Ground-level strategy

High-level strategy is as useful to most workers in an organisation as a high-flying airliner is to people in a bus queue. The bus passengers may briefly look up and notice the plane and its vapour trail, but, even if it is travelling in the same direction, it cannot possibly help them reach their destination.

Similarly, unless you can bring your strategy down-to-earth it will have no discernible effect on your organisation’s performance, or, worse, it will create confusion, paralysis and decline. It is often said that a strategy doesn’t fail in its formulation but in its implementation. I don’t agree. I believe that in many cases strategy fails falls through the gap between formulation and implementation directly because it is insufficiently grounded: it fails in its translation.

For example, Robert Kaplan (the developer of the Balanced Scorecard) has written about a biotechnology CEO who was frustrated with executive alignment and progress with his company, even though he knew his goals and had created clear implementation plans to achieve them. When pressed, however, the CEO realised that he had not articulated his vision into a form that could be easily communicated, or translated the vision into a set of strategic priorities. In short there was no connection between the CEO’s high-level goals and the detailed plan.

So how do you create a strategy that is more than high-level rhetoric? Here are three practical steps you can take to help you translate your blue-sky vision into success on the ground.

  1. A simple strategic intent focused on outcomes. Too many organisations prepare vision statements that merely state that the company will be the best, the most admired or the avatar in its industry. The trouble with such statements is that they provide no guidance as to what you want to achieve; there is no outcome. On the other hand Disney’s vision, “To make people happy”, is both simple and has a clear outcome. At the end of each day Disney’s employees can track their success as to whether they have made people happy or not. Herb Kelleher, the former CEO of Southwest Airlines in the US put it like this: “I can teach you the secret to running this airline in thirty seconds. This is it: we are the low-fare airline. Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about this company as well as I can”.
  2. Taking the trouble to break-down your strategy into aligned objectives. The US Army knows that you cannot plan a battle in detail – after all, the enemy may have other ideas. Instead, they have created an approach called Commander’s Intent or CI. The intent is a short, practical statement that leads every order and clarifies the goal. For senior commanders the CI may be to “reduce resistance in the south of the country”. Further down the chain of command the CI will be aligned but more specific. For example, it might be to remove the enemy from a particular town. The important aspect is that the overall objective is broken down into something each unit can understand and act upon. It doesn’t tell them how to do it, simply what they must achieve.
  3. Understanding and focusing on your key value drivers. The foundation for both of the above is an understanding of what drives value for your business. You need to know what’s important and what isn’t. Simply put, a value driver is a factor which has a significant impact on the performance of a business and which is controllable by management. Kelleher knew that it was low fares that drove Southwest’s success and aligned all activities and decisions behind that fact. You may have a more complex source of competitive advantage, but, in my experience, you should be able to focus on just half a dozen factors that are critical to your organisation’s performance.

The bottom line

Don’t leave your strategy hanging in mid-air. The success of your team or business is based on your ability to bring it down-to-earth so that your people can implement it and deliver ‘ground-breaking’ results.


To find out more contact Stuart by clicking here or call +44-(0)1636-526111.