Making Your Strategy Work

The vision is complete! The presentation is beautiful and the external advisors have gone. Now what? Starting a big vision or change can be hard. Research says that most strategies fail in implementation so the first step has a big impact on reaching your goals.

Yet, the questions organizations and leaders face can create real and sometimes unspoken challenges:

  • How much change can we handle?
  • Will this new vision become a distraction to our business?
  • What impact will these changes have on our bottom line?
  • Will we lose key people?
  • Will top leadership keep supporting this change when it gets hard?
  • How can we keep from “boiling the ocean”?

These questions can create obstacles and cause you to get stuck. The following actions will increase your likelihood of success:

  1. Make the strategy consumable, translatable and clear. A great strategy will be clear, understandable and before it’s finished it will clarify the fundamental operational implications. This essential step takes your strategy from slides to clear operating principles that define what the strategy really means. As an example, a more customer centric strategy can be strengthened by defining the implications for how these results will be realized. You may decide that critical decisions will be made by those closest to customers; customers will play an active role in shaping product development and the brand; and, that customer satisfaction will be the ultimate definition of everyone’s success. These operational principles give the strategy a runway and avoid the “Oh, I didn’t know you meant that,” until too late in the game.
  2. Define success up front. At the beginning, define where you want to be and how you will know when you get there – including interim checkpoints, such as at the end of the quarter or year. If your strategy is so conceptual that success is left to multiple interpretations, you’ve set yourself up.
  3. Clear accountabilities. A successful strategy implementation depends on the clarity of who is responsible for what. In big changes, many important players may feel they have a hand in key decisions, but it can’t be everyone on everything. Progress relies on individuals and teams understanding their role in designing, building or delivering on the strategy. Without it – you’ve unintentionally architected slow progress as everyone is involved in everything or, even worse, everyone watches from the stands because hard decisions are too risky. (See #1 and #2)
  4. Integrate everything. Strategies often have multiple projects and organizational changes underway simultaneously. Don’t make your managers do the impossible of integrating everything as they do their jobs. Program manage the entire change so that you see everything underway holistically, the demands placed on leaders and managers in the same timeframe, and obvious dependencies (e.g., you can’t change this process in the middle of the systems change.) One big picture is essential rather than everyone working on their piece of the pie without a broader view.
  5. Decision-making and authority are defined, clear and streamlined. In some organizations, we call this governance. But, it is really just confirming up front how decisions will be taken and by whom. It’s important to separate the big picture, strategic decisions from the daily operational decisions. In substantial changes and transformations, you will likely need separate forums to lead and manage progress. If you don’t, the new program will either overtake the ongoing leadership/executive team meetings or the change will be drastically underplayed as big decisions and issues will be missed.
  6. Big vision with small steps. A good vision looks forward multiple years. What do we do now vs. later? A new change you have never done before won’t reveal all answers up front. Create a rolling plan that you update as you learn more and progress is realized. Recognize your fixed milestones, such as budget planning, commitments to the market or board, but remain agile between the goalposts.
  7. Communications and engagement can’t be an afterthought. Communication plans must follow the lead of your change or program plan. I also use “engagement” because a strategy can’t be realized through one-way communications to the organization. You’ll need many people to activate the strategy in their work and the decisions they make. Also, leadership teams often spend too little time on how the strategy will be communicated and activated in the organization. This work is not the job of the HR leader, the head of communications or marketing. The translation of the future business is a core leadership team responsibility. If your leaders need help doing this well, then take the time to ensure they are ready. This time investment with them early on will pay dividends in the months and years ahead.

Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults and can be reached at or on Twitter at @PattiBJohnson or @People_Results.