Bridging the Strategy Implementation Skills Gap

Leaders of organisations are already involved in crafting strategy, but they should not neglect the implementation of these policies, which involve a whole different skills set.


By Robin Speculand, Chief Executive, Bridges Business Consultancy Int

Today’s leaders need both the ability to craft the right strategy and the skills to implement it. There is, however, a precarious skills gap among leaders. They have been taught how to craft strategy, but not how to implement it. This is a major reason as to why nine out 10 implementations fail.
Major corporations around the world recognise that their current leaders who attended university to earn a business degree were taught strategy, but not strategy implementation. Every business school, for example, has a strategy professor but not an implementation professor. Students may have attended a module on operations management or change management, but this is different from strategy implementation. As a result, a critical skills gap exists today.
Change management, which is frequently the default approach for implementation, works well for projects and initiatives inside departments and divisions. It doesn’t work, however, for strategy implementation. If it did, then organisations as a whole would not have such a high implementation failure rate. Change management is a subset of strategy implementation.

When leaders are asked to implement strategy, they do not know what to do!

After launching their new strategy, leaders return to their offices and repeat the same mistakes from previous implementation efforts. Sadly, they get the same poor results. To break the pattern of so many past failures, leaders need to be taught how to implement strategy. It’s a specific skills set. And when it is missing, they underestimate the implementation challenge they face.
As a result of underestimating the implementation challenge, leaders delegate the implementation responsibility and take their attention off it. But that doesn’t mean the implementation is a fait accompli. When they stop paying attention to the implementation, so do their staff. This is a recipe for failure. Implementing is every bit as tough as crafting the right strategy.
The only way to know if it’s the right strategy is after it’s been executed. At the launch of the implementation, it’s assumed that it was a good strategy, but it is not yet proven. It’s assumed the strategy is good as no leadership team walks into a conference room and declares, ‘‘Let’s create a bad strategy!’’ At the launch, every member of that team thinks the strategy is great. But only when a successful implementation follows can this team be proven right. Thus, leaders must oversee the implementation.

Competitive advantage

It’s critical for organisations to bridge this current strategy implementation skills gap because it provides a competitive advantage. Oracle, for example, has made 100 acquisitions in the last five years. To support the company’s leaders to implement the strategy, a programme called ‘‘Leading to Win’’ is run. This programme focuses on collaboration and learning the skills of implementation. As a result, leaders at Oracle now have the knowledge and skills to execute strategies well.
Universities such as Singapore Management and Duke now offer modules on strategy implementation. In addition, Bridges Business Consultancy Int runs a one-day seminar called ‘‘Strategy Implementation for Leaders’’ all around the world.
Everyone knows IKEA in Singapore and their strategy, yet they have no global competitor. Why? Because no one else can execute the strategy as well as IKEA.
When leaders are able to craft and execute the strategy, they have a competitive advantage.

Reduced life span

Because leaders are being called on more frequently than at any other time in history to craft and implement new strategies, it’s essential to resolve this skills gap. Not long ago, strategies had a life span of 10–15 years, a timeframe that has shrunk to between three and five years today. As a result, leaders must craft and implement new strategies more quickly and frequently than ever before.
The global recession placed even more pressure on leaders to execute their strategies right the first time. In the past, when strategy implementation was failing, more money or people would be thrown at the implementation, or a new strategy would be crafted. These options are no longer viable. Once board members sign off on the new strategy, they place ever-increasing pressure on the organisation’s leaders to implement it. Board members and leaders alike feel pressure to deliver on their strategy promises to the shareholders.
Strategy is about making the right choices; implementation is about taking the right actions. Successful implementation depends on people taking the right actions. It follows then that leaders must ensure their employees are taking the right actions. But does that actually happen? Because staff are always busy, the key question becomes, “Are the actions that staff take today driving the implementation forward?” If not, they’re not the right actions.
Certainly, staff are assigned more work than they have hours in the day to complete. Still, successful implementation depends on employees taking the right actions. And leaders are responsible for overseeing that activity happening in a way that meets the objectives of the strategy.

Five recommendations for leaders

To conduct a successful implementation, here are five recommendations for leaders:
1. Focus on both crafting and implementing strategy
– pay equal attention to both
2. Oversee and stay committed to the implementation
– constantly be involved by sharing information, communicating with employees and checking the current status often
3. Adapt and amend the strategy and implementation as required
– whatever was agreed on in the boardroom rarely happens in the implementation, so adjustments must be made
4. Create the right conditions for the implementation
– ensure you have set up a culture that supports the execution of the strategy
5. Follow up
– to achieve a successful implementation, follow up is the No. 1 best practice for leaders to focus on