The ability to think strategically is an important business skill, but for many the ability to translate strategic thinking into action remains an elusive accomplishment. Strategy is conceptual, and therefore intangible. The transformation of strategic thinking into a tangible outcome is the most important responsibility of a strategic leader.
Set clear priorities
Effective strategic implementation requires coordinated action across the whole organization. To achieve an integrated understanding of an organization’s strategic direction, a leader must set clear priorities.
Prioritization is the process of choosing to devote resources to the strengths that bring the greatest value to the organization. This knowledge provides the foundation on which employees base their own strategic decisions. Clear priorities tell employees what they are working toward, so that they know not only what to do, but how to act in a given situation.
To set clear priorities a strategic leader must
- identify strategic drivers – Strategic drivers are the predominant influences that determine an organization’s success. Also known as key success factors, they are the motivators for strategic decision-making.
- avoid mixed signals – Mixed signals can have a long-term impact on an organization’s strategic success. Priorities need to be supported. It is confusing for employees when priorities are set, and then resources are allocated elsewhere, or when a leader’s actions are contradictory.
- ensure strategic alignment – Strategic alignment means that there is a common understanding of priorities amongst all company stakeholders. Its purpose is to ensure organization-wide strategic thinking, planning, and acting. Alignment means staff at all levels will make decisions that are consistent with a company’s vision. The key to alignment is clear and consistent communication.
Create conditions for others’ effectiveness
No business leader can do everything or be everywhere at once. A strategic leader must create conditions for others’ effectiveness. One of the most challenging aspects of leadership is effective delegation. Employees differ in the type of work they do, and in their authority, experience, and sophistication, but all of them need to be empowered to take timely, effective action.
Strategic management is more than creating “to-do” lists for staff. It is about crafting a common logic for strategic thinking that enables them to make decisions that work toward a common vision. To maintain strategic momentum amid changing external and internal conditions, leaders must depend on the actions of their employees.
To create conditions in which others can operate effectively, a leader must
- balance authority and autonomy – Monitoring employee performance is vital, but micromanaging can be counterproductive. Successful strategy needs to be interpreted and deployed into action at every level of responsibility, not just at the top.
- reward appropriate risk taking – There is no reward without risk. A strategic leader should be wary of rewarding employees who “aim low” just to achieve their goals. Employees need to know that the organization trusts them to act independently to make strategic decisions.
- avoid punishing reasonable behavior – Strategic leaders consider both the means and end of an action. Basing reward and punishment only on the results of an action discourages innovation and learning. Strategy can be implemented effectively only when there is an implicit agreement that employees will be treated fairly if they have acted reasonably.
Make strategy a learning process
A strategic leader has the skills to make strategy a learning process. Modern business strategy is dynamic – it changes as it is implemented. Whether these changes are simple tweaks or transformative events, their value will be in the experience gained from their success or failure. Some opportunities to learn from strategy can be planned; others unfold. What is important is that the learning process be used to mine and accumulate intellectual assets.
In essence, strategy is a theory about how an organization can achieve success. This is generated by strategic thinking, but is also informed by knowledge gleaned from work experience.
To learn from strategic action, a leader will
- use opportunities to test theories – As strategy unfolds over time, an organization will accumulate hard data that can be used to test and inform that strategy. For example, sales and profitability figures could be used as a means to test the validity of future expectations.
- conduct business experiments – In the midst of implementing strategy, there are often opportunities to enhance learning and innovation by conducting experiments. An example is the “probe-and-learn” approach, where early versions of a product are introduced to particular markets, and changes are made in reaction to consumer response.
- do an after-action review – An after-action review (AAR) is an assessment of results that is conducted after achieving identifiable steps in the strategic plan. An AAR is focused on learning from both successes and failures, and does not deal with personal blame or judgment.
Act decisively in the face of uncertainty
In implementing strategy, ambiguity is one of the greatest threats. A strategic leader must act decisively in the face of uncertainty. To maintain strategic momentum, a leader must make decisions quickly, communicate them clearly, and act decisively. It is more important for a leader to make timely decisions, knowing and acknowledging that they may be proven wrong, than to avoid risk at all costs.
A leader’s response to strategic challenges will be different depending on the circumstances faced, but the decision to respond is common to any strategic progress.
To act decisively, a leader must
- determine timeliness – Decisions in dynamic environments often require trade-offs between decision accuracy and timeliness. The postponement of decisions can result in a loss of strategic momentum and missed opportunities.
- decide to act – The first step is the simple decision to act. The fear of making a wrong decision can paralyze progress and lead to strategic stagnation.
- assess the level of uncertainty – No one can predict risk with complete accuracy. The level of uncertainty varies during the strategic life cycle, as does opportunity to gain advantage. It is important to assess the level of uncertainty acceptable in the particular competitive context of an organization.
Act with the short term and long term in mind
Strategic leaders act with the short term and long term in mind. Strategic leadership is a balancing act of maintaining present effectiveness, while maximizing the potential for future achievement. The appropriate balance between the short and long term needs consistent support of strategic priorities over time.
To maintain strategic equilibrium a leader must
- stay committed – Investing in the future may not generate immediate results. A leader must weigh the need to address immediate concerns and opportunities with a commitment to the long-term strategic goal. A lack of strategic commitment is the major reason for execution failure.
- check progress – A strategic leader must both manage and monitor the strategic progress of the organization. Setting short-, medium-, and long-term strategic milestones shows whether the organization is on the right path and provides opportunities to measure the effectiveness of the strategic plan.
- balance current performance and future capability – An organization’s value is determined not only by its current performance, but by its future potential. A leader ensures that the current operational functioning of the organization supports the long-term strategic plan. This means deciding what present capabilities need to be preserved and which future capabilities require investment.
When strategic leaders are taxed with the daunting task of translating strategy into action, they find themselves facing challenges that require a particular skill set.
To effectively transform thought into action, leaders must set clear priorities, create conditions for others’ effectiveness, and make strategy a learning process. The implementation of effective strategy also requires that they act decisively in the face of uncertainty, and act with the short term and long term in mind.