was stated that 67% of strategies failed due to poor execution. This is an overwhelming and fascinating number. Especially when we consider how much time is invested into thinking of an ambition level, seeking alignment with your manager, team, and other relevant stakeholders, building a plan, communicating that to everyone – only a third of leaders have confirmed they actually succeed with the strategy. So what’s the source of the disconnect? 

It might be the psychological element attached to it. A symbolic self-completion theory (by R. A. Wicklund and P. M. Gollwitzer) states that a social recognition allows people to obtain a sense of achievement without taking an action towards the raised goal. So, you share that you have a strategy, list down objectives for the year, everyone is excited and agrees to commit to it. You get the kudos and – the most interesting part – the reassurance you receive gives you almost the same feeling as resolution does. This is how our brains work, and might be one of the reasons why we are so focused on building and shouting about a strategy rather than executing it.

Another reason might be related to gaps in your strategy plan. According to the job search engine Indeed in 2021, “strategic execution uses processes, systems or a series of decisions to clarify goals for employees and define steps or actions the company needs to take in order to reach its goals”. It means that you actually have to take into account multiple factors before you even start thinking of a strategy.

Back in 2005, Higgins developed The Eight S’s model, which was a revision of the original McKinsey 7S’s model used for a strategic implementation. The Eight S’s model emphasizes key factors influencing a successful strategy execution. It includes the following:

–   Strategy and Purpose. Does your strategy include a strategic intent, vision, focus, mission, goals and strategic objectives? According to Higgins, there are four types of strategies (corporate, business, functional and process).

–   Structure. Do you evaluate if the current structure in your organization supports a new strategy? Higgins points out five parts of the organizational structure: “jobs, the authority to do them, the grouping of jobs in a logical way, the manager’s span of control and mechanism of coordination”.

–   Systems and Processes. Do your current systems and processes support your strategy? If not, think of the investments needed in these areas.

–   Style. Does the existing leadership style support the strategy? How do you and your fellow leaders treat colleagues and set an example to support the strategy?

–   Staff. Do you have the right people with relevant competences to do the job and execute the strategy?  

–   Resources. Do you have the right capacity in organization and what changes in regards to resourcing is required to achieve your goals?

–   Shared Values. What are the guiding principles in your organization which differentiate you from other companies and how it is lived by in a strategy execution?

–   Strategic performance. Do you have a success criteria for your strategy? How and how often do you measure performance?

Strategy is so much more than a set of pillars and soundbites, and some fancy charts. Sometimes, a great strategy isn’t even that sexy: rather it’s a set of logistical analyses that help you work out what it’s possible to achieve in the year ahead. Good strategy execution requires discipline, commitment, accountability, right and continuous communication, and, of course, balance.

Strategy is not a buzzword. It’s a powerful tool to help you focus on the right things, so let’s do the right things right. While using this time of the year to plan a direction for your area, include an execution plan if you really are committed to succeed. Don’t let your strategy become just another New Year’s resolution.