Strategy to Execution – A Risky Path

Some companies fail and some succeed spectacularly in the same market conditions. The question for successful companies is – what did they do differently? On the other hand, failure is attributed to either poor strategy or pathetic operations.  A popular notion among managers is that if company is not achieving targets, then review the strategy, something must be wrong with it. If the strategy is found reliable, review the operations and focus on it to be successful.  Is the explanation for failure that simple?

In my view failures occur because complexities of the situation are either ignored or misunderstood. The third-fourth-fifth dimensions are normally missed and must be looked into. The overall strategy might be right, the execution flawless, and  the company may still be staring in the face of failure. According to me the path from strategy to execution is very risky. Below are my views on the same, do you agree with them?

1. The Human Dimension

Let me give you an example, that most employees are familiar with:

Objective of the company : Make the organization a “Great place to work”.

Strategy to achieve the objective : Focus on diversity, work-life balance and good leadership pipeline.

Execution plans :  Hire 25% women, promote 10% women to senior levels, issue policy of work life balance , introduce 360 degree feedback and balance score card system.

All the execution plans were implemented, however employees are still cribbing and consider the organization one of the worst places to work. So what went wrong?

Now let me give you a few situations that occurred in the organization :

a) A gorgeous looking woman was placed in a senior management position who was rumored to be having an affair with a CXO. Employees down the line didn’t like her personally as she did not have a reputation of high professional caliber or ethics.

b) A few employees in the 360 degree feedback, gave honest negative feedback about their bosses. In less than a quarter the bosses with help of human resource department terminated or demoted the employees.

c) Bosses allowed the employees to leave office premises by 6 pm. However, they asked employees to work at home and deliver reports the next morning at 9 am.

The missing component – the human dimension – was overlooked. The culture of the organization didn’t change with the strategies and plans. The messages that employees received were –  “One gets promoted if one sucks up to the boss, merit doesn’t count, honesty has a huge downside and bosses will harass.  Nothing has changed.” The tone at the top remained the same and no one was seen walking the talk. Hence, though everything looked good on paper, and all execution deliverables were achieved, the execution team met the key performance indicators, the objective wasn’t accomplished. People make the difference, hence analyzing culture, messages and in some situations even the grapevine is helpful.

2. The Organization History

The often ignored impediment in failure of strategy is the organization history. History – good and bad - makes a difference in success and failure of strategy as it directly impacts commitment levels. If the organization has had bad incidents or history, a host of issues become undiscussable. These undiscussable issues make communication superficial, hide negatives in the wood work and portray a picture that management wants to hear. In a globally connected world, even a small incident can become a historical landmark. To bring clarity to my point, I am narrating an incident that I experienced.

I was working in an organization in which one of the core values was “respect for everyone’s time”. The offices were open plan, with no difference between a CEO desk and an admin desk. All meetings were conducted in various conference rooms and room bookings were done through an intranet application. The cultural guideline was – do not overstay in a room as it may be booked by another group/individual. There were no reserved conference rooms for senior managers.

One day a new employee with his group saw that the people in the conference room he had booked for a meeting continued in the room after their meeting time elapsed. He knocked on the room, and asked the team inside to leave. The other employees outside were horrified. After 5 minutes, when he saw no action, he again knocked. The team inside walked out and all employees were red-faced. The poor chap had just evicted the Global CEO and his executive team out from the conference room.

News traveled globally within a few hours of the incident. The mathematical geniuses developed statistical models on probability of the new employee being asked to leave. Others like me, indulged in simple betting. Within a week the CEO sent a global message appreciating the employee for adhering to the organization values. He said that he felt good that induction training was effective, HR was doing a good job in recruitment & selection, and employees were fearless in confronting seniors on core organization values. All employees were absolutely jubilant on losing their bets. The incident became part of organization history and employees were inspired by the leadership. Commitment to a strategy comes from the heart and not by the numbers given in a Powerpoint presentation. In some situations analyzing the past history of the organization and failure rate of strategies might be helpful.

3. Reliance on Performance Management Systems

Norman Marks in his post“The inter-relationships of risk, objectives, strategy and performance rightly said that “performance management without considering risk is flying blind.” I agree with this statement. However, my question is – are organizations really measuring the right stuff ? If not, are organizations deluding themselves into believing that they are monitoring and as all performance indicators show green status, everything is great.

Let me narrate here my pet peeve on risk management performance indicators. Tell me, how many of us have filled a balance score card or prepared an annual plan stating the number of risk management reports issued during the year. Additionally, recall numerous times assurance has been given to senior management based on the reports issued and their findings.

According to me, these performance indicators for a risk management department make limited sense. Better indicators would be :

a) To calculate the amount of loss averted from timely risk mitigation. Or,

b) Counting the number of days organization risk was higher than the established risk appetite of the company.

However, only a few companies keep these performance parameters because these are difficult to calculate and require robust management systems. So we rely on parameters that are actually not telling us anything more than the fact that some work is being done. Therefore, my contention is that even if a the risk of not issuing 12 risk management reports (a performance measure) during the year would be available, it may be irrelevant risk identification. A good idea when doing management by objectives, is to check what the company is measuring.

4. The Organization Structure & Systems

The focus is not developing the strategy and operation plans, however the point that is missed is – whether the organization structure and systems are conducive towards accomplishing the envisaged operations efficiency.

The prime example of this is establishing backoffice operations in emerging markets or outsourcing processes. Most organizations initially off shored to save on costs. The cost-benefit analysis was done considering the explicit cost of labor and other costs in mind. However, the implicit cost of managing the operations remotely, variance in customer service quality, breakdown of services and increased risk of fraud were not considered. Quite frequently, the same process was outsourced without much re-engineering for outsourcing the process. This resulted in cumbersome and long processes, higher management time and more risks. In rare cases only the organization structure was aligned to outsourcing activities and managing the complex relationships.

In this case, the strategy was fine, effort was put in setting up back office operations properly. However, the interlinked impact on various functions and activities was ignored. Basically the problems arose due to structure and systems, as these were not considered at the strategy formation stage.

5. Strategic Risk Management

Finally, the concept of strategic risk management is gaining popularity, though it still has a long way to go. Problems sometimes arise in implementing a strategy, because at the time of formulation the strategic risks were not identified and assessed. Hence, the organization has a rosy picture of the strategy.

The additional challenge is when strategic risks are identified though not properly. Some hold the opinion that strategic risks are best identified by the top management or chief risk manager. The frontline operations teams do not have a role to play. My view is that while strategy may be developed at the top, the risks need to be captured at all levels and rolled up to the strategy development team.

To illustrate, let me share with you the venture of international fast food joints in India. KFC, McDonalds etc. made losses in the Indian market initially. The reason for entering the Indian market was clear – a huge educated middle class provided a good customer base. They replicated their operations model in India. However, they really didn’t understand Indian tastes. Indians preferred spicy food and didn’t appreciate the American bland taste. Secondly, Indians initially took these meals as snacks and not for lunch or dinner. Hence, were willing to spend much less than they would in an Indian restaurant.  It took the companies 3-4 years to understand the difference in customer tastes and expenditure patterns, and change the menu accordingly. Customer risk was local whereas the strategy was formed globally. Strategy failed due to lack of understanding of local market.

Hence, in my view strategic risk management is not a simple exercise undertaken at the top of the company pyramid. A robust enterprise risk management system aligning objectives, strategies and risks is definitely beneficial. If an organization is not meeting its key performance indicators, even when their are no obvious problems with operations, a through analysis of risks at all levels sheds light on quite a few issues.

6. Impact of Systemic Risks

Another aspect that is least understood in organizations is systemic risks. Organizations adopting enterprise risk management assume that since the key risk indicators are showing low risk, everything is running smoothly. However, as seen in the financial crises, the impact of systemic risks is huge. Underestimating it or ignoring it can nearly wipe out the organization.

Turner report highlighted the impact of systemic risks in the banking sector with the following lines:

Five key features of this new model played a crucial role in increasing systemic risks, contributing to the credit boom in the upswing and exacerbating the self-reinforcing nature of the subsequent downswing:
(i) The growing size of the financial sector.
(ii) Increasing leverage – in many forms.
(iii) Changing forms of maturity transformation.
(iv) A misplaced reliance on sophisticated maths.
(v) Hard-wired procyclicality.”

Although, in the blame game the investment bankers are being labeled as culprits for playing in the CDO market, the interconnections between retail and investment banking  resulted in the crises. The retail bankers gave home loans to individuals with doubtful repayment capacity to leverage the boom in real estate market. Simple explanation is that the collapse of real estate market negatively impacted recovery of loans which resulted in making the CDOs worthless. The key lesson to learn here is that strategies can fail majorly if they are not protected against the impact of systemic risks.

7. Leadership Quality

The quality of leaders makes the largest difference to an organization’s success. Can one imagine GE’s tremendous success without Jack Welch? He accomplished a lot as a leader, though he portrays himself modestly in his book “Straight From The Gut” . He narrates -

“I came to the job without any external CEO skills. I had rarely dealt with anyone in Washington, even though the government was more into business than ever. I had little experience dealing with the media. My only press conference was scripted session with Reg on the day GE announced I would the the next chairman. I had only one or two brief outings before the Wall Street analysts who followed GE. And out 500,000-plus shareholders had no idea who Jack Welch was and whether he would be able to fill the shoes of the most admired businessman in America.”

Jim Collins in his book “Good to Great” analysed the impact on companies that had level 5 leaders. Organizations with level 5 leaders showed consistent performance and a far better share holder return than their industry counterparts. Hence, if either strategy or operations are failing, the quality of leadership should be looked into.

8. Assessment of  Strategy Formation Process

Last but not the least is a discussion on strategy itself. Two thoughts come into mind – how should a strategy be assessed for effectiveness and when should the strategy be modified or changed? The quality of strategy itself is in doubt sometimes.

The key reasons for adopting a wrong or misguided strategy relate to some of the points I had mentioned in my earlier posts on strategic risk management :

a) Very few organizations have a proper process for strategy formation. For most it is an end of the year data accumulation practice from different business units. An organization level strategy considering all interconnected aspects of business may not have been devised.

b) Board and CXOs generally do not negate a strategy given by the CEO or fellow colleague. The political repercussions of challenging a CEO/CXOs strategy can be huge, hence most keep their opposing opinions to themselves.

c) If the organization culture is not focused on creativity, ideas and learning, new strategies will not be presented for fear of being mocked or run over. Hence, contrary to popular perceptions the strategy pipeline is quite dry.

d) Moreover, the choices of strategy selection with CEO/CXO are limited. They receive ideas which people down the line have collectively agreed to. These might not be the best ideas as the popular ones generally do not shake people out of their comfort zones.

Understanding these circumstances for assessing the quality of strategy can be difficult. Senior management in such situations has to start from scratch to develop a strategy formation process. If the formation process is full of loopholes or ineffective, the probability of having a good strategy is low.

Closing Thoughts

In nutshell, getting the strategy and operations right is critical for organization success. However, these two components itself do not guarantee success, they are just the building blocks. Other management and organization parts need to be aligned properly to the objectives and strategy of the organization. A holistic picture is required to accomplish objectives. In case of failure in achieving objectives, a review of strategy and operations is definitely beneficial. However, aspects underlining these should be delved into deeply to do a proper root cause analysis. Looking beyond the obvious helps.


  1. Turner report – A regulatory response to global financial crises – Financial Serivices Authority, UK
  2. Straight from the gut- Jack Welch with Johm A. Byrne
  3. Good to Great – Jim Collins
  4. Norman Marks Blog
The Business Enterprise Magazine published this post in February 2012 issue.

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