In the previous episodes, we talked about talent: how to get it, how to retain it and how to mentor it for growth. This time, we’re going to deal with strategy. The strategy you can execute.
There are countless books, courses, and models on strategy. There are probably just as many strategy consultants.
Strategy is a multi-billion dollar business because companies need an edge when competing in a free market. To grow revenue, reputation, and market share, make their shareholders rich, keep their people employed and even make a positive impact on the planet. They need to have a strategy that sets them apart and leads to the best possible outcomes.
The problem is: strategy is a massively misinterpreted topic that can lead to failures, fired CEO’s, massive layoffs, collapses in value, missed opportunities and board members looking for new places to land.
How do you determine if a strategy is worth putting your company on the line for?
You simply test it for execution.
To decide whether or not to execute a particular strategy, you need to:
- Create a rigorous process with definable steps, capabilities, and resources.
- Analyze and debate whether the approach you’re taking will accomplish those steps.
- Determine whether you have the resources, capabilities, and people you need.
If your strategy passes this test, then it can be put into action. Don’t implement a strategy that has not passed each step in this process.
I’ve been in strategy discussions at every organizational level, at every stage of my business life. From the frontline sales force to the regional manager, the C-suite and the board.
I’ve seen many mistakes along the way.
There is nothing more frustrating than being in a room of people talking about strategy, who don’t actually know what a strategy is or how to operationalize it.
Notice: I haven’t talked about strategy as a “vision.” Too many people use vision in place of strategy. They’ll say,
- “Our strategy is to become #1 or #2 in the market.”
- “Our strategy is to be more customer-focused than our competitors.”
Sure. And my strategy is to become the next Jeff Bezos.
Can my strategy be achieved? Well, possibly. But there are a lot of steps, resources, needs and capabilities required.
If I define those and think about my strategy in the light of those needs… it will soon be apparent how possible, or impossible, it is for me to accomplish.
Strategy is not a vision. It’s a framework for determining what you need to do, how to react in response to certain variables and situations as they come up to achieve precise goals and sustainable outcomes.
Sound strategy is the one that guides what you do, and more importantly: what not to do. In other words, it’s more about practical actions than it is about grandiose dreams.
General Omar Bradley, America’s last five-star general, once bluntly said: “Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.” Bradley understood that it’s one thing to say the Army should do this, and it’s a completely different thing to develop a strategy which can make it happen.
Here are the 10 questions I ask all my clients to stress-test a strategy for execution.
#1. What’s the destination?
It starts with where. The ultimate goal, or winning aspiration, can be audacious and big. But the strategy also has to have legs to get there.
#2. What’s the need?
Strategies succeed when they meet customer demands. You need to carve out the market opportunity.
#3. What’s the problem to solve?
Why has no one filled those needs and gaps as well as you plan to do? How come others haven’t gotten there first? There must be something about the need that companies haven’t figured out yet, right? Name it in the most practical terms.
Be diligent. Missing proper problem definition can lead straight to failure.
Strategies are a spider web of actions and steps. Fundamentally, they’re about choices. When you encounter X, what do you do? If Y happens, what’s next?
Good strategy means it’s practical, flexible and focused. Therefore, it can get past almost every obstacle. It is a guide of what to do and what not to.
#5. What are the options?
Picking the right strategy means putting aside the wrong one. Options must be analyzed and weighed. Many roads can lead to Rome, in theory. Which ones have problems, holes, dangerous zones and misalignments? Which one doesn’t?
#6. What’s happening?
Context is critical. A strategy, like a market, never happens in a vacuum. What are the political, economic, behavioral, technological forces that are in play? Which one of the variables are likely to change?
If you assume everything will stay the same, you’re kidding yourself. Your strategy will be a flop. What we call “normal linear progression” and the steady state condition, looks good on paper.
But real life is so different.
#7. What does success look like?
Define the desired outcomes and outputs. Be as descriptive, detailed and precise as possible. Include the financial and operational measures. Figure out how employees, shareholders and the organization, as a whole will be affected. What’s the impact on brand, company, position, reputation, etc.?
Use figures, qualitative measures, but also YOUR intuition. Your gut.
#8. What do you need?
Call it, “capability.” What sort of resources, people, systems, processes, skills, funding – of course – will you need to succeed?
- How many of those do you have?
- Which ones do you need to build or buy?
- How difficult will it be?
Put everything into an example and make them as practical as possible. Don’t underestimate it. To be on the safe side, add a 20% markup on the final accounting.
#9. What are the milestones?
Every journey has markers that tell you how close you are getting. Your markers can, and should, be defined as points on a map that must be checked regularly to see if you’re on target. Revise, if needed.
If you don’t do this, then you will be surprised when the strategy doesn’t work. If you do, then you can assess the progress along the way. If there is a problem, figure out what you need to do differently.
#10. What’s the story you tell?
Communicating your strategy to the organization is critical. How do you get people to not only focus on the goals you set, but to believe in them and own them?
The best strategy is a story that lays out the plot and lets the details get written collaboratively.
- Explain with empathy.
- Be prepared to receive questions.
- Give persuasive and straightforward answers.
- Don’t assume your people are geniuses, or they have all the background.
You want them engaged as full participants and to become total supporters, eventually. Strategy is a challenging, and a simple thing. At the same time, it’s challenging because if anyone could do it, everyone would. Right?
It’s simple because it’s practical and real. People like being part of a strategy that works. It makes them feel engaged, skillful, experienced and valuable. They distance themselves from strategies that won’t work.
They say “it comes from the corner office”. That “the top executives are out of touch with the real world”. They stress about meeting unreasonable or impractical numbers. They waste a ton of energy second guessing.
- Bad organizations lack strategy.
- Good organizations have a strategy they follow, even if they struggle to accomplish its full potential.
- Great organizations are strategy machines.
They turn visions, blueprints, and goals into processes, plans and definable outcomes. They go into action like ants at a picnic. They figure out where the sugar is. Then, they line up to bring it home in a coordinated and practical fashion. It’s almost automatic.
If you want to discuss more strategies with my associates and I, do reach out.