6+1 tips on how to make your next digital strategy execution a success

It looks deceivingly simple, doesn’t it? Above illustration describes – in all its simplicity – how strategy execution is perceived. Unfortunately, truth is different.

In 2015 Harvard Business Review conducted a survey about strategic execution. They discovered that:

  • More than 400 Global CEOs found that executional excellence was the #1 challenge they faced, coming at the top of some 80 other issues.
  • Out of 8,000 managers in more than 250 companies, respondents said they were three times as likely to miss performance commitments due to insufficient support from other units.
  • Out of 144 C-level executives found that only 10% said they implemented two-thirds or more of their core strategic initiatives in the year.

It is also worth mentioning that in the strategic management literature, there are lot more contributions on strategic planning than execution. This is somewhat concerning since without effective implementation, no business strategy – no matter how good – can succeed.

What are the main reasons for strategic execution failures? This has been studied during recent years and even though their methods are different, all the studies reach to more or less same conclusions. Here is a list of categories where main reasons usually fall into:

  • Organization structure
  • Resources (lack of or wrong)
  • Leadership
  • Time
  • Organization culture
  • Uncontrollable external factors
  • Distractors

Some of these can be changed to better accommodate execution, but if that’s not possible, then their effect needs to be minimized. How to do that? Here I will offer 6 tips and 1 bonus tip for better digital strategy execution.

1 – Roles and Responsibilities need to be (super) clear

In just about every scientific study, organizational structure is blamed as the most common reason for strategy execution failure. Quite often I see that organizations change their structure to better accommodate execution, but it still fails. In my experience, most of the time reasons boil down to something as simple as Roles and Responsibilites. If these 2 things are not clear to everyone, it creates lot of confusion, overlap and friction. Rapid decision making is crucial and for that it needs to be clear what role decides what and who occupies what role.

It is best to approach this by creating roles that the execution needs and then map out responsibilities to those roles. Only after that has been done, it is recommended to assign those roles to people. Remember: one person CAN occupy multiple roles. If at any moment during execution, there is unclarity between roles and responsibilities, it needs to be addressed immediately.

2 – Just Enough Planning

There are 2 ends of the spectrum: careful detailed planning process and full anarchy, which some might call “full agile approach”. Even though I am a big supporter of agile principles and agile way of working, it is not wise to start execution without some planning.

My recommendation is often: “Do just enough planning”. What is enough then? When execution starts, organization need to know what their destination is and what is the first step to get there. Generally, it means that planning process should include creation of a roadmap and a blueprint.

Roadmap describes destination, a goal, where company wants to go. Roadmap should include good understanding and details on what needs to be done first, to move towards that destination. But the further the road goes, it becomes less and less detailed. Road is never a straight line and there will be unexpected obstacles, that’s why planning process is a continuous process throughout the execution. Even the actual destination might change during execution! Roadmap planning continues during the execution with focus on always detailing next steps. What needs to be achieved next in order to move closer to our destination?

Blueprint is kind of like architectural drawing of a house before building starts. It maps out all the known required dependencies and new systems being built. Just like roadmap, blueprint needs to be reviewed and updated constantly during execution. Without a blueprint, it is very easy to paint yourself into a corner. You might make technology choices, that don’t serve bigger purpose or you might end up having multiple systems storing same data without a single master system, like for example having 2 CRMs.

3 – Full Transparency on all levels

Unless there is legal regulation preventing teams and individuals to share data and their progress, like GDPR, then everything related to execution needs to be made available to everyone involved. All meeting memos, decisions, backlogs, source codes, etc. Full transparency serves the execution on so many levels:

1. It creates environment where people can trust each other
2. It prevents social loafing because no one can hide behind closed doors.
3. Information is always available to everyone

4 – Clear and Transparent method for prioritization

Resource issue was 2nd most common category when scientific studies examined reasons for strategic execution failures. Fact is, that there will always be lack of resources when it comes to implementation and execution, that cannot be prevented. Therefore, it is crucial to have a method for prioritization between projects and tasks so that all the available resources are allocated in most efficient way as possible. Whatever this method is, it needs to be clear, unambiguous, and transparent to everyone.

Why is this so important? Projects tend to have different (business) owners. Having five projects on to-do list and resources only to implement three of those will hurt two business owners and their businesses. Blow will be lot softer if the prioritization method is so clear that everyone understands reasoning behind it. Without, it will just increase change resistance, social loafing and tension between businesses inside the organization.

5 – Constant Coordination between programs/initiatives

This might be obvious one, but still today programs and projects are being executed inside their own silos with very limited communication or interaction between them. Very often, almost always, programs have dependencies to each other so there needs to be systematic method of coordination between them. That way dependencies and possible blockers can be identified – and solved – before they become even bigger problems.

6 – Flexible budgeting inside a boundary

I cannot emphasize enough how crucial this is. This point is heavily linked on “Just Enough Planning”. During the execution, there will be unexpected new obstacles that weren’t anticipated, there will be unforeseen external factors (like wars and pandemics), there will be projects that will be seen as unnecessary. Some projects will take up more resources than expected and some projects will take less. Point is that even though budgeting is important, there needs to be room for maneuvering inside the strategy execution. There needs to be ability to do re-budgeting between projects even during a calendar year. This brings flexibility to the execution and really fosters organizational agility.

Bonus: Business and IT need to work together.

There shouldn’t be any handovers between business and IT were business requests something and then IT delivers it. Business and IT need to work together during the execution. That means that business people need to get their hands dirty and IT people need to understand business drivers behind the execution. In my experience best result has always come when business and IT have been in the same boat from start to finish.

How can MC help?

Formulating a strategy, vision and purpose has been at the very core of Marketing Clinic’s services for close to 20 years. Today Marketing Clinic, together with Knowit, has also the experience, competence and capability to be your trusted partner all the way from strategic planning to strategy execution and also taking care of your digital services operative responsibilities.

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