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Shrinking the gap between strategy and execution


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While it is universally acknowledged that a successful business move is made up of sound strategy and dogged execution, there are many pitfalls to avoid along the way. There are certain issues that can widen the gap between strategy and execution, no matter how waterproof the strategy was, to begin with.


Research conducted by the Harvard Business Review a few years ago confirms this. When 80 senior executives from 20 countries and 25 industries were surveyed, it was found that there were certain barriers to long-term execution in common across geographies and industries.


Barriers to Long-term Execution

  1. A lack of interaction and collaboration between employees, as felt by 76% of the surveyed population. In other words, when people fail to come together towards a common goal, in this case, work together at critical junctures along the path to execution, the entire project flounders.

  2. Top brass typically has a tendency to think of formulation and execution as two discrete, distinct phases with employee engagement and active participation as a “filler” rather than a major ingredient. In fact, it is one of the important factors in making a project a success.

  3. Redefining organizational structures, reinventing processes or making changes to governance is all too common with a new strategy on the horizon. But it has a tendency to backfire: because when strategy execution kicks off with changes to established structures, modes of governance, and processes, it can spark anxiety and brew resistance among employees, cause morale to plummet and engagement levels to drop. This can even escalate to widespread doubt about whether the organization can survive change.

  4. Making changes to organizational structure or realigning decision modalities is the time-honoured approach used during stable business times. Though “safe,” it really doesn’t cut it when turbulent times call for more drastic alterations to deeply entrenched old methods. At such times, it is important to include personnel into the discussion across the board, rather than rely on a few top honchos to make decisions that impact everyone and affect various aspects of the business.


How can you shrink the gap between strategy and execution?


It helps to think of strategy as somewhat mutable, not set in stone. Successful companies tend to think of strategy not as a plan or protocol but more as a series of decisions to be made effectively and executed over a period of time. They make near-term course adjustments keeping the big picture and ultimate destination in mind. They envision and evaluate various paths they can take to get there and choose the best option available at the time.


An example of strategic course correction to revive a flagging, once prominent brand is the tech giant IBM’s widely hailed comeback story. Though a force to be reckoned with in the 1980s, IBM ended up becoming siloed, failing to become multi-dimensional in response to the rapidly evolving computing needs in the industry. The result was epic losses and a loss of its market-leader status.


Louis Gerstner, IBM’s new CEO in 1993, was instrumental in revising the company’s business strategy and reinvention from a multinational purveyor of high technology to a more comprehensive shared-services partner. It involved weaning off the dependence on hardware sales to offering the best stack of technology and services to their clients, for one thing, and bailing out on low growth and low margin products and technologies. Other changes included cost-cutting measures like consolidating marketing, branding efforts under one single agency instead of spreading it over many as was done in the past. Moreover, making employee pay dependent on overall company performance instead of individual departmental performance added an extra layer of cohesiveness and purpose in execution. The new strategies paid off big time, and the rest is history.


Lessons from giants like IBM help identify the areas where strategic execution is likely to fail and advise what bold new measures need to be deployed. When it comes to shrinking the gap between planning and execution, it helps to study examples of success stories and cautionary tales of failed strategies.

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