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Exceptional strategy execution is unfortunately rare. It’s not for want of wanting—companies invest considerable amounts of time and money in new processes, systems, and HR initiatives, to little effect. Indeed, too many managers fall into a pattern I call the ‘execution shuffle.’

Here’s what it looks like: With the best of intentions, you invest three days in a meticulously planned off-site retreat, with a mission to create or update your strategic plan. Your team carefully maps out timelines, budgets and tracking mechanisms, and enthusiastically endorses the new direction. Cut to three months later. Of the many worthwhile initiatives you’d mapped out, some are barely inching along, others have completely stopped, and still others have yet to begin. You feel frustration building up—the very same emotion you experienced this time last year. Yet again, your strategic plan has gone sideways.

It’s a demoralizing dilemma for a manager, who is left wondering what to do when the same challenges present themselves time and again. Should you do a root cause analysis? Ask HR for a training plan? Bring in a motivational speaker? Hire a superstar? Or does the vicious cycle call for stronger measures, like reorganizing the entire team?

Research suggests that managers try all of these fixes, but see only limited improvement, if any at all. The only upside? They’re not alone. According to Harvard Business Review (HBR), a full three-quarters of large organizations struggle to turn their strategy into action. And that number is actually increasing; just eight years ago, it was only 60%. Indeed, HBR calls ‘strategy excellence’ the top challenge for corporate leaders around the globe today, ahead of issues such as growth and innovation.

In my experience, the key to better strategy execution almost always lies in removing one fundamental blockage: lack of clarity. Just because your team supports a strategy doesn’t mean they know how to put it into practice, or what actions and decisions they’re personally responsible for. In a recent HBR poll, only 55% of middle managers could name even one of their company’s top five priorities. How can a company move forward when the majority of its task masters don’t understand the strategy, let alone how their work supports it?

Fuzziness is the enemy of strategy deployment. Here are three proven action steps to get your strategic plan back on track when it goes sideways:

1. Ask your managers one simple question

Informally approach each manager, and pose the following query: What are you working on today to help us reach our strategic goals? Provide no warning, preparation time or prompting, and don’t remind them what the company’s objectives are. Listen, ask only clarifying questions, thank them, and move on—no more, no less. Later in a quiet, private moment, turn your mental notes from the conversation into a written summary.

2. Map the answers against your strategic goals

Take some time to consolidate your managers’ responses to the question, and contrast them with the objectives of your strategic plan. Consider how many managers addressed the strategic goals in the agreed-to plan, and how many understood what impact their specific roles had on the achievement of those objectives.

If you all your managers’ responses were acceptable, that’s great news. But if you didn’t—and both my experience and that HBR study suggest they probably weren’t— you will need to consider how to help them moving forward.

3. Meet to clarify goals and align the team

All strategic plans need to turn big goals into the ‘right’ work for someone. Tasks regularly need to be shifted or realigned to reflect changes in market circumstances, reallocation of resources, or new strategic thinking.

Your managers need to understand and commit to these changes, and those who are not on the right track will need to be re-engaged. Teams should meet on a regular basis to ensure alignment to goals, and departments and people need to be aligned to each other. Unfortunately, HBR research shows that that inter-departmental confidence today sits at 59%—not much better than workers’ confidence that outside suppliers will deliver on time, all the time. Silos still exist, and the walls between departments seem to be getting thicker.

• • • • •

This simple, three-step process allows organizations to stay on track and tweak their strategic plan as needed. The key to success is to repeat the sequence often, because strategic plans have a limited shelf life and business landscapes change rapidly.

Eleven years ago, one of my clients started a five-person organization in the hyper-competitive telecom world that sold fiber-optic Internet services to businesses. Using this three-step alignment process on a regular basis allowed this entrepreneur and his team to fine-tune their strategic plan again and again. The company maintained its focus on accountability across departments and management levels through mergers and acquisitions, growing so big that the only way the competition could stop them was to buy them. Not surprisingly, a big telecom player did just that, yielding a 400% ROI for the private equity firm that owned my client’s business at the time.

The lesson here is that exceptional execution is not sexy or sophisticated, and it doesn’t require the latest trendy management tactics. It’s the oft-forgotten fundamentals that work every time.

Fred Pidsadny is the founder and president of FOCUS Management, a consulting firm that has helped hundreds of clients of all sizes to improve performance and value by aligning teams and focusing on strategy execution excellence. He has enjoyed a 30-year career as a sought-after speaker, facilitator and advisor to business leaders across Canada and the United States.

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Have you experienced the “execution shuffle”? How do you get your company back on track when your strategic plan has gone sideways? Let us know by commenting below.

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