The strategy of making strategy happen.


Dave Prince

7 min read

I’ve got a beef with strategy. It’s a long standing annoyance, a big bloody thorn in my side and it’s all down to this one thing. It’s pretty useless. Not the game plan itself but the execution part, where people have to get off the couch, where teams need to be brave, where focus is required. The strategy of delivering strategy needs a re-think.

People make entire end-to-end careers out of delivering strategy. Teams spend days and often weeks getting in rooms together to make a strategy. And what happens? We all walk away with that care bear feeling glowing in our tummies. Hop in the DeLorean, push the flux capacitors to max and beam three months down into the future. What happens? Business, that’s what happens. The stuff we have to build, the customers we have to serve, the teams we have to run and let’s throw some politics in just to mess with our heads a bit more. It all thwarts our ability to get above the urgency of today.

If you thought it was just your company that sucked at implementing strategy, don’t reach for the glock just yet. McKinsey, the 90 yr old grandad of business consulting sighted that 70% of all strategy execution falls short of implementation goals. Bummer dude.

Strategy (if done right) is awesome, it’s the transfer of strategy into action that is the forehead slap.

So the simple question has to be asked: why does strategy fail us? The answer is not so simple but the speedy version is that humans are involved and we’re horribly flawed creatures, even if our curated instagram account says otherwise. Case closed. Plus who really cares anyway, let’s turn our brains toward 5 things that make strategy execution better;

1. Agile, it’s the yoga of strategy.

If you already have a strategy in place, how flexible is it? Much ‘strategy’ breaks the moment business conditions change or new opportunities arise (which is like every week). If your business strategy is rigid you’ll either stick with it too closely or abandon the moment the environment changes and neither actions are a good idea. Agile strategy should reflect part of the plan as being ‘fixed’ — as in core values, mission & market positioning for example as being non-negotiable, do not break in case of fire. The other part of your business strategy should be like a yogi: flexible. That’s becuase when we have flex in certain parts of our model we allow our businesses to react to environmental changes or fix things that are not working more rapidly. You also feel less guilty about leaning in a few directions and more likely to stay on the overall mish.

2. Make stuff, don’t just talk about it.

Let’s say you are launching a new website and you have a couple radical ideas. Rather than take that asset to market and stick with a dud for 12 months before you make a change, take an agile approach. Build a rapid prototype, put it in front of a handful of customers. Test your ideas withinyour broader strategy and allow yourself the flex (back to point one) to make changes, while staying within your bounds of values and mission.

3. Keep the pedal to the metal

Strategy can take a long time for companies to incubate. The bigger you are, the longer it takes. It doesn’t need to be this way. By mashing thinking & making & doing together you are creating a framework for something very important and that is momentum.

Forward motion is the lithium ion of business.

Getting in a space with your work buddies and stepping through business model insight exercises is worthwhile, but don’t spend too much time here. Talking is good, exercises designed to pull out creative thinking is better and making stuff (also known as design thinking) is worth a fist bump in the corridor. When strategy is being deployed in real time (rather than being constrained to months of talking and no doing) you are showing the team the fruits of the thinking, demonstrating it’s value to the business and if your strategy is right, creating critical mass behind your push toward a bigger mission.

4. Docs are for documenting, not advertising

If all of your creative thinking and best ideas live solely in a word doc, you have a problem. It’s lovely that you’ve captured the strategy sessions and someone took the time to format it nicely and maybe even added a couple of emojis to brighten things up, here’s the issue: you’ll forget about it.

Back to that human thing. Let’s face it, I suck and you do too at pulling that document out and looking at it on the reg. Here’s what you should do instead;

  1. Launch your strategy to the team and when you do;

  2. Create a really condensed version of the strategy — just the best, most relevant bits. Hire the finest design company you can afford and get them to design a little handbook. 25 pages max. Make it a hard cover, something that lives on the desk, a reference point. Give it to everyone in your company. Put effort into it and make it a big deal, after all it’s the playbook for this year.

  3. Set up a calendar reminder. Send an email to everyone in your company once a month. Give a progress update and tick off the things that have been done (don’t underestimate the power of green tick, the OCD’s will love you). Remind people to read page 12 of the strategy handbook.

  4. Stand in your office. Take a swig with your eyes. Where can you see an opportunity for strategy to live on your walls. Hire same design firm. Make something cool. Advertise the strategy to the team, so everyone can live it each day.

5. Serve strategy up one plate at a time

Bad execution of strategy is a bit like going to the sushi train and you having to eat every plate that’s coming at you. We attribute doing a lot of stuff to getting us further along the path, with the opposite being true — less on the agenda equals higher execution.

Break strategy into phases that make sense to your business model. Bite size pieces. Resist the temptation to put too much on the table, becuase more is not more. Timing also plays an interesting role. A year away might as well be a lifetime but 4 weeks from today, that’s near enough to scare me and not so far that I can’t see the results on my effort.

Getting on the mic and delivering the big picture is the boss-lady’s job and an important one, but after we’re all done head nodding and agreeing that we have a solid plan, shifting the narrative to focus on the near future (no more than the next 90 days) is really important becuase to be frank, most of us want a smaller target, something we can achieve and build confidence as a result. Then serve me up the next plate.