The Strategy Execution Gap... And How To Bridge It

Grover Jackson
12 July 2021 55 min read

Over the years, a great amount of research effort has gone into understanding the reasons why mid-to-large sized companies struggle to deliver their strategies. Contrary to what many would think, the research hasn't shown the issue to be how sound a strategy is, but businesses lack the technology and tools necessary that fosters the right, supportive "culture of strategy execution" to deliver sound strategies. Successful businesses bridge the strategy to execution gap through the right technology and supportive tools, that build and foster the necessary culture.

Some research findings highlight these findings:

  • More than 400 Global CEOs identified that executional excellence was the top challenge from a list of 80 issues they faced.
  • Misaligned support was identified as the reason for a three fold increase in the likelihood of missing performance commitments by 8,000 managers from more than 250 companies.
  • 10% of a group of 144 C-level executives said they could not implement up to a third of their core strategic initiatives in any given year.

There's no question that there is a significant gap between the strategies that business leadership base their success on, and the ability of their business to execute and deliver those strategies. It is also clear that the companies that succeed at bridging the strategy execution gap far outperform those that don't. To restate what we've outlined above, successful strategy delivery isn't just about having an excellent plan, it is about building a culture and instilling the correct tools that support those in your business responsible for delivering your strategy.

While planning remains the current buzzword and focus in business when the topic of strategy rises - any quick search will present a library's worth of books and articles about planning, drowning out those on execution nearing ten to one. As you can now have guessed, the execution gap is where the true challenges lie. Good companies plan, great companies have the right tools and culture in-place to execute. At the end of the day, understanding how the work done today actually aligns with a company's strategy needs to be on the minds of every employee. How else will your decision makers know if the actions their teams are taking today are the right ones?

To bridge the strategy execution gap, the CEO must ensure the correct tools are in-place to support a culture of both strategy AND execution. The rest of this article explores both the problem and the solution in some detail.

Strategy Execution Gap

What Is The Strategy Execution Gap?

The strategy execution gap is a collection of factors that result in the daily tasks your workforce is busy acting on - the how - being disconnected from the why the task is critical today and required - the input factors of your strategy - and the strategic initiatives in your plan - the what.

The modern world we live in presents your workforce with no less than three ways to do something, and the biggest challenge to any team is deciding which of those three ways. If your team is operating with three how's to every what, without knowing the why behind that what... how can you, as a CEO, be confident and certain your teams will travel the correct path.

strategy-swotIf you take nothing else away from this article reflect on this real world example:

A company sells widgets into a geographic area and have done so for many years, very successfully. However they have realised that they are fast approaching market saturation. The executive team has identified a new geographic area their widgets can be sold into.

Why: Market saturation will soon place the business and potentially cashflow at risk.
What: Enter a newly identified, qualified, very suitable geographic market.

The executive team know it will take several months to build supply chains and a solid sales pipeline before contracts will be signed and delivered on, and thus revenue will flow.

A business demonstrating a strategy execution gap will of course present to the wider business a new strategic initiative to enter the new market, but fail to disclose why. The sales teams in this business will of course be excited by the new potential for sales, but when faced with KPIs to reach sales numbers and commissions at stake, will of course pursue the easy sales work in the existing market, without knowing the up and down-stream implications and ramification of the business failing to build a solid pipeline for the new market. In a similar fashion, a marketing team could miss the significance and importance of a longer, more sustained marketing campaign in the new market and spread more of their budget across both markets than the executive team would want or early enough to have the impact required.

A business demonstrating successful strategy execution will present to the wider business a new strategic initiative to enter the new market, stress the importance to the business of the new market and the implication/ramification if success isn't achieved... disclosing the significance and importance of the strategic input/factor... the why. Tooling that lets both the marketing and sales teams attribute contracts and campaigns to both the initiative and the underlying strategic factor means they can openly discuss actions that would not only match the new market initiative and the underlying input/factor, but can also deprioritise actions that only address one or the other that wouldn't hit both.

Of course there are valid reasons not to disclose certain inputs and factors within your strategies, so the challenge as a CEO is to make sure some form of reasonable and appropriately suitable why a specific action as an initiative and the significance and importance of the action is conveyed.

How Is The Strategy Execution Gap Created?

The market is full of KPI platforms and dashboarding software to show your managers how busy their teams are, rather than identifying if their work has a meaningful impact on your strategy delivery. This has led to businesses tracking daily workloads separately from strategic workloads.

One solution has been to use one set of tools such as Atlassian Jira or Trello for their task lists and manually maintaining a completely separate system for strategic projects to maintain a fundamentally flawed view and reporting. This results in inaccurate reporting for two reasons: neither system measures effort committed or time frames the same; and the effort required to manually align and compensate by managers becomes burdensome. The net result is that Excel spreadsheets creep in to manage reporting, measured purely on how that manager feels strategic work is progressing. This is what we call the "hidden in Excel strategy execution gap".

The other main approach has been to simply track all work as equal work. This has placed many managers in the position of reporting how busy their teams are without knowing if 5% or 95% of that workload is strategic. This is what we call the "hidden in plain sight strategy execution gap".

The second key factor in creating a strategy execution gap within a business is distance between a business's strategy and the daily work of the staff. When a separate platform or system is used to manage, measure or even see your strategy from the platform and tools used for the daily actions your workforce is acting on, you have a barrier that creates distance and blocks the visibility of your strategy. This results in your staff staying in platforms that are operational rather than strategic. Your strategy must be embedded into the tools and platforms your staff are actually in and using. We call this the "distance between strategy and execution gap".


How Do Executive Teams Bridge The Strategy Execution Gap?

The challenges you face as part of the executive team are:

  • The vast majority of employees in mid-to-large companies don’t know why they are doing the work they're asked to do.
  • Business decision makers, when presented with conflicting actions, requests or paths to take on in any given day, in general, cannot tell which are critically aligned to the executive strategy... they can only see a list of actions that were placed inside a project.

The single key factor to bridging the strategy execution gap is to make every effort to ensure that every task within a initiative project can factually be tied back to the why the initiative is being undertaken; filtering out those the tasks that get slipped in and prioritising the tasks with the greatest alignment and maximum impact, over those with a lower level of alignment. For some businesses, every operational task isn't going to be strategic; for those companies the task is to set a target and work towards that target e.g. target 70% of all work matching your strategy.

The difference between just planning a strategy and executing a strategy can be the difference between achieving your goals (and bonus!) and falling short on expectations.

Therefore, what is needed is a software system that ensures your strategies are distributed and embedded into the systems and platforms your business relies on and ties your operational data  cohesively and simplistically with your strategic reporting with minimal impact and effort. Strategy-AI is just such a system, designed from the ground up around this single change that brings about a cascade of benefits throughout your whole business, including creating a culture of strategy execution and accountable teams without imposing resource costs, system change and migration.

Recently there has been plenty of advice to CEOs that in order to keep the business strategy in the minds of all their staff they needed to present and reiterate the strategy at least once every quarter. This advise fails to identify the core issue: that the strategy is disconnected from the operations of the business and not visible.

There has also been plenty of guidance that all a company needs to share out of a company's strategy is the mission statement, vision and core values. While these are important, in a business of several thousand employees, these aspects of the strategy are so broad, must be able to be applied to every corner of the business and easily accepted by every employee that they serve, at best, a very general sense of direction. Translated to a non-work environment, this has little difference to the idea of you agreeing to meet a group of friends north of where you live. It's certainly providing direction to not head south, east or west. This analogy is very blunt, it is also very apt as such aspects of a strategy are of course key and can filter out 75% of every possible task your staff could undertake, but at a daily level, provides very little meaningful guidance. 

The Components Of A Successful Strategy Execution Platform

Strategy-AI is an essential strategy execution platform built around the single key factor of identifying and measuring strategic work versus operational work and built on a seamless blend of the latest embedding technology with cloud-based security and stability to successfully bridge your strategy execution gap.

The main components for bridging the strategy execution gap all work together to drive successful growth and reduce time to market:

  • Full planning digitisation - not just strategic projects.
  • Fully embedded, strategy integration and strategy visibility across the major operational platforms you already use.
  • Fast and easy task to strategy tagging - with minimal time commitment or additional overhead.
  • Multi-dimensional reporting capable of isolating strategic workloading from busy workloading.

Strategy-AI is the only platform on the market built specifically for mid-market CEOs to confidently execute their strategies by ensuring that all decision makers are empowered and enabled to align their workforce. Your growth strategies are much easier to implement and deliver on a platform the supports and fosters a strategy execution culture over your competitors with an operational execution culture.

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How To Know If You Have A Strategy Execution Gap

If any of the following apply to you, your teams or your business, then you probably have the strategy execution gap or are lacking the strategy execution platform and tooling:

  • Your strategy execution progress reporting is done via an Excel spreadsheet
  • Your dashboards reporting strategy execution progress obtain their data from an Excel spreadsheet
  • You track your strategy execution in one platform but your workforce track their daily tasks and actions in a separate platform
  • Your teams can't quickly and easily see if a task is strategic or not besides being "in or part of a strategic project"

If your business answers yes to any of the above questions, then you probably have a strategy execution gap and are lacking the correct strategy execution platform and tooling.

With Strategy-AI, CEOs, leadership and operational teams all have the low friction visibility and accountability necessary to focus on what is strategic and critically important. If you're interested, have a discussion with one of our team to see how we can help you bridge your strategy execution gap.