Six steps for great strategy execution

September 20, 2018



Isn’t it frustrating?


The disappointment of another strategic planning offsite


If you’re like most businesses, you’ll start your session by reviewing how the current strategy is tracking. And if you’re still like most businesses, this is exactly where the disappointment kicks in. 


There’ll be shuffling of feet under the tables, eye contact avoided, the odd mumbled apology and tons of uncontrollable reasons why things aren’t going to plan.


Not a great way to begin a process that should be firmly focused on the future is it? Be honest…how many times has this happened to you?


Quite a few times we’re willing to bet.


The funny thing is, once that uncomfortable first hour or two is out of the way it’s somehow usually entirely forgotten. The rest of the offsite is full of optimism, great ideas and blue sky promises for the coming planning cycle. 


It’s the same, time after time after time…


"Small s, big E”


It’s a great little saying.


We reckon it’s the perfect way to emphasise the fact that great strategy ideas are one thing, but they’re always only ideas if not followed up with meticulous execution.


To reflect the “small s” thinking, formulating strategy should represent only about a maximum of 20% of your available effort. The remaining 80% of your focus should be on execution, reflecting the “big E”.


And execution needs to start before your strategic planning session ends. 


Here’s some tips to help make sure that strategy is executed as it should be.


Step One: “Fact Check” your strategic options 


During your strategy session, there’ll be some great ideas put on the table. Some building on strategies already underway, others introducing new strategies. Your first step in evaluating these ideas is to “fact check” them against your business purpose and vision.


Everyone around the table needs to be comfortable that each strategy under consideration plays a clear role in fulfilling the purpose and achieving the vision. If that clarity isn’t there at the outset, the idea should either be parked for further discussion or set aside entirely as being inappropriate for what the business is trying to achieve.


Don’t be tempted to talk yourselves into a strategy that doesn’t clearly fit with purpose and vision. 


It’ll do your business more harm than good in the long run.


That’s because pursuing strategy that’s a little “off-key” will only confuse your teams, your customers and your market.


Step Two: Prioritise


Once you’ve cut out those strategies that don’t gel with your purpose and vision, you may still have a list of priorities that from a practical point of view is simply too long relative to the resources you have. If that’s the case (which it probably will be given the tendency of the “corporate human” toward over-confidence) your list will need to be objectively prioritised.


“Objectively” is the operative word here. Without a ranking process there’s a danger that folks around the table will lock onto “pet” projects, arguing passionately for their inclusion as a priority. In such situations, strong personalities may win the day over logic and objectivity which won’t be a great outcome for the business.


Our favourite prioritisation tool is a simple matrix you can use to rate each possible strategic initiative on two dimensions - impact and effort. To be clear, we didn’t invent it (we’re great believers in not reinventing the wheel) and it works just beautifully. It looks like this:



At the risk of stating the obvious it’s about reaching agreement on allocating your various strategies to the appropriate quadrant: 


  • Those strategies making the most impact on your business purpose with least effort should be dropped in the top left hand quadrant;


  • Those with high impact but which require more effort and resources, into the top right hand quadrant;


  • Strategies that are low impact but at the same time can be implemented with relatively low effort should be in the bottom left; and


  • Low impact, high effort strategies should find their way into the bottom right quadrant.


Using a tool like this provides a framework for debate. And sticking to the impact and effort parameters reduces the risk of someone hijacking the conversation.


And how many strategies should you retain as priorities?


The answer is there’s really no right answer…


If you have lots of high impact, low effort strategies, then you can deal with more of those priorities. However, that probably won’t be the case so you’ll need to assess the total picture and agree around the table how many to pursue.


But rule of thumb...don’t ditch those high impact low effort strategies, but feel perfectly free to put low impact, high effort ones on hold until you have the capacity to deal with them or they move closer to the top left hand quadrant through changing circumstances.


As we said, we didn’t want to state the obvious...


Step Three: Apply sensible, realistic target dates


Having been through the impact/effort process you’ll now have a nice tight and prioritised list of strategic initiatives everyone has agreed the business should pursue. And looking at that list, you’ll realise that:


  • You cant’t do everything at once; and,


  • Even if you could, maximum impact from each initiative will be achieved over different time frames.


What we’ve noticed during many a strategic planning session is that everyone gets awfully excited about the possibilities. The tendency is to create grand visions of what’s possible without applying that filter known as a reality check. So be realistic about what’s achievable.


A great way to start is to use the “Horizons” model (again, we didn’t invent it). If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s all about allocating strategic initiatives based on whether they:


  • Support and protect your business (in the context of purpose) as it is today;


  • Provide the opportunity to give life to emerging businesses that are already visible and showing “green shoots”; and


  • Facilitate the creating of truly new businesses that will support your purpose in the future - maybe five years out and beyond.


These are known as horizon one, horizon two and horizon three initiatives respectively. Who’d have thought?!


Knowing and agreeing where each of your strategic initiatives sit in this model enable the business to pursue each concurrently and with appropriate resource allocation.


Step Four: Allocate single point accountability


At this point, you should now have agreement why each strategy is appropriate (they fit with your business purpose), the priorities (according to impact and effort) and appropriate time frames (with the help of the “Horizons” model).


What you might not have just yet is single point accountability.


It’s critical your team comes to an agreement about who “owns” each strategic initiative.


That’s not to say that individual is wholly responsible for making it work. It is to say that the owner of the initiative ought to be accountable for ensuring it progresses through the various milestones that are ultimately determined as appropriate.


In order to do that, the initiative owner is the person responsible for:


  • Rallying the necessary resources


  • Regularly reporting progress to the team:


  • Highlighting successes along the way; 


  • Noting any potential slippages; and,


  • Seeking help and input where necessary.


Single point accountability is critical - a strategic initiative without it is destined tot fail.


Step Five: Build your business plan


Your strategy is of course aimed at outlining the bigger picture direction for your business in the context of purpose. 


Once you’ve agreed what you need to agree during all the first four steps of this process, you need to make sure business plans are created that break down each of your strategies into the operational activities that must happen to bring those strategies to life.


The “what, when, and who” goals and objectives that drive the activity of the business on a day to day basis.


As we’ve written about many times in the past, business and activity planning is next to pointless if not driven by your strategy (which in turn ought to be driven by purpose and vision). 


This is why we include business planning as part of any discussion on strategy and strategic planning - it’s the “Big E” we mentioned at the outset. 


Step Five: Review, refine, add and subtract


We probably don’t have to say too much on this point - it’s self explanatory.


Ok…maybe one thing…


The review process needs to be undertaken regularly. And again, from a completely objective viewpoint. 


For example, if things appear to be going to plan, apply a stress test. Don’t be afraid to really challenge the initiative owner who should similarly be ok with being challenged. Better to identify any changes in direction, additional resources, and even to make a “no-go” decision sooner than later. It’ll save a lot of time and anxiety.


If things really are on track, celebrate the success to date. 


It’s also quite ok to ditch initiatives - circumstances change, the environment changes, all sorts of things can occur that mean a strategic shift or two becomes necessary. 


Step Six: Communicate, communicate, communicate


This is all about bringing your teams along for the strategic ride. Don’t underestimate the desire of your team members to understand the bigger picture of the business they work in and how their own role contributes to that bigger picture - your business purpose.


We’ve posted on this in the past and their remains no doubt that this is critical for team engagement creating discretionary effort.


It’s a no brainer and not difficult.


Communicate frequently, with consistent messaging and using different media to suit the circumstances and audience.


Oh, and be totally transparent in your messaging. Your teams will see through anything less. That’s a guarantee.


How’s your business rate?


If you read this post and can genuinely say “in our business we do all this…” that's great. Congratulations.


However, if you find yourself among the other 99% of businesses where there are gaps, you’re in great company.


We believe the most successful businesses are those driven by purpose in everything they do.


That belief permeates everything we do. And we’d love to count you as a contributor to our revolution!


If you’ve always wanted to make a difference in business and need a nudge in the right direction, we’d be delighted to provide just the nudge you need. So give us a call or drop us a line. We’d love to hear from you.


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