Strategy = Execution

Time best spent in Strategy-Execution is 20% on strategy and 80% on execution.

The expenditure of time and resources must be radically reversed for successful strategy execution. While strategy is about words, execution is about actions. Therefore, spend 80% of the resources and time on pure execution instead of on strategy formation and analysis and design activities.

20% strategy, 80% execution

Why do we make such a big deal about a radically different use of time? This is best illustrated by an anecdote from Ben Verwaayen, the former CEO of Alcatel:

‘Strategy setting is important. Large corporate boards can take up to eight months to set strategy, and then another eight weeks to discuss it with all division unit managers, who in turn can take eight days to work out the details with their management teams. I was struck by how top-heavy this is when I overheard an employee saying: ‘And then I am told in just eight minutes what I am expected to realize in the coming year!’

See figure 1. This must therefore be radically different. The big question is of course: how do you achieve that? What should you direct?

This quote perfectly describes one of the main reasons why strategy execution fails in day-to-day business reality. And why this needs to change; see the figure below. But how do you go about this? What do you manage for? 

  1. Reverse how time and money is spent 

Ultimately, time allocation is the biggest deciding factor in strategy execution. Strategy starts with words; successful execution starts with action. That’s why you should spend 80% of your resources and time just on execution (and budget your time) rather than on strategy design and analysis. That truly is time and money best spent. But apparently, this is very hard for managers and professionals. Conceptual analysis is a knee jerk reaction. Execution management requires more effort. Turning execution into a habit is a huge challenge. But it can be done. Here are some practical pointers: 

  1. Halve your annual business plans, both in time spent and in size of the plans 
  2. Reorganize the portfolio of change initiatives every year and choose no more than 9 change initiatives. Focus saves time.
  3. Allow only single page presentations for every initiative selected 
  4. Manage for iterative development and implementation 
  5. Make this a guiding principle in planning & control and in every action plan. 

Track this for three projects for a year and compare the results with the preceding year. I am certainly not in favor of adding more KPIs, but this one KPI won’t hurt. 

“Time is the biggest luxury,” as Privium, Amsterdam Schiphol Airport’s premium concept, claims. An apt slogan for a priority program that allows travelers to skip the lines. In strategy execution, we’re used to exclusively focusing on budget, never on time. That’s a mistake. In Peter Drucker’s classic, The Effective Executive, published in 1966, he writes that time is a non-renewable resource. Time flies and time past can never be recovered. Drucker therefore sees time as the leader’s raw material.  

Productive use of this resource determines their effectiveness. Economics traditionally distinguishes three major inputs: natural resources, labor and capital. Time should really be figured into this too. It may well be the scarcest and most important resource on the planet. It’s also the only one that’s equally distributed, which makes it a resource that could give you a competitive edge. 

  1. Manage for standardization, discipline, rhythm and excellence
  1. . Standardization creates freedom, time and flexibility. I realize that many employees will balk at the idea of more standardization, or at least regard it with skepticism. But it is one of the most brilliant ways to save time, which we can then devote to topics that really add value. IKEA is a great example. Management insists on standardization of absolutely every repetitive process. It’s non-negotiable. This has bought senior management a lot of time to spend on innovation, personal development and professional dialogue.
  2. Apart from standardization, we need structure. Clear goals and roadmaps ensure that people don’t have to check back and coordinate all the time, but can devote themselves to what really matters. The trick is to start slow and gradually speed up—go slow to go fast. People working in projects and programs often complain that there is not enough downtime, reflection and quality time to coordinate the most important issues with people in working groups or work streams. They are constantly putting out fires. Teams often lack the minimum required structure and clarity in the shape of a robust roadmap, forcing them to come up with something on the fly. Professionals tend to be quite dogmatic in their insistence on individual freedom, but that is absolutely unworkable in the new normal. Collaboration is a must, people must be on the same page and speak the same language, so that there is time to spare in which to discuss the truly interesting stuff.
  3. Choose the right speed and the right rhythm. Speed is just as important as agility. As Ed Boswell has shown in Strategic Speed: Mobilize People, Accelerate Execution, you need momentum for sustainable value creation (see figure below). Strategy execution is all about value creation. Value creation works best at sufficient speed.

    What’s more, you can’t be agile if you’re going too slow. So, you should aim for speed, but not without knowing the basic rate of change in your organization. Every organization has its own rate of change, whether for large-scale change programs, product launches, IT upgrades, or mergers and integration programs. This rate of change is not some vague random number, but can be objectively determined by analyzing the last three change programs, for instance. When did we start a three-month program and ended up spending nine? When was this the other way around, and how come? This knowledge enables you to reduce the uncertainty and subjectivity in strategic planning, which is incredibly valuable in these uncertain times. 

Strategic speed is an important, but somewhat abstract concept. This video might make it easier to understand. Tractor pulls are popular country races. Tractors have to pull a trailer through the mud to the finish line. On the trailer, a block of concrete moves forward. The trailer only has two back wheels. The forward moving block puts progressively more weight on the tractor’s back wheels, which therefore dig deeper and deeper into the mud, eventually making it impossible for the tractor to gain traction. The tractor that accelerates fastest gets furthest.  

Strategic speed is not at all an abstract notion for the seasoned program managers I have talked to. They understand immediately. Projects and programs that are spread out over time, for instance because an organization tried to run too many projects with too few resources, tend to fail. The takeaway is that you can’t keep dragging out projects forever. There’s a critical lower limit. To put it briefly, short and fat works better than long and thin. 

Focus on key moments. Focusing on natural key moments is important and kind of obvious. Onboarding a new co-worker, finishing a first draft, winning a contract, organizing a kickoff meeting, finishing a first minimum viable product, or completing the first leg of an implementation plan; each and every one of these are key moments you can put to use. Ask about progress and discuss shortcomings, failures and successes, and possible improvements for the next leg. Use effective forms of consultation with a standardized agenda to mark these key moments. 

Excellence is key. It is indispensable to survive. You should cultivate and encourage a mindset in which everyone is motivated to go the extra mile, to make sure that everything is done thoroughly and responsibly. At least there’s never a traffic jam on that extra mile. My former colleague Patrick Davidson had a great way of motivating his people. At the end of each meeting, he would ask the same question: “Okay, people, about that extra mile … Tomorrow, at that workshop at the client’s headquarters, what’s going to be our extra mile, our plus 1?” That attitude is worth pure gold, especially when it becomes second nature. You shouldn’t just do what’s expected, but put in some extra effort and realize that you’re doing so mostly for your own benefit. 

Setting the bar high is inherently satisfying. Obviously, many organizations have to comply with regulatory requirements or industry standards, but it’s much more convincing when it complies with its own positive and self-instated product and service level norms. As Dutch soccer coach Louis Van Gaal said immediately after the Netherlands beat Spain 5 to 1 at the 2014 World Cup: “We ain’t got nothing yet.” 

Excellence can only be cultivated at the heart of your organization’s primary process, on the job, by modeling excellence in the daily execution of products and services, in face-to-face meetings. You can’t promote excellence by writing a memo. 

Strategy = Execution. Improve, Renew and Innovate Faster

How can organizations make strategy execution their number one priority? And improve, renew and innovate faster? This I describe in my book Strategy = Execution. Strategy = execution is based on the research that Turner started years ago into the success factors of strategy execution and innovation. We interviewed 60 directors and professionals and analyzed more than 75 cases, 300 relevant books and articles.

  • More about Jacques Pijl (author) and Turner Consultancy.
  • The most popular interventions based on Strategy = Execution
  • 24 endorsements from organizational leaders
  • American management book of the year 2021, no. 1 in the category of strategic management, in the top 100 bestseller, seventh edition, translated into: English, German, Spanish, Russian and Bahasa.
  • Selection of the most important management books according to CEOs of innovative organizations (FD New Champions). Included in library of classics (mb.nl).
  • Nominated for Management Book of the Year.
  • Countless articles and interviews in FD, Emerce, Frankwatching and CFO.
  • Numerous Ted Talks and in-company workshops at the top 25-50 organizations, average rating 8.7.
  • More about Jacques Pijl (author) and Turner Consultancy
  • The most popular interventions based on Strategy = Execution
  • 24 endorsements from organizational leaders
  • American management book of the year 2021, no. 1 in the category of strategic management, in the top 100 bestseller, seventh edition, translated into: English, German, Spanish, Russian and Indonesian.
  • Selection of the most important management books according to CEOs of innovative organizations (FD New Champions). Included in library of classics (mb.nl).
  • Nominated for Management Book of the Year.
  • Countless articles and interviews in FD, Emerce, Frankwatching and CFO.
  • Numerous Ted Talks and in-company workshops at the top 25-50 organizations, average rating 8.7.

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The Dutch Water Authority Bank (NWB Bank) approached Turner with a specific request: help us become better at change so that we can handle it ourselves in the future. Onno Zwaagstra, along with Martijn Suiker, Turner’s Financial Services Advisor, drafted the plan. They assisted client Bas van Eenige of NWB Bank in its implementation. Now, a year later, there is a department managing the bank’s change portfolio that everyone at NWB Bank is enthusiastic about. The breakthrough in execution came with the choice of a simple and clearly formulated plan: ‘Setting policies without people understanding the necessity is not sustainable.’

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In the coming years, Liander will face at least a doubling of energy demand and all aspects related to the energy transition. However, the aftercare of projects ‘outside’ on the streets, was not optimally organized. Gert-Jan van ‘t Klooster, regional manager Amsterdam at the Large Consumption Reconstructions and Networks (GVRN) department, was tasked with streamlining aftercare and enlisted Turner for the execution of the plans.

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