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By Lauren Keller Johnson

Lauren Keller Johnson is a freelance writer living in Harvard, MA

As a manager or team leader, you’re responsible for many things. But your most important task may be crafting and executing strategies for your group.

Strategies are the plans you build to set direction. They might center on how your group will help the overall organization achieve its mission. Or they might emphasize how your group will sharpen its competitive edge; for example, by achieving unparalleled excellence in its operations, developing breakthrough products or services, or finding innovative ways to anticipate and satisfy customers’ needs.

You might define brilliant strategies for your group, informed by a clear understanding of your organization’s mission or a careful analysis of market and technology trends. But if you can’t execute the strategies you’ve crafted—if you can’t put them into action—then they’re worthless.

As Lawrence Hrebiniak points out in his book Making Strategy Work, successful execution of strategy matters a lot more than many managers think. Hrebiniak cites a study of 160 companies in which researchers found that success—measured by total return to shareholders and profitability—was strongly correlated with the ability to execute strategy flawlessly.

Clearly, effective strategy execution can make or break a company’s future—and that means it’s vital to you and your group as well. Yet all too many strategies fail during the execution process.

Why? Executing a strategy is hard work, owing to complexities that Hrebiniak identifies as inherent in the process. For example:

  • Most managers are trained to plan (strategize), but not to execute plans.
  • Those who formulate strategy often leave it to others in the organization to put the strategy into action instead of owning that responsibility themselves.
  • Strategy formulation and execution are intertwined and therefore fluid: Planning affects execution, which in turn demands adjustments to strategic planning over time. This is a nuance many organizations fail to recognize and act upon.
  • Executing a strategy takes much longer than formulating it. During that longer time frame, managers’ attention can get diverted by other issues that crop up.
  • Strategy execution involves more people than strategy formulation. That makes communication and cross-functional coordination of execution-related tasks more challenging.

In addition to complexities inherent in strategy execution, common organizational barriers also often stand in the way. By familiarizing yourself with these barriers, you’ll stand a better chance of overcoming them.

This table shows examples of barriers that Hrebiniak highlights in his book, along with the kinds of questions you’ll need to answer in order to overcome each barrier.

Barrier to execution

Sample questions you need to answer

Lack of accountability

  • What tasks will need to be done and when, to put your strategy into action?
  • Who will be responsible for carrying out each of those tasks? How will you hold them accountable?

Inadequate change management

  • What processes and routines will have to change in order to execute your strategy? How will they need to change?
  • How will you overcome any resistance to those changes from employees?
  • What incentives could you put in place to encourage people to make the changes?

Poor information sharing

  • Who will need what information to carry out the execution tasks they’re responsible for?
  • How will you ensure that the right information flows to the right people?

Insufficient skills

  • What skills will be essential for completing the activities required to execute your strategy? In what roles?
  • How will you ensure that the right people are in the right roles, and that they have the right skills?

Weak controls

  • How will you monitor and measure the effectiveness of strategy execution?
  • What controls will you put in place to make midcourse corrections if execution of the strategy gets off track?

Learn more

Want to know more about obstacles you may encounter in executing strategies you’ve defined for your group? Check out Chapter 1: Strategy Execution Is the Key in Lawrence Hrebiniak’s book Making Strategy Work. Chapter 1 introduces the most daunting barriers and gives you some hints about how to overcome them. But the author then devotes specific chapters that explore in greater detail how to vanquish the worst of the barriers.



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