Strategy Execution: why strategic plans fail to be implemented

March 15, 2017
Source: Kofi Arhin | | Ghana
Strategy Execution: why strategic plans fail to be implemented

Dear reader, we have finished the eight critical success factors. We are now looking at the execution, which is most important in strategic discipline. The question is “Why do so many organizations fail at strategy implementation”?  The quality of an organization’s strategic plan is not the primary determinant of success in goal achievement.  No, the primary factor is that success hinges on execution.  This article examines some of the most common root causes of organizations and their leaders to miss the mark on strategic implementation. 

Execution doesn’t just happen, it’s planned.

Many CEO have been blamed for failed or poor strategies and most have ultimately lost their position as a result.  The truth is that in the majority of cases, the strategy wasn’t the real problem.  No, for these unfortunate CEO casualties, the real issue that cost them the job of Chief Executive was poor execution.  While there are other causes, the two biggest factors that lead to poor execution are:

  • Lack of tactical execution (detailed initiative-level) planning and,
  • Overlooking plan governance.

Having a sound strategy is only part of the success equation.  Putting the strategy into real execution is a whole different matter and is widely considered to be the hardest challenge.  Why is it that so many top executives and their companies fail to plan the execution of strategy?

Factors That Lead to Failure in Execution

Failure to execute has several root causes.  Let’s look at several common reasons why companies fail to execute their strategic plans fully:

  • Poor prioritization
  • Lack of detail planning to support plan goal achievement
  • Poor communication and coordination
  • Strategy and culture misalignment
  • Accountability missing from plan goals
  • Poor planning governance
  • Ill-defined strategic goals

Any of the issues listed above can be fatal flaws in a strategic planning effort and all lead to poor execution.  Before we look at a roadmap for execution in part 2 of this series, let’s define these common issues a bit more.

Ill-defined Strategic Goals

Once ambiguity creeps into strategic plan goals, it leads to confusion and failure in execution.  So what causes ambiguity in the first place? The language used to state goals is usually where the problems start.  Strategic plan goals must be carefully constructed in order to be crisp and well understood.  Moreover, plan goals must be measurable.  By definition goals need to quantify some sort of increase or decrease – usually as a percentage change.  The language used to define goals can be limited to a controlled vocabulary that uses terms such as increase X by Y% or decrease X by Y%.  Removal of variability in the language of our goals helps to start execution on the right track.

Poor Prioritization

Every goal cannot be the top priority, but we set ourselves up for failure by treating them all as if they were equal.  Organizations lack the energy or focus to take on too many goals at once.  Even if the capacity were there to take on unlimited amounts of work associated with implementation of strategic goals – it is a bad idea to over extend.  A final tally of more than five overall plan goals is too many for most organizations.

We must therefore set priorities that address the criticality of each goal relative to others and think of these as key outcome “candidates” to select from.   Keep in mind that a plan goal explodes into a tree structure of underlying program of initiatives that relate to the execution of that goal.  Additionally, many elements of the plan may be foundational components that need to be in place before other goals can be put into execution. Some work must be deferred while other goals and the projects associated with it are fast-tracked to pave the way.  That is why detailed planning is so important.  It shines the light on these problems before we’ve allocated millions of dollars on a half-baked plan.

Lack of Detail Planning

Most of us like to avoid getting into the details of planning, and would prefer for someone else to sort that mess out.  The trouble is, when it comes to execution and achieving goal outcomes, the details of execution tactics are just as critical as the strategy.
Detailed planning involves breaking down work into smaller parts.  It is far easier to solve a small puzzle than to launch into solving a massive one.  Detailed planning works the same way.  Human beings accomplish work more efficiently when we deconstruct complex jobs into smaller groupings of related tasks.

Poor Communication and Coordination

When we are not enlightened as to what is expected of us, we simply do our best and follow our instincts to get the job done as best we can.  This is why communication of plan details is so important.  Additionally, we must make sure everyone on the team understands the big picture as well.  Failure to communicate and educate is a huge factor in executing successfully.  Employees who are responsible and accountable for their scope of plan execution must understand what is to be done, when and how that affects the overall outcome.

Strategy and Culture Misalignment

Strategic execution cannot be planned without consideration of the organization’s culture.  Strategic goal implementation is a form of organizational change management.  The methods of strategy implementation are affected not only by organizational structure, but also the values and social mores of the organization’s culture.

Accountability Missing From Plan Goals

Our own experience tells us that achieving strategic planning and management goals requires an actionable plan that considers the people required to bring the plan to fruition. Sounds simple enough – yet, in practice both components (plan and people) have intricacies and uncertainties that must be carefully managed.  An inherent lack of accountability in the planning process leads to problems and sometimes complete failures in execution.  Everyone is accountable in accomplishing their individual tasks that are required to achieve the overarching organizational goals and some, including the CEO, may be accountable for reinforcement of the tasks.

Poor Planning Governance

Plan governance enables organizations to manage the interrelationships of all underlying
Initiatives comprising a strategic goal.  Governance also provides the boundaries and check points needed to keep programs in alignment with plan goals.

Execution can go awry in a variety of ways over time and plan governance is the foundation that oversees strategic implementation from an objective point of view.  More than that, proper governance becomes an integral part of the planning process itself.  The plan office serves as a coordinating body when considering dependency relationships among programs and constraints on resources.  Organizations that have established an effective strategic governance model can ensure that all the programs and their underlying projects are managed and harvested for necessary metrics and progress reporting.  Metrics harvested from the tactical layer provide historical acceleration data to offer continual improvement to the planning cycle.

Is Your Organization Facing Any of These Common Challenges?

If you are not sure about the general health of your own organization’s strategic implementation, help is on the way.  The Part 2 of our series offers a roadmap for good strategic implementation. Additionally, you can also contact Premium Corporate Solutions for support and assistance.