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A set of simple, practical steps that you can take to improve your strategy implementation. In March 2015 the Harvard Business Review reflects upon a weakness that runs to the heart of modern management methods - while organisations are great at coming up with strategies, they are not good at implementing them. 2GC is expert at helping organisations become better at managing strategy implementation, and we know that there are some simple practical steps organisations can take to improve their effectiveness in this area. So in this month’s feature article, 2GC founder Gavin Lawrie shares some of our insights about these practical steps.

In “Why Strategy Execution Unravels - and What to do about it” (Harvard Business Review, March 2015), Donald Sull and others report the findings of a series of management surveys, and from this identify five factors that prevent effective strategy execution. Their five factors are flavours of two different barriers to effective strategy implementation that have each been noted already by others:

  1. Believing that the current organisational structure and operational processes will be sufficient to ensure the strategy is implemented, and,
  2. Trusting in the effectiveness of existing internal communication mechanisms (both up and down the organisation) to keep everyone informed about what the strategy is and how it is working out.

Despite its title, the article does not appear to contain any practical suggestions about what to do to remove these obstacles! As this is an area we know well, 2GC aim to make up for this absence and complete the story for you. In this feature and the five that follow it we draw upon our knowledge of the best academic and practitioner writings and our considerable experience gained working with clients to address these issues, to present a set of simple, practical steps that you can take to improve your strategy implementation.

Donald Sull’s article is treading on familiar ground: others have made similar observations about organisations’ inabilities to implement strategies over many years, using broadly similar methods. For example in 2006 Lawrence Hrebiniak (a Professor from Wharton Business School in the USA, whose 1984 book “Strategy Implementation” was a major milestone in the development of thinking about these issues), published an article called “Obstacles to Effective Strategy Implementation” (Organizational Dynamics Vol 35, No. 1, 2006). In his article, Hrebiniak also reports on survey findings and identifies five common factors that prevent effective strategy implementation (anything look familiar yet?).

Hrebiniak’s factors, although obtained from different surveys at a different time, link broadly to the same two obstacles as the five in the Sull article - a misplaced belief in the existing organisation structure and processes to get the strategy implementation job done, and an over-estimation of the effectiveness of internal communications to inform people about the strategy and how it is working out. The Hrebiniak article is slightly more useful insofar as it does at least begin to suggest what organisations can do to avoid these obstacles, but it provides recommendations only in the most general terms (effectively recommending the purchase of Hrebiniak’s 1984 book…).

The two barriers are well known, and perhaps unsurprisingly are encountered in many strategy implementation projects. As a firm that earns its living by helping organisations to implement their strategies better, 2GC has developed a good understanding of how to work-around the issues, and over time these understandings have coalesced into a concise practical framework that be used to guide practical work. Our standard framework ACME (see diagram below) is named for the acronym of its four steps.

Since both the Sull and Hrebiniak articles we referred to earlier identify five obstacles, for fun and symmetry we’ve added one extra bonus step to our ACME model for this feature series.

  1. Select the right destination (Articulate)
  2. A strategy is about change. It describes the route - the things that need to be done to get somewhere else, but often the endpoint of the journey is unclear. Best practice is to choose a strategy that:

    • satisfies your key stakeholders
    • can be reached
    • that you and your team believe in
  3. Get your organisation on board (Communicate)
  4. Your organisation needs to understand what they need to do (and probably why)

    • Use cascading to build alignment and relevance
    • Recognise the value of advocates
  5. Keep track of implementation (Monitor)
    • Strategic Performance Management tools
    • Can be linked to the cascading process
  6. Expect to make course-corrections (Engage)
    • Things almost certainly will not go as planned
    • Have regular reviews of progress
    • Adjust internal processes to allow in-flight changes to budgets and priorities
  7. Celebrate when you arrive (the bonus step!)
    • You have probably been to many ‘strategy launch events’ - but how many ‘strategy arrival parties’ have you been invited to?
    • Avoid always being on the journey: sometimes it is nice to arrive.

The ACME framework combines strong academic thinking on the topic with our unique practical insights gained from 16 years of practical work for organisations around the world. ACME is going to be featured in an academic paper to be published later this year, but if you would like to read more about how we developed the framework and the academic roots is builds upon then please get in touch.