Another view: Strategy vs Implementation

This article is another in our series of guest posts by thought leaders.  Enjoy. Mitchell

There is a question currently circulating around that shouldn’t be and it is, “What is more important, strategy or its implementation?”

In the last 10 years the implementation of strategy has established itself as a field in its own right and since Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charanwas published, 2004 and Bricks to Bridges – Make Your Strategy Come Alive by myself, 2005, every year there has been a steady increase in the number of books being published on the subject.

A main reason strategy implementation has become a field in its own right is because of the high rate of strategy implementation failure. The statistic that nine out of 10 implementations fail, (which we published in 2002) has become a rallying call among leaders to change the way they have been approaching implementation. Today leaders know that applying traditional change management to execution does not work. It takes a conscious effort focusing on eight areas to achieve excellence in execution. The eight areas are:

Eight Areas of Excellence in Execution.

1. People   It is not leadership that implements strategy but people

2. Biz Case    The emotional and numerical rational for adopting the strategy

3. Communication   People can only adopt a strategy if they know about it and understand it

4. Measurement      Change your strategy, change your measures

5. Culture     You must change the day-to-day activities of your staff members and have a culture that support and fosters change

6. Process     There must be synergy between what you say you are going to do- the strategy and what you are doing – the process       

7. Reinforcement    You must reinforce the expected behaviors so that they are continuously repeated

8. Review    The weakest of the eight points among leaders – you must constantly review to make sure the right actions are being taken to deliver the right results

For the last 12 years we have researched strategy implementation and some of our key findings are:

  • Leaders habitually underestimate the challenge of strategy implementation
  • Leaders are taught how to plan not how to execute
  • Leaders frequently return to their offices after creating the strategy and left on their own to work out how to implement it
  • Successful implementation, though not rocket science, does take discipline and structure. It is about doing many right things
  • Many organizations end up back to business as usual within 12 months of launching a new strategy!
  • Implementation never goes according to plan
  • Implementation is a business differentiator.

In Mitchell’s July 18th blog “Strategy or execution?” he argued that he is also seeing a swing towards execution when there should not be. It is interesting to compare Mitchell’s experience based out of Canada and my own based out of Singapore. Our conclusion is the same. The current movement towards execution will slow down and within a couple of years there will be no discussion on which is more important, as both are required for success.

As Mitchell highlighted with his Southwest Airlines examples, they have outperformed their competition not only because they have a strongly defined strategy but also because they are excellent in execution.

A good strategy means that it is not only crafted well but implemented well. When an organization can achieve this the pay off is tremendous. With nine out of 10 organizations failing to successfully implement their strategy, it means for the one in 10 who gets it right that they have a very powerful business differentiator build into the organization’s DNA. Organizations like McDonalds and Ikea demonstrate this point. Both have shown above average returns through the last troubled five years. Even though McDonalds have competitors offering identical products, its ability to execute its strategy under the former stewardship of Jim Skinner, who is credited with turning around company over last eight years, made the difference. McDonalds was one of only two US companies that ended 2008 with an increase in its stock price. It achieve high performance by understanding its 58 million customers a day and customizing its menu to local tastes such as porridge for breakfast in the UK, soup in Portugal and chili in Asia.

Ikea has a business model that everyone knows but no one has been able to successfully copy. Why not, because Ikea executes the model better than anyone else.

A leader today must have the skills to both craft and execute strategy and over the next few years, universities and organizations will be offering courses on both. For example, Oracle includes a course on strategy implementation on its latest leadership development program in Asia Pacific, called “Leading to Win” and Singapore Management University offers a module on implementation as part of its executive training. Both of these examples provide what is so often missing in implementation, a framework. The framework guides leaders on what needs to be done to execute the strategy and identifies the right actions for individuals to take.

Leaders were taught how to plan in university but not how to execute. That is starting to change and as it does the debate between what is more important, strategy or its implementation, will quickly become obsolete, as it should.

Robin Speculand is Chief Executive of Bridges Business Consultancy Int and bestselling author. His latest book is Beyond Strategy – The Leader’s Role in Successful Implementation. His work begins once clients have crafted their strategy and ready to begin the implementation journey. Robin is a masterful event facilitator and an engaging keynote speaker. Visit

For more information on Mitchell Osak’s strategy thought leadership and consulting services, please visit the Quanta Consulting Inc. web site.


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