The 5 Most Common Strategy Execution Challenges

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By Paul Bouvier 

5 minutes

And recommendations about what to do about them

Studies show that on average 67 percent of companies fall short in achieving their strategic goals. In the wise words of Stephen Covey, “Most leaders would agree they’d be better off having an average strategy with superb execution, then a superb strategy with poor execution.”  

So why is strategy execution so difficult? Is it process, people, systems? Who or what is responsible for the lack of strategic goal attainment? This article will address the most common strategy execution challenges while also providing change management recommendations that can be quickly adopted to begin the transformation to a highly effective strategy execution company.  

Let’s lay out a typical scenario that happens in many organizations today. The leadership team schedules a strategic planning offsite retreat where the brain trust of the company comes together to create the latest winning strategy. After two days or so, the team has agreed to a set of strategic goals critical to the growth and—potentially—the viability of the company. The strategic plan is pulled together in a nice tidy document and plans are made to share it at an upcoming all-staff meeting. 

At the meeting, excitement is high as the CEO and key executives share the plan for the future and what it will mean if it can be achieved. Everyone returns to their desks and, with each passing day the strategy becomes less top of mind. In a short time, the strategy is not even relevant to the day-to-day activities being performed.   

The five most common challenges in executing a strategic plan are:

1. Poor goal setting.

Strategic goals are often large and complex objectives that almost always require many resources scattered across many departments and locations to accomplish them. Establishing clear goals across teams will result in more clarity on priorities and responsibilities.

Recommendation: Ensure that your entire organization has adopted a goal-setting methodology. The objectives and key results (aka “OKRs") method is emerging as the new standard, but using SMART (goals— specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely) is better than nothing. Ensure that there are established best practices for writing goals. Each manager should be responsible for his or her team’s goals. If no best practices are being followed, use OKRs. 

2. Lack of alignment.

Even with proper goal-setting, teams and people can be challenged with a lack of alignment that typically causes prioritization issues and collaboration conflict that can derail the day-to-day work to achieve the strategic goal. The biggest cause of strategic misalignment is the nonstrategic work that people are so used to doing. Often nonstrategic objectives become the priority, as they are routine and often the most easily attained.

Recommendation: By establishing clear alignment on who is working on which strategic objective, as well as what each of those objectives are will empower those people to drive the priority over nonstrategic objectives. This is especially true if you can see the alignment straight through the hierarchical structure. 

3. Inability to track progress.

Many organizations are still using spreadsheets to track objectives. This can work between a manager and employee, however, these systems do not make it easy to aggregate results or create transparency. Worse, their use limits the ability to real-time manage the attainment of strategic goals. 

Recommendation: Consider using strategy execution platforms such as Tanics, AchieveIt or Rhythm Systems to change the way this game is played. Managers and employees, especially millennials, expect clear direction in real time on why and what is important. By improving alignment, transparency, collaboration and manageability an organization can immediately realize higher efficiency as well as more results. Knowing the score lets an organization and every person connected with that strategic goal adjust their game to maximize the outcome.  

4. People not connected to the strategy.

People in general like order and routine, so we are more likely to fall into an operational tactical focus where our efforts can result in immediate results. Unfortunately, strategic goals are rarely this easy and small in scope, so how do we get people working differently? The best way is to connect people more closely to strategy by aligning professional goals with personal interests. For example, learning new skills, having more responsibility, working with different people and teams, working outside their department on what we refer to as “strategy teams.”

Recommendation: Let people create their own strategic goals initially to capture their ambition and preference. Managers then work at trying to align that employees’ goal with the larger strategic plan. Shift the focus from “an employee working inside a department” to “an employee working towards a company’s strategic goal as part of a strategic team.”

5. No measurements or leading indicators.

The old proverb, “You manage what you measure,” is paramount to strategy execution. Without measurement, how do you manage the people and issues that can derail a strategic goal? You must set measurable goals, track them and manage them Having leading indicators like predictive analytics stimulates the management discussions at all levels.  

Recommendation 1: Start with only the most critical strategic goals, as this will reinforce the notion that strategy execution is the most critical focus. It will also make it easier to adopt the goals as it focuses on depth, not breadth. “Focus on less to accomplish more” is the right motto.

Recommendation 2: Adopt technology that can provide predictive analytics on goal attainment. For example, Tanics provides predictive analytics on individual goals using a proprietary algorithm based on the time span and timing of attainment updates. This provides a checkpoint for executives, managers and employees to review the current focus and allocation. Predictive analytics is not an exact science; however it provides a reflection point on how a goal is tracking. The more a goal has visibility the more a goal will be managed.

Changing how your organization executes strategy may seem like a complicated and challenging change management project, but it can be done relatively quickly and incrementally with immediate results. Start at the top. Executives have the most to gain and can certainly lead by example. Implement these best practices to start the transformation. 

  • Make the strategic goals clear. Use a methodology like OKRs to give the goals more structure.  
  • Set executive goals and demonstrate the leadership team’s focus on strategy.  
  • Make all strategic goals transparent to everyone. Show how each executive’s goals weave together. 
  • Use technology, as transparency and real-time tracking cannot be accomplished otherwise.
  • Show that you are measuring what matters, managing what matters and—more importantly—that you're going to attain what matters. cues icon 

Paul Bouvier is a co-founder and CEO of Tanics. He is passionate about leadership and strategy execution. The Tanics platform is an easy and fast tool to help organizations achieve their strategic goals. By improving alignment, transparency, collaboration and its ability to better manage strategic goals, an organization can significantly improve its results. 

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