“Strategy Execution” is a Dying Industry…

and I am a Strategy Execution Consultant

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Published on: May 2017

Written by: Megan Lambert

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My business is strategy execution. It almost sounds violent, doesn’t it?

“Strategy execution” in the traditional sense means the C-suite at the top set the direction and how to get there (the strategy), then it travels like telephone (“cascades”) down the organization until the people at the bottom carry out their marching orders (in theory).

This idea is rooted in command-and-control mindset, based on a tidier, more orderly world where a leader could actually plan 1-3 years in the future and be reasonably certain they knew what was coming.

That world no longer exists.

The world is changing so fast that as soon as the ink is dry on your grand strategic plan, chances are good that the strategy is no longer relevant. As soon as you have your town hall or offsite or CEO speech on the new strategy, it is time to change it again.

So what does “strategy execution” mean now?

    1. It starts with purpose. The role of the C-Suite is no longer to answer the “what” and the “how” of the strategy but to define the “why.” Why does the company exist? And making a profit is not enough of a “why” – profit is a byproduct of satisfied employees and customers. For example, one of my client’s purpose is “Better Patient Outcomes.” The purpose becomes the guiding light of the organization, as employees can use the purpose to gut-check business decisions and priorities – is this taking us closer or further from our purpose? “A person without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder.” –Thomas CarlyleA real life example: A leader is faced with a decision on whether to invest in a drug that would be very profitable but help a small number of specialized cases, or invest in a drug that is less profitable but would create better patient outcomes for thousands. Ideally, the leader uses the organization’s purpose to make that decision.
    2. Leaders need to be great listeners. The real intelligence of where the company needs to go comes from the hundreds or thousands of “sensors” on the ground – also known as the frontline people who interact with the customers. These people have the insights and perspective on what’s working, what’s not, and what’s needed next. The role then of the C-suite is to keep their ear to the ground and listen for patterns and themes emerging from the frontline. This requires deep listening and holding space for multiple perspectives to emerge. From these patterns, the executives can set a rough trail for the company.This listening-for-intuition approach is radically different than how we traditionally set strategy. Traditionally the C-suite, along with some high paid strategy consultants, get in a room, analyze a bunch of data, put together a PowerPoint deck, and boom, they have a strategy.
    3. Rely heavily on the frontline. By contrast, the future strategy-setting of listening to all the sensors at the frontline requires an enormous amount of humility – the leader needs to admit that he or she doesn’t have the answers and they need to be willing to ask the questions and listen. As Tom Chi, founder of Google X, put it: “Knowing is the enemy of learning.” Leaders need to let go of what they think they know to make space for what they might learn.
    4. Be open to constant input and feedback. At some point, the leader might set the rough trial, but in doing so, they need to be open to constant input and feedback from their “sensors” – frontline people and customers – and adjust the direction accordingly. As our innovation practice leader says, “Be careful not to fall in love with the solution.” If the plan (and the leader!) is not explicitly open to critical feedback, the direction likely won’t adapt in time and could become irrelevant quickly.
    5. Push decisions downwards. Finally, decisions need to be made by the people who have the concrete insights to make them – namely the people on the frontline. Traditionally, someone on the frontline might notice something, share it with their boss, who runs it by their boss, who presents it to their boss, who makes the decision. Then the frontline leader carries it out. That process is slow and inefficient, not to mention, demoralizing for the frontline. On a practical level, this type of decision-making simply doesn’t work fast enough for the company to be agile and respond to new feedback.

Instead, leaders need to trust their people and let go. Set the purpose, then encourage your team to make the decisions that are best for the customer. Give the front line leaders full autonomy and decision-making control, with the guiding light of customer satisfaction and organization purpose. As CEO of FAVI, Jean-Francois Zobrist put it, “You work for the customer. I don’t pay you. They do.”

  • During our business leadership programs at BTS, we help participants make better decisions by considering the organization purpose and weighing the impact on the customer. Our CEO, Henrik Ekelund, said, “Our programs should not only sell one particular strategy, they should also teach how to think strategically – so participants are equipped to develop strategies.”

In summary, “strategy execution” as we know it is dying. The way we have created and translated strategy no longer makes sense in a rapidly changing and uncertain world.

The new world invites forward a new type of leader – one who is humble, open to critical feedback, and purpose-driven. “Strategy execution” requires having a clear organization purpose (the why) as the guiding light and then trusting leaders to make decisions accordingly, adapting the strategy (the how) as they go. Or as we taught in a recent program, “We are firm on purpose and flexible on strategy.”

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