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Strategy Implementation Process: 27 Tips (2016 updated)!

The strategy implementation process is your highway to strategy performance. To be more precise, you should picture your strategy implementation process not as a single street.

The strategy implementation process is a network of roads, all linked together.

And your roads carry names like ‘strategy review process’, ‘project portfolio management process’, ‘coaching process’, ‘goal setting process’ and so on.

This strategy implementation process guide will help you

  1. understand your unique strategy implementation process
  2. evaluate its quality
  3. select strategy implementation process improvements

I will first cover the 9 most common strategy implementation challenges before diving into the long list with strategy implementation process steps to improve.

Strategy-implementation-process

9 common strategy implementation challenges  

Over the years, I’ve worked with companies in different sectors throughout the world on a variety of strategy implementation topics.

And while each company was unique, with their own cultures and products, the strategy implementation mistakes that they made were often identical.

Here’s a list of the 9 most common strategy implementation challenges related to the strategy implementation process.

Strategy implementation - it's more than a strategy document

Strategy implementation challenges: #1. It’s not easy an easy process

Most companies started off with a fairly straightforward, simple and pragmatic strategy implementation process.

But they somehow succeeded in complicating it over time.

How?

  • A new manager arrived and implemented an strategy implementation process that worked very well… in his former company.
  • Corporate launched a new implementation model and wanted everyone to follow it.
  • Various consultants came (and went), each with their own tools and ideologies.
  • Someone got a kick out of complex theoretical models.
  • Someone wanted to create something completely new.
  • Someone decided that everything needed to be integrated.
  • …And nobody eliminated outdated material.

Strategy implementation challenges: #2. Most managers don’t understand the process

You can have the best strategy implementation process in the world, but if your managers don’t get it, it’s worthless.

Can you describe the strategy implementation process used in your organization?

Strategy implementation challenges: #3. There’s no clear ownership

Ownership of the strategy implementation process is distributed among many different players.

Partial owners in large organizations often include the finance department, human resources, the strategy coordination team, internal consultants, several program management offices (PMOs) and, last but not least, the managers themselves.

This fragmentation leads to lack of ownership for the global implementation process. Most companies don’t coordinate the activities spread across all these players. They all work in separate silos.

Strategy implementation challenges: #4. The process is not the corporate radar

Another disadvantage of the silo approach – apart from the lack of ownership – is the lack of visibility for the global process.

Separate, stand-alone, Strategy Execution topics such as budget discussions for new strategic initiatives, Key Performance Indicator (KPI) reviews or the selection of a new development program, regularly make it to the boardroom table, but Strategy Execution as an activity doesn’t.

A missed opportunity.

Strategy implementation challenges. #5. The process cannot be changed

‘We have always done it this way’ or ‘This is what corporate wants’ are phrases I have heard all too often – and probably you have too.

We all know that people don’t like change.

But for some reason (and I’m still trying to work out why – if you have the answer please let me know), this is especially true when it comes to changing the strategy implementation process.

I’ve seen companies change their complete distribution model, but then panic at the mere thought of altering the timing of their budgeting cycle.

Strategy implementation challenges. #6. Not adapted to your needs

You don’t need a cannon to kill a mosquito, but it might be useful to have a good tranquilizer gun if you want to transport a tiger.

Adapt your tools to your needs. All too often, companies forget this logic.

A small business unit that is part of a big multinational does not always benefit from the fully-fledged corporate strategy implementation process that works great for the other business units 10 times its size.

Harmonizing doesn’t mean copying without thinking.

Strategy implementation process in strategic management is crucial

Strategy implementation challenge: #7. not measured (and therefore not known)

Most companies today measure and monitor almost everything. Every part of the business has its own kpi.

But the strategy implementation process itself remains a black box.

Crucial questions such as ‘What percentage of our budget is allocated to strategic projects that have to secure our future?’, ‘What’s the percentage of individual objectives linked to our strategy?’ or ‘What’s the cost of our Strategy Execution process?’ remain unanswered.

Strategy implementation challenges: #8. The strategy implementation process is not balanced

Most people prefer to spend their time on things they are already quite good at. You probably recognize this phenomenon.

Companies operate the same. I see organizations invest in those strategy implementation process steps that are already quite developed, but then neglect the weaker ones – creating a vast difference between the different strategy implementation steps.

Examples include a streamlined budgeting process but very poor strategy monitoring, solid objective setting but poor coaching skills, and interactive Balanced Scorecard discussions but poor initiative management.

And you know the saying: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

Strategy implementation challenges # 9. not budget friendly

The strategy implementation process can be a very expensive. Most companies forget to optimize the following three cost categories:

  • The managers’ time investment. Most managers lose time, and therefore money, by doing things that are not really needed (but asked anyway), or are very inefficient at doing things a certain way.
  • The activities of the process owners. There is often double work between departments, the strategy implementation process becomes a political minefield and needs extra time, or just the fact that there are too many people keeping their jobs alive by continuing the complexity or adding even more.
  • The impact of external consulting and training. It’s probably smart to get external advice and outsource certain training activities.

But watch out for the cost impact of these actions.

The initial outlay might be very reasonable but the maintenance costs aren’t.

You could end up with a very cheap consultant but a massive total cost of ownership.

Strategy implementation process: 27 tips

Now that we know the challenges, let’s see how we can improve the strategy implementation process.

Each company has its own unique strategy. And a unique strategy demands a unique strategy implementation process!

So, unfortunately, there is no magic recipe.

There are, however, proven ingredients you can include.

And as head chef, it’s your job to mix those ingredients into a unique recipe of success for your organization.

Here is the cookbook with the 27 proven ingredients or guidelines, some more difficult to implement then others, but all will contribute to the improvement of a strategy implementation process.

You should regularly review these guidelines since new insights will emerge as new developments in your organization take place. And these new insights will trigger fresh ideas to further improve the strategy implementation process.

Use the list to evaluate the potential improvement impact of each guideline and define their importance for the next six months. You can repeat the exercise after four-to-six months in order to evaluate your progress and define new actions.

You can also turn the scoring exercise into an interesting workshop with your team.

Bonus

Download a free checklist : get a useful PDF checklist that helps you to identify the best tips for you!

Tip 1. Know what your managers think about your strategy implementation process

You probably knew, or know by now, that the manager plays a crucial role within the strategy implementation process.

Make sure you know how s/he – that is, the average manager in your organization – experiences your company’s strategy implementation process and evaluates their own strategy implementation skills.

But don’t assume you know the perception of all managers if you are one yourself. (That would be short-sighted, wouldn’t it, as you are far better than the average manager).

Tip 2. Integration should always be on your mind

It’s difficult to design and implement a Balanced Scorecard approach, a new variable pay policy or performance coaching training. But it’s a real challenge to align all these elements into one coherent approach.

And yet the integration part is crucial.

So keep your current process in mind when you work on something new.

Be pro-active and try to predict possible conflicts that could arise between a new activity and the existing strategy implementation process. The fit with the existing is as important as the new product itself.

Strategy implementation process - there are many strategy implementation challenges to focus on

Tip 3. Select the right process owners

Here is a list of ideal character traits for process owners:

  • A passion for performance.
  • A high intrinsic motivation.
  • The courage to challenge existing practices.
  • The courage to admit a mistake and get on with it.
  • The ability to take a manager’s point of view.
  • Client-oriented.
  • Willingness to learn and leave the comfort zone.
  • Motivated to learn.

Tip 4: Increase interaction between process owners

There are many different strategy implementation players in taking up a role in the strategy implementation process.

Sometimes, however, it seems as though they all come from a different planet – not ideal since everyone shares the same client – the manager, and clear interaction is therefore needed.

But this does not necessarily mean that everyone needs to be involved in each activity.

No, each player has, and maintains, his own particular role. But the different activities need to fit together like a jigsaw.

And that will only happen if the interaction effort increases dramatically.

5: Evaluate the process owners and their work

The performance management process owners are the guardians of a good strategy implementation process.

Their performance directly impacts the overall strategy implementation performance, so make sure it is monitored and evaluated regularly.

6: Define what’s in and what’s not

Strategy implementation will always be explained differently depending on who you talk to.

As a company you want to avoid this – so you need to decide what’s in and what’s not.

Have a clear vision on what is included in your strategy implementation process and what isn’t.

Topics that often create confusion include talent management, budgeting, project management, coaching and compensation.

Ultimately, you would like every manager in your organization to be capable of defining your strategy implementation process, at least on a conceptual level.

Strategy implementation process: each of the steps require a lot from executives.

7: Use a strategy execution framework

Once you have defined strategy implementation within your organization, it is useful to have an overall framework that captures your way of thinking.

Avoid the temptation to build a model that tries to fit all the strategy processes together. Stick to a flexible, easy to communicate, overall framework that allows for the integration of both existing and future models and activities for the different underlying building blocks.

And of course, I would suggest using the 8 as your strategy execution framework.

8: Get the timing right

You can have all the right building blocks in place but this doesn’t mean you’re home free. Take a look at the order of the different activities. Are they set up logically?

Typical timing issues include support departments that have to deliver action plans before even having received input from the business departments, define annual individual objectives when the year is already well underway, and evaluate individuals before the year results are known.

These issues often occur when the two performance cycles are managed by different process owners (as is often the case), and tend to be worse in complex matrix structures.

So work on that timing. Your managers will be grateful.

9: Have a clear vision on automation

It’s a smart idea to automate the whole or part of your strategy implementation process… but with care.

In many cases, the ambition to automate the process is the positive driver at the start of a strategy implementation improvement programme but the bottleneck the year after.

Let me give you an example.

Imagine that you want to automate part of the goal setting process. You start by selecting a software package. You launch an expensive IT project to customize the solution. Nine months later, you receive many suggestions (and complaints) from managers regarding the user-friendliness of the software. After a closer look, you decide they are right and agree the underlying process needs to change. But that would demand, yet again, some quite extensive IT system changes. You find it inappropriate to launch a new IT project as the previous one was more expensive than anticipated. So you decide to wait.

I would suggest you either choose a standard software solution and change your process or postpone automation until you are 100 percent happy with the underlying process.

10: Define your ambition for each building block

What do you expect from performance coaching? Where do you see initiative management three years from now?

You need to be able to answer these, and other questions.

A clear ambition for each strategy implementation step will help you define priorities and plan budgets. Make sure you:

  • Involve all stakeholders, make it a joint exercise.
  • Create a global three-year vision.
  • Build a detailed plan for the first year.
  • Define how and when you will measure success.

11: Define your guiding principles

Improving the strategy implementation process isn’t a precise science. You can’t predict the outcome of your action plan. And you will need, more than once, to adjust your course to reach your desired maturity level.

It is smart to agree on some guiding principles, principles that will help you make those unexpected or unforeseen future decisions with clarity and consideration. They will help you and your team keep your vision and integrity on course.

Use them as a yardstick to measure your decisions, just as a company uses corporate values.

12: Go slow but steady

The strategy implementation process is at the core of an organization. And even though it’s not always that visible, the way strategy is executed is embedded in an organisation’s culture. This means that changing the process demands changing people’s behavior, which takes enormous time and effort.

So don’t try to change your strategy implementation steps in one go.

Be realistic, make smart choices, and with a few clever interventions, you will probably be able to significantly increase the maturity without overstretching the organization.

Make it your challenge to identify these levers.

13: Use a clever development approach

You will probably agree that most managers could benefit significantly from further strategy implementation skills development. But there might be a problem.

Research indicates that the majority believe they are better-than-average at defining and implementing strategy.

So, a subtle and clever development approach is needed. Don’t push too much. Create plenty of ‘voluntary’ learning opportunities – for example, by offering non-mandatory, two-hour pick-and-choose sessions, combined with individual coaching, in place of compulsory two-day training.

Being clever about development doesn’t mean that you accept poor performance. To illustrate that you are no soft touch, define and communicate the minimum skill requirements to all managers and then track them.

14: Connect and learn

Look what others have done, or didn’t do, and see if you can apply some of the learnings.

I started this chapter by indicating that each strategy implementation process is unique. This is still valid.

You can, however, save a substantial amount of time and money by learning from others. You still need to adapt your knowledge to your specific situation, but it’s much easier and smarter to adapt the tried and tested than to start from scratch.

From whom can you learn?

Make a list of people you know from both within and outside the organization – and see how you can make the most of your network.

Strategy execution is a fast-developing knowledge field. New insights pop up every month. Take advantage of these new developments. Not all will be worthwhile or suit your needs but some will. Make it part of your routine to keep your strategy execution knowledge up-to-date.

Strategy implementation process - a PDF of PPT does not do the trick. You lead the effort

15: Review your meeting agenda

Most top teams spend less than an hour a month discussing strategy and its implementation. Management meetings – whether on a corporate, local or team level – are packed with short-term operational discussions.

But an agenda full of urgent operational topics isn’t an excuse to put aside the important strategic ones.

Want to do a little exercise?

Have a look at your management agenda from the last three-to-six months. Which elements of the 8 make it – or don’t make it – onto the agenda? Evaluate the quality of the discussions and outcome.

You can do the exercise for different hierarchical levels, compare results and use them as a great wake-up call for the others!

16: Review the flight level of management discussions

Even if a topic makes it onto the management agenda, it can still be discussed in the wrong way. Why? Because the team gets caught up in the details.

Here’s an example. Don’t discuss project staffing in a management committee if it’s the programme office’s responsibility. Focus instead on the benefit tracking.

Changing flight levels prove to be initially very challenging as you will need substantially more time during the first few meetings to get through the agenda. So either book the extra time or delegate some operational topics to other committees.

After those first few meetings however, you will get into the routine and find yourself asking why you never did it before.

17: Make a clean sweep

A large or medium-sized company often has lots of great methodologies, tools and systems that have been piling up over the years, or even decades, each (hopefully) having been useful at some point in time.

Today, however, the strategy implementation process looks like a house originally constructed as a simple two-bedroom building in the 1970s that has since seen the addition of 27 new rooms in 18 different styles.

Make an inventory of all existing material and sort them into three groups:

  1. Essentials that you want to continue to use.
  2. The non-essentials, but nice to haves.
  3. And last, but not least… all the duplicates and outdated materials and methodologies.

After some thorough research of all departments, you could easily end up with three piles large enough to fill a boardroom table.

It also helps to get away from your desk and talk to managers in the field. They will give you valuable insights into the usability of the materials and methodologies – something you can’t figure out just by looking at documents.

18: Mind your language

Strategy Execution means too many things to different people.

Make a list of the keywords used within your organization, agree on their definitions and stick to them. You can update them, but it’s best done at the start of a new performance cycle.

The resulting lexicon should be widely available and used within the organisation. Integrate the definitions into your development programmes. Train your process owners. Make sure they understand the terminology and are able to explain them to others.

Don’t worry if you can’t agree on a definition immediately – being aware of the different perceptions is often already a huge step forwards. A lexicon becomes even more important in a multi-language environment.

19: Build a great intranet site

More and more companies are increasingly using intranet sites as their primary, content rich, communication channel for a variety of topics. The intranet is also the perfect medium to promote strategy implementation.

20: Create a best-in-class programme office

If you’re serious about improving your strategy execution process, you will quickly end up with a long list of projects.

Set up a professional PMO to manage them and let your program management professionalism be an example to others.

21: Always test first

Whether you introduce a new strategy execution, tool or training session, make sure you test it thoroughly before implementation. Run several pilots. Use waves of implementation. Here’s why this is the best way forwards:

  • A small change can have a big effect. You can’t predict this at the beginning, even with the best preparation in the world. Therefore you should always do a dry run before implementation.
  • It takes time to make your initial idea simple. Even if you get it right, there are always easier ways to do things. You will only see this once you have started and actually tried to do it.
  • It takes time for people to change their behavior.

Be your own guinea pig. Before any launch, make sure you try everything yourself and are happy with the results. Don’t stop at the template. Come up with best-practice examples. If you, the inventor, is unable to correctly use the newly designed document and come up with some great examples, what are the chances that others will be able to do it better?

22: Lock the door

Once you find what works, make sure you freeze the chosen solution and make it the one and only.

You don’t want several different versions of the solution to start filtering their way into the organization.

23: Don’t run before you can walk

Once you have what it takes, avoid adding new, unplanned additions along the way. Many companies that pass the first year successfully overdo it in the second year… and fail.

The risk also tends to be much higher when the initial team is changed mid-way.

24: Watch the matrix (and I don’t mean the movie!)

Matrix structures are common practice in many organizations, but do tend to have a very negative impact on the simplicity of processes… and that includes Strategy Execution. Most issues arise from mixed messages, timing mis-matches and power play between teams.

There’s no need for you to start a crusade against matrix structures as they do have their advantages. But be aware of the various pitfalls.

To get a grip of the various matrix dimensions, you often need to focus first on the ‘unwritten rules of the game’. You might find it helpful to put this topic on the agenda at the right level of your organisation as it can be a good starting point for defining and clarifying guidelines and managing interactions between divisions, departments, functional lines or teams.

25: Measure success

Measuring and receiving feedback is one of the cornerstones of strategy execution. So, it’s perfectly logical to apply these principles to the strategy execution process itself.

It’s a good idea to build a simple dashboard. Start with just a few indicators. Define the improvement targets and measure progress on a regular basis. You might also want to consider a Strategy Execution benchmark which covers the key metrics. It will give your measurement approach a real boost.

26: Build a strategy implementation development platform 

Strategy Execution is a relatively new, but rapidly growing, knowledge field. Today, most business schools includes strategy execution in their curriculum, and some even make it a cornerstone of their teaching program.

But this was not the case a few years ago, let alone a decade ago. Most managers over the age of 35 haven’t had a formal education in strategy execution and therefore lack some of the basics.

Some have caught up through reading, additional education or training courses, but most have not.

Don’t leave your managers and process owners in the dark – provide them with the necessary development opportunities.

27: Preach simplicity

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of keeping it simple – so I’ve added ‘Preach simplicity’ as the final guideline.

Make sure you always emphasize the importance of simplicity.

Challenge strategy implementation process complexity at every opportunity. And use process simplicity as one of your KPIs.

Strategy Implementation starts here

You’re probably wondering:

“Jeroen, these tips are AWESOME. What’s the easiest way to put this into practice?”.

Well, I’ve got something special for you.

A free checklist to help you identify the most useful tips for you.