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How to Design a Strategy Execution Plan

Header image showing a road with many switchbacks, starting at 2020 and ending at 2021. The road winds around 6 different icons representing 6 different stages of activating a plan.

by Aric Wood

December 23, 2020


Q: I’ve invested a lot of time and resources to create an exciting new strategy for my organization. How do I bring my vision to life?

A: You design a strategy execution plan to pave the way and get people onboard. Six steps and a few tips and tools are all it takes.

(Part 2 of our series on organizational strategy, “How to Design a Strategy Execution Plan” is also available as a webinar with expanded content. Part 1 of this series, “Overcome Strategy Failure: Three Principles to Bring Your Strategy to Life” explains why 80% of launched strategies fail and presents three powerful principles to help you successfully implement your strategy.)

Making change happen is a monumental task. How do you move people from passively hearing a change initiative to actually accepting and living it? We create what we call an activation plan.

Components of an Activation Plan

An activation plan combines the change you want to see with what we know about how people adapt to change, giving you a roadmap of activities to get people onboard. Activation plans have three components:

  • Stakeholders. People are the key to making any change happen, and different stakeholders are at different places on the activation curve.
XPLANE's Activation Curve Graph: Phase 1 is Hear it (via strategic communications), Phase 2 is Believe it (via strategic learnings), Phase 3 is Live it (via experience)

You want to move them up the curve with messages and activities that meet them where they are.
There’s no “one size fits all” communication plan.

  • Existing milestones in the organization’s lifestyle, as well as some new ones, define the boundaries of the activation plan.
  • Building blocks. Specific interventions, or building blocks, make up the plan. You need to target these at specific stakeholder
    groups to move individuals up the activation curve.

Tools for Creating an Activation Plan

XPLANE uses three key tools in creating effective strategy activation plans.

  • Empathy is our number one tool. To move people up the curve, we need to understand them. What are they excited about? What do they fear? Empathy helps us get people from “no” to “go.”
  • Research helps us understand the structural dynamics of the organization. How are employees distributed? Are they in one office or in multiple offices around the world? Do some people work from home? Research also helps us understand a company’s communication channels and training infrastructure. We can leverage these to communicate our plan—we don’t necessarily need to reinvent the wheel. 
  • Deep anthropology and observation skills can help us uncover potential barriers to change. We want to anticipate these barriers in our plan.

The Six Phases of Creating an Activation Plan

Using empathy, research, and observation, we can start to build an activation plan, which consists of six distinct phases.

Phase 1. Understand the Stakeholders. Your first task is to understand your primary stakeholder groups and determine the role you need each group to play. You can do this in three steps.


Step 1. Brainstorm a list of five to six stakeholder groups. What groups within the organization have common needs, wants, or
different points of view?


Step 2. Complete XPLANE’s Who/Do exercise to determine what you need each group to understand and to do
(or stop doing, or do differently).

WhoDo Completed Worksheet

Step 3. Obstacles will probably hinder your ability to take action. Address these by focusing on concerns by group. Here are some examples:


Leaders are essential because you need them to advocate for change and resource the initiative. You’ll want to answer these questions for leaders:

  • Will the strategy achieve our objectives?
  • Is this the best investment of our resources?

People managers are the connective tissue between leadership and the work that gets done. You want them to be engaged and
equipped to inspire their teams. For managers, you might answer these questions:

  • What are we doing and why?
  • How will you equip me to be successful?
  • What’s my role in this initiative?

Staff needs to understand, accept, and contribute to the change. For them, you’ll need to answer questions like:

  • Why is this better than the old way?
  • What’s in it for me?
  • Is our culture going to change as a result of all of this growth?

Phase 2. Get to Know the Organization

How do people at your organization get their information? Look at the grapevine and the organization as a whole to find ways to leverage information channels. Some key questions to ask:

  • What are our formal communication channels?
  • What are our informal communication channels?
  • Are there environmental reminders in the organization that we can take advantage of?
  • What are the unique rituals or elements of this company that we should consider in our design?

Step 1. Use a quick post-up exercise to document the communication channels that already exist in your organization.

XPL_Branded Illustration_Transparent Bkgd 6a

Remember, there’s no reason to build something new if you can take advantage of something that’s working well.


Step 2. Arrange sticky notes into groups by communication channel type:

  • Formal communication channels, such as quarterly town hall meetings, the company intranet, and daily team meetings.
  • Informal communication channels, such as social channels, one-on-one conversations with managers, and peer-to-peer conversations.
  • Environmental communication channels, such as video monitors, posters, swag, and entryway wall displays.

Phase 3. Address Barriers


What obstacles will you encounter along the way? Research can be time-consuming and costly, so we came up with some quick
ways to gather this information.


Option 1: A card sort exercise, such as Discovery Cards, can help you quickly identify traits present in your organization that
together form a snapshot of your workplace’s culture, attitudes, and beliefs.


Use the Discovery Cards to get a handle on cultural challenges and opportunities at your company. These cards fall into four
categories:  growth challenges, culture challenges, potential crisis issues, and possible solutions. Why are these insights so important?

  • They help you introduce your strategy in a way that acknowledges the realities in your organization and position your strategy
     as the solution that stakeholders wish to see
  • Sometimes these answers lead to additional questions. What is it that we want to preserve about the past? What things can we
     let go? Why are people resistant to change?
  • Depending on what we learned, we might want to uncover deeper insights.

Option 2 (for additional insights): XPLANE’s Barriers to Change cards  identify obstacles across six categories, including solution
 alignment and execution.

  • BEST PRACTICE: At this stage, XPLANE will often develop a content and messaging brief that summarizes key themes to address throughout the activation program.
Content Brief and Messaging

Phase 4. Discover Fixed Milestones


What are the scheduled events, driving deadlines, and other constraints that could help shape the cadence of your plan?


For instance, do you have a scheduled town hall during which you could launch the strategy?


Phase 5. Create the Plan

At this point, you can actually get down to creating your plan.

Step 1. Frame up the boundaries of your plan using stakeholder groups, timelines, and milestones.

XPL_Blog_How to Design an Activation Plan_Activation Roadmap_Blank

In this illustration, stakeholder groups appear on the y-axis, and the timeline and key milestones go along the x-axis.


Step 2. Add details—or building blocks—to fill out the plan.

XPL_Blog_How to Design an Activation Plan_Change Activation_Building Blocks Cheat Sheet

Building blocks are interventions that work well for specific activation goals. There are various ways to share your strategy. How
do you best share it with your organization to get people involved?


We know that co-creation is powerful. Oftentimes, the best way to get people engaged is to have them help shape solutions.


We also want to be sure that people can personalize the story. Give people a line of sight into how they fit into a new strategy
—and then help equip them with the skills, behaviors, or support they need to actually do things differently.

XPL_Blog_How to Design an Activation Plan_Activation Roadmap_Filled
  • BEST PRACTICE: Flip learners into teachers. Any time that you can get people to learn information, share it, and teach others, they actively move up the activation curve.

Phase 6. Refine the Plan

Look back over your work to be sure you’ve covered your bases. Have you addressed the unique needs of each key stakeholder group?  Do you have a way to address issues and barriers? Add or subtract building blocks to address holes in your plan.

Bring Your Vision to Life

Designing a strategy execution plan is never easy work, but the process gives you a deeper understanding of your organization and the people in it.


If you can get people onboard, you’ll have gone a long way toward moving your organization to an exciting new place.


To hear this webinar in full, go to Practical Tools to Design a Strategy Activation Plan.


To learn more about XPLANE’s activation thought leadership, check out these additional blog posts.


For free, downloadable templates, tools, and exercises, visit our worksheets page. The card decks outlined above are available for purchase in our store.


Lastly, we’d love to get your feedback and ideas.

How do you engage people with a new initiative and get them actively engaged in moving forward?

In this three-day course, you will move from feeling frustrated that you can't get people on board with change to effectively applying a powerful process that moves people from alignment to adoption and a personalized strategy activation plan for your organization. Enroll today!