Why Your Strategy Activation Fails

Most companies fail at strategy execution. Why? Despite a lot of talk, most leaders don’t clearly articulate what people should do or why they should care.

They fail to make meaningful connections between the strategy and the people who need to implement it. It’s not for lack of trying. When it comes to strategy activation, most corporations have tools like vision and mission statements, values, a North Star, purpose, principles, and ways of working.

But all of that has become such a confusing clutter of navigational tools that leave employees — and even department heads — unsure where the company is headed. Functional teams spinning away in silos, headed in different directions, and focused on different priorities, can’t execute any strategy effectively.

Employees see a new message every month or two, which is designed to lead and inspire them, but after a while it becomes white noise, and people quit paying attention.

Vision, purpose, mission, North Star, or principles—or whatever you call these navigational tools—are a vital way to unite employees so they can articulate what you are trying to accomplish, coordinate their efforts, and get moving in the same direction.

But it’s a mistake to think of these tools as marketing messages. You should think of them as tools. To be useful and valuable, each navigation tool should answer a specific question. 

Navigation requires answers to just five questions:

  1. What do we do that is unique?
  2. Where are we going?
  3. Why do we do what we do?
  4. How do we work together?
  5. What needs to happen, by when?

Be Clear

Companies can have one piece of navigation, or three to four, as long as they clearly answer these five questions and do not conflict with each other.

Everyone in the organization needs to see clearly what the company does that is unique, where the company is headed, why the work is important, what principles guide decisions and behaviors, and what is the timeframe. Then strategy and priorities will begin to make sense.

Be Consistent

Priorities may change, but vision, purpose, and values don’t change from year to year. Shifting direction every few months is like a pilot announcing midflight that you are headed to New Delhi instead of New York.

Consistency helps people feel confident about where they are going and helps them make the right decisions to get there. Consistency helps teams align, move in the same direction, and focus on the right things.  

Be Authentic

Some companies spend a lot of time and money word-smithing a vision or mission statement into a work or art. But if employees know it’s just an internal marketing message, it will fail. If they don’t believe the message or don’t see executives supporting it, they will become cynical. 

Make it authentic and real, and employees will invest more in making sure the company gets there.  People support what they help create. If you want your tools to be authentic, involve people in the process of creating them.

Lose the Labels

It doesn’t matter what you call each navigation tool; what matters is that they help people understand, so they can activate your strategy.

In some companies, purpose has replaced vision; other companies incorporate their purpose into the vision; and some have only a mission. Those labels become confusing; it’s the answers to the five questions that matter.

Sharpen your Scissors

Simply adding another message will only make things worse. Look at existing navigational tools and test them against the five questions. Figure out what question each piece answers, and then eliminate any that don’t provide the answers and contribute to clarity. Use only enough tools to be clear and no more.

Understand That Strategy is The “How”

It’s appealing to try to squeeze strategy into a mission statement or confuse the navigational tools with strategy questions. Any “how” question is part of your strategy.

  • How do we get there?
  • How to we work together?
  • How do we know what to do?
  • How do we reach out goals?
  • How do we know if we succeed?

These are important questions, but only after there are clear answers to these five navigational questions.

Cynthia Owens is a Senior Consultant at XPLANE.
Drew Mattison is a Senior Vice President of Account Services at XPLANE.

See what a successful strategy implementation plan looks like.

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November 23, 2016
Cynthia Owens