I used to be a “strategy guy”…

Jos Vorst, The Marble Quarry, From the Feldacker Collection, St. Louis Mercantile Library.

Strategy is sexy stuff. Deep thinking, insightful analytics and creativity required.
When I interviewed MBAs looking to join my former consulting firm, the majority said that what they really wanted to do was strategy consulting. What they meant was, they wanted to the front end of strategy: the competitive and market analysis, the customer segmentation, the C-suite and Board discussion of options and the finalization of a bold recommendation.

While this formed the foundation of the strategy work for our clients, we really prided ourselves on our ability to help clients actually implement and execute their strategies. This emphasis on strategy execution was a tough sell to many of the promising candidates we saw. But those who had been in business and had to actually put plans into action liked what they heard and were perfect fits for our firm.

Like many new MBAs, I started out as a “strategy guy.” My first consulting gig was with a strategy boutique that created powerful insights. We developed elegant strategies for our clients. But a lot of those strategies stayed in the binders we had prepared, and the majority found a permanent and dusty spot on the CEO’s shelf. Because while this boutique was great at the front end of the strategy process, they gave short shrift to what it really took to make bold recommendations a reality.

Getting strategy executed
I’m not that “strategy guy” anymore. I’m a “get the strategy executed” guy. And the difference is in understanding the following:

  • You need to lay the groundwork for a strategy, and particularly for strategic pivots, well before the fact. Organizations that do this well have continual “what if” conversations, meaning they spend time thinking about how they might respond to different events. When the need to pivot ultimately presents itself, there’s a pre-existing degree of critical alignment already in place. The result? The ability to adapt faster than more flat-footed competitors who always seem to be taken by surprise by how the market has changed.
  • Changing direction is a long game. Putting new structures and processes in place and declaring victory isn’t the end…it’s the beginning. Changing direction is a long game because organizational muscle memory is extremely strong and pervasive. Institutionalizing a new direction requires addressing the elements of culture: which behaviors are rewarded? How are decisions made? Who has authority? These and other elements of corporate muscle need to be retrained in order to create new patterns of behavior to make new processes stick.
  • You can’t execute unless you pay attention to whose ox is getting gored. When a company is under competitive stress and the pie seems to be shrinking, personal agendas and protecting fiefdoms will stop the most elegant strategy in its tracks. Guaranteed.
  • GSD (anyone not know what this stands for?). Strategy – until it’s implemented – is simply a conceptual exercise. Strategy execution on the other hand is about making sure a focused set of decisions and actions actually get done and the sooner the better. (For more on the virtue of “focus”, check out Richard Rumelt’s very readable book, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy). Top notch execution brings clear accountabilities about who’s got to get what done and when, coupled with a formal milestone management mechanism and non-stop, visible support from leadership.
  • When you’re piloting and testing don’t let the “ankle biters” – a vivid and apt expression I picked up from a colleague when working with a Dept. of Defense client – nibble them to death. Cynical perhaps, but true: there are those who will believe they benefit if you fail. Experiments need to be resourced and protected.
  • Things are going to go wrong. They always do. Resiliency and the ability to adapt are key. The leadership team’s ability to provide a steady hand on the tiller, to support a consistent commitment to a new direction and not to over-react to adversity but to make necessary adjustments while staying the course are essential to executing your strategy successfully

Developing great strategies is heady, sexy stuff. But the real test – and where the real value lies – is tackling the heavy lifting of actually put thoughts into action… and making those actions stick.