Bringing business strategy to life: dos and don'ts

Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, once said “I’d rather have a first-rate execution and second-rate strategy any time than a brilliant idea and mediocre management.” Business literature is full of the perils of effective execution.

Here are some “Dos and don’ts” derived from an Executive sub-group that spent last year planning then implementing a new corporate strategy. They may resonate for other organisations.


1. Do partner at senior levels during the planning phase

Each member of the sub-group partnered with a colleague who was not involved to keep them abreast of progress, discussions and decisions. This minimised surprises when proposals were put to the full Executive team and improved the quality of discussions. Furthermore the partnering process worked so well that they adopted the principle by extending “buddying” to important external stakeholders as the strategy was communicated more broadly

2. Do increase the transparency of decision making

Strategy is as much about choosing what not to do as it is about choosing the way forward. The strategy process involves lots of “what if” discussions and evaluation of possible options. The sub-group developed a series of criteria (e.g. time to market, risk, cost, exploitation of existing strengths, potential reach, etc) against which to evaluate options. Share the results of these conversations during execution to help people understand the context for the chosen way forward

3. Do clarify strategy and other relevant factors

The sub-group get involved on a number of occasions on debating the capability of the organisation and its leadership to accept and/or implement different courses of action. What should we do – constrain ourselves by what we think we can achieve or respond purely to market needs and opportunities? After a while this group decided it could not focus purely on responding to the outside world and distinguished between its strategy for the growth of the business and its strategy for execution. These run in parallel and are two sides of one coin. Implementation therefore gets built into the strategic planning process

4. Do free executive time for decision making and plan the process

This group achieved the development of a new strategy in circa 3 months despite attempts over the course of the previous five years that had not led to material changes. Key to this success was ensuring 6 members of the team freed themselves for the work by delegating more routine activities. Along with this the team mapped their process in an initial contracting meeting that helped increase visibility for what they were going to do, how they would make decisions and how they would work with each other

5. Do specify what will be critical for success

During its initial discussions the group asked itself what will be critical to the success of their work. They developed a list of critical success factors, which reflect high sensitivity to the need to plan for execution. These included:

  • Clear need for change that goes beyond just need to meet the numbers as our people will not be motivated by purely financial rationale
  • Involve stakeholders
  • Avoid bouncing or appearing to want to bounce colleagues into decisions
  • Give time for discussion and reflection; recognize iterative process
  • Clarity of terms (e.g. difference between vision and mission) to ensure we all understand what we are aiming to achieve
  • Liaison with key functions to ensure different perspectives reflected in planning to make better decisions and ease implementation

6. Don’t forget to communicate the case for change.

It took a series of meetings and compelling external data for the top team to persuade itself that fundamental change was required to respond to external trends driven by the changing use of technology and consumer expectations. Once they had agreed, “we need to change” they stopped talking about it and talked instead about planning their response. They had to keep reminding themselves that others lacked their perspective and that they needed to explain continually why change was necessary

7. Don’t expect strategy groups to facilitate themselves

Give Directors support in the form of facilitation to help make their job easier and do not over-engineer the process. Facilitation should be low key, supportive and ready to step in when required. Simple things like the effective use of flip charts, voting mechanisms, agenda management, and defined outcomes for meetings make all the difference between effective vs. ineffective meetings. Left to their own devices many groups meander and get stuck. Choose facilitators who will be able to challenge effectively.

8. Do build on strengths

One of the previous strategic discussions had faltered following a high level review by one of the UK’s major consulting firms. This report had majored on a series of negative observations about the business and its failure to grow to full potential, address operational weaknesses etc. By the time the consulting firm had finished its review it had alienated most members of the Board. Not because the observations were faulty but because the review failed to balance negative and positive perspectives; it paid too little attention to recognising and celebrating the successes and strengths of the organisation. Effective execution requires getting the buy-in of the leadership team. To achieve this it helps to emphasise achievements and strengths, and hopes and wishes for the future. Of course weaknesses and risks need to be addressed, but achieving balance in early feedback and planning is an important step in the process of moving forward and implementing change.

These experiences illustrate that for this team strategy and execution cannot be divorced in the way that Jamie Dimon seems to suggest. Effective strategic planning involves planning for implementation if it is going to be of value and bringing strategy to life begins during the initial conversations in the strategic planning process.


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