Firstly, strategies are not implemented – the tasks and tactics that emanate from a strategy are the elements that require implementation. Not the strategy per se. We progress a strategy and implement tactics. Perhaps it’s semantics, however if we reference the following hierarchy, it doesn’t really matter what we call which element:
Lofty wishy-washy stuff → Goals/Objectives (what we want) → Strategy (what we need) → Tactics (what we need to do)
We also need to take into account that the dimensions (space and time) of planning are constantly changing, and why I have always been of the opinion that the strategic planning process is of more value than the strategic plan. But to return to the topic at hand: why has implementation got a bad name and what are we missing?
The fact that implementation is maligned, could be justified. Although there is no robust data available, and even if it was, the dimensions are constantly changing, so we are often comparing an apple with a pear. It is therefore no surprise that the construct of strategy implementation (SI) is still described as a ‘black box’ by Tawse et al in 2021. The latter authors propose that three dimensions need to be necessary: firstly, the structure & culture, then the resources, and thirdly, management capability.
Although the above may be necessary, I do not believe they are sufficient. Actually, I don’t believe they’re critical at all. What is the crucial factor, is the mindset of anticipation. Let me explain.
In 2019, Carlos Cândido and Sergio Santos published their peer-reviewed research on implementation obstacles and strategy implementation failure (actually that was the verbatim title of the article). There were two major findings in their research: firstly, they found that there are many obstacles that impact SI. Secondly, and to make it worse, these obstacles reinforce each other leading to ‘long chains’ of impediments. To give you some idea of the magnitude of this finding, there were 65 obstacles identified in this research alone! Not all the obstacles were tabled in the research paper, so I contacted Carlos, who kindly sent me the full list you can view here.
So here’s my ‘finding’: the reason strategy implementation has a reputation for failure is that there is a lack of anticipation of the impact of change. Let me elaborate further with an example.
We have just completed three gruelling days of constructing our strategy at the offsite location. We get to the end of the process, and out comes the flipchart with the facilitator ready and poised to add names to the identified tactics. “Jack, will you do the platform upgrade; Jill, will you do the branding revision?” To which the reply is usually yes. I don’t think people are press-ganged into it, they genuinely take on the responsibility of the task with the accompanying lead time. However, what they don’t take into account are the myriad of changes that take place the moment after they have said yes – from senior resignations to environmental disasters, to personal illness, to new competitive challenges, to the invasion of Ukraine and the 65 other things in Carlos and Sergio’s list.
So that’s what’s missing: the anticipation that things will change – and very often dramatically. The implementation of tactics needs a structure to support, monitor, adapt, improve and motivate for the tasks identified and agreed upon, so that they don’t just fall away due to changed circumstances –and trust me, things will change.
To find out more about how to set up the above structures that help ensure SI, contact the author at www.stratplanning.com
Tawse, A., & Tabesh, P. (2021). Strategy implementation: A review and an introductory framework. European Management Journal, 39(1), 22–33. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.emj.2020.09.005
Cândido, C. J. F., & Santos, S. P. (2019). Implementation obstacles and strategy implementation failure. Baltic Journal of Management, 14(1), 39–57. https://doi.org/10.1108/BJM-11-2017-0350