Bridging the Strategy-Execution Air Gap

My previous blog  highlighted the opportunity for dramatically improved strategy execution if organisations get the socio-cultural elements right.  But only if the 'structural' elements of execution are in place.  The reaction of one reader highlights the challenge:

“See, this is what shits me.  We don't want to take the time to actually consider the execution piece of our 'strategy'. Once we have something that looks pretty on paper we then go back to bidding work willy nilly and trying to operationally improve our projects on an individual basis.”

Why does strategy execution fail at this fundamental level?  Perhaps the common framing of the strategy process – Where are we now?  Where do we want to get to?  How are we going to get there? – contributes to this failure.

The reality is that ‘how’ is not part of the typical strategy forum[i].  A seasoned executive described the output of a strategy workshop as ‘an outline pencil sketch … we need to put more definition around the sketch, and then add colour and texture post the workshop’.  This was someone who understood the work that was required to move from ‘strategy’ to ‘execution’.      

Strategy is typically expressed in terms of strategic platforms[ii]: the ‘strategies’ that will deliver the overall strategic intent.   Strategy workshops typically produce is the ‘what’ of strategy: not the ‘how’.    

The following framework better describes the strategy process.  It makes explicit the separation of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.  And it is this separation that creates the potential for a strategy-execution ‘air gap’[iii]

How do you close the ‘air gap’?  Mintzberg said it best 20 years ago: ‘codify; elaborate; convert’.

Codify imposes an obligation on those who create the ‘strategy’ to articulate the context and intent behind their strategies.  Why do we need to do this now?  And what is the intent behind this particular platform.  Executives too frequently assume (wrongly) that their reports understand the context. 

The next stage is elaboration.  Given the context and intent, what are the programs of activity that will allow us to deliver on that intent.  Usually there will be 3-5 programs under each platform.  These are typically broadly identified within the strategy workshop, but they inevitably need work post the workshop.  More thinking following the workshop allows you to improve the framing of these programs. 

Once we settle on the programs we need to convert these programs into sub-programs, activities and resource plans that can be incorporated into management control systems[iv].  It is this last step that drives activity structures which have a chance of being delivered.    

Of course, this process is iterative.  As managers develop a detailed understanding of the activities and resources required, the leadership team makes the real time trade-off decisions.  Which programs are priorities; which ones are deferred?  What budget and resourcing are you committing?

What now?  Here’s three simple questions to ask yourself:

  • Is there an ‘air gap’ between your ‘strategy’ and your ‘plan’?  Do the people at the next level agree?  And the level below that?
  • Do you describe a compelling narrative around context and intent of the individual platforms?  Is this described in a paragraph or three dot points on a slide?  (Hint: write a paragraph: it removes ambiguity and will highlight any flaws in the logic)
  • Is there a clear resource plan which has been reviewed and approved via an iterative leadership team conversation?  Remember, strategy remains intent until resources are committed. 

Getting the fundamental mechanics right is no guarantee of success.  On the other hand, if you don’t, you are guaranteed to fail. 

There is much more to execution than is captured here – or even in a few blogs.  If you would like to make strategy execution a competitive differentiator, watch this space.  I will be launching a ½ day Strategy Execution Workshop in October this year.   Email me if you would like to be put on a mailing list for information.   


[i] Nor should it be.  The ‘how’ requires detailed analysis including input from subject experts and those who will have carriage of the execution. 

[ii] The language can be confusing with various practitioners and companies using different language for the same basic idea.  I use the term platforms.  Platforms typically address the competitive battle; growth or renewal; and organisational platforms (including technology).

[iii] In the world of super spies, an ‘air gap computer’ is one that has never been connected to the internet. 

[iv] In a later blog I will introduce a simple model for this process.