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Executing the 6 A's of Strategy

Strategic management requires clarity of vision and mission. Equally important is execution. Mistakes in planning are usually addressable with a flexible process that can place the strategy back on course. Poorly executing will often sink the prospects of the strategy. Execution risks center on those that arise from the operationalization of the strategy. It is the curse of dimensionality that is the problem: the number of interaction points multiplies as you go from the broad scope of strategy to the particular of who, when, and why are we executing the strategy.

Executing the Strategy. During the planning stage, the major issue is misidentifying or evaluating a risk. During execution, the emerging threats are from the people involved and designing the process to achieve the objective. The challenge is that these emerging risks are at the operational level, which during planning were not an area of focus. Linking the strategic imperatives to people tasked with executing the operation is the paramount challenge.

The overarching concern during execution is one of culture. How does the enterprise align people? What about partners? How does the organization deliver on its projects? How does it respond when the unexpected occurs? Is there a structure for learning? Innovation? How does the organization adapt its focus when the marketplace changes? As enterprises are a collection of people with shared objectives, managing risk in execution is one of ensuring that the people involved shared common core beliefs and exhibit the traits that enable the organization to deliver on its promises.

Even with a good cultural fit, there is not a guarantee of success. The execution of a strategy is an exercise in change management, whether the change is a result of planning or imposed by an external force. Regardless of the force driving the change, project management is the tool that acts to deliver change through measuring and monitoring. These help the enterprise act when mines lay in the path, and critically when change arrives in the form of an unexpected meteorite.

Meteorites are unavoidable, and thus the enterprise must ensure that it can adapt to change. One of the ways it can reduce the risk from meteorites is to instill a culture of learning and innovation. The key result of this culture is that the organization will be on the forefront of change and will reduce exposure to unexpected meteorites. Even when the unexpected arrives, an organizational with a strong culture can change focus and re-position for the new challenge.

Align. Delivering a successful strategy requires people, and the first question to ask in the process of execution is who needs to be there? Who are the people internally that can need to be there? Who are our external partners that need to be involved? Equally important to the outcome is how to align the people with the organization. How to communicate the strategic objectives? How to motivate people to achieve the results? How to align the resources of the company to the goal? The critical outcome is communicating the key success factors that will deliver the strategy.

Organizational change may also require aligning new processes and platforms for the enterprise. The critical dimension when changing processes or platforms is resistance from people. As before, communication of the objectives, aligning motivation and incentives, will help to overcome resistance. Equally important is having a culture open to change. People that understand the need to learn and innovate the business are critical to ensuring a culture that can execute on operational change. The right people in the right places when executing on a change in process and platforms will deliver a positive result.

Communication is the transmission mechanism that aligns the strategic goals with operational activities. As with all communication, the two critical aspects are conveying the intended objectives and ensuring that the people who will execute the strategy are aligned. It is no secret that unclear goals and lack of commitment can doom the best-laid plans, while unmotivated people tend not to deliver the best outcomes. Since alignment is necessarily a discussion of culture, it is essential for the organization to ensure that the traits necessary for success are in place and the incentives aligned.

Act. To deliver projects and market position is a question of when will it be done. Mines litter the process when acting on strategy and serve to delay the execution. One delayed project can cascade through the whole program and result in missed opportunities, higher costs, and a rush to complete the project results in a decline of quality. Conveying the timing and ensuring that people are committed is the challenge with alignment addressing the latter and project management tools addressing the former.

Change is not easy for any enterprise; however, the tools of project management and marketing enable action on a strategy and help manage risk in the changing enterprise. The critical aspects are the trade-offs are between the speed of execution, cost, and the quality of the outcome. The trade-offs are similar in the external environment: how fast, how much, and at what level of quality. Timing is of absolute importance when managing a program of projects that necessitates coordination of projects.

This process involves an explicit means to measure success and a process to monitor progress towards the objectives. Risks will remain from the identified mines and meteorites that were unforeseen. As the environment changes, mines deliver setbacks, and unexpected meteorites occur, the enterprise needs to understand when strategic drift is occurring and adapt the strategy as necessary.

Adapt. Even with proper alignment, action, the enterprise needs to know why they achieved an outcome, which is equally important to the actual outcome. Internally, the enterprise learns from the strategy process about its environment and develops innovative new capabilities through its execution. The enterprise can reassess its capabilities and resources by developing these insights, which through further analysis delivers new alternatives. The is the ultimate outcome: new strategic choices.

In an environment of constant change, an organizational ability to learn and innovate is the only sustainable process. The greatest risk doesn’t come from an inability to deliver the lowest cost or highly differentiated product. It is the ability of the enterprise to adapt to the changing environment and learn from its actions that determine its long-term viability.

A singular focus on enterprise learning will help to manage the greatest risk of all: obsolescence. Learning is a function of focus: what does the customer want, how can we improve it, how can I make or deliver it more efficiently? Artfully asking questions on how to improve is the focus of the innovative enterprise. Natural selection long ago provided the validation that innovation is the key element of sustainability.

The enterprise will rise and fall based on its ability to adapt. Market position provides the external validation of the success or failure of a given strategy. Enterprises that continue to learn from their customers and innovate to meet their needs will enjoy a superior market position, while those that fail to ask the right questions will find the answers delivered for them.

Strategy Risk. Developing a strategy process is as much an exercise in asking questions as it is in following a prescribed process. The method provides a rigor to ensure as much as possible is identified in advance and to develop answers through a scientific process. Mines will show up throughout the process from assessing to adapting. The goal of the strategy is achieving the mission while managing the mines.

Unfortunately, meteorites will occur that will make all past strategies redundant. The enterprise must focus on learning and innovation to handle the risk from meteorites, which helps it to adapt to the new environment. The ability to change is mostly a function of people and the culture of the enterprise. A rigid culture limits the number of insightful questions and the follow-on answers. An enterprise that accepts change as a constant can evolve with the market and that the possibility of realizing its vision and mission continues.

This article is the third in a four-part series on The 6 A's of Strategy, which discusses strategy as a process. Part one is found here.

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