How do you make strategy happen: life beyond the flip chart

16/09/11: It’s the multi-million dollar question. How does strategic planning in our lives and businesses move from the flip chart and the brainstorm to actually create positive change. How do we put talk into action?

Someone told me this week the biggest enemy of strategic improvement is ‘business as usual’. The pull between long- and short-term pressures is the continual barrier to change management and driving strategic improvement.

This week Taurus was commissioned with a job I just couldn’t delegate. A chance to interview 11 senior leaders from our largest ASX-listed companies about strategy and how strategy is set, implemented and measured. A chance to speak to some of the country’s leading experts about how to ensure strategy successfully drives a business forward.

The companies have one thing in common. They are fast growing, work in highly competitive environments and face a whole range of external market forces.

The interviews were fascinating. These ASX-listed companies along with many of the smart entrepreneurs I work with have struggled to actually make strategic improvement and strategic change happen. It’s a struggle in my own business. On the whole strategy implementation or change management is a business skill that, for most organisations is left wanting and has never really been fixed. There are answers out there, but is there one single recipe for success?

“What do you want to achieve or avoid? The answer to this question is objectives. How will you go about achieving your desired result? The answer to this you can call strategy.” William E Rothschild

In my experience, the actual process of setting strategy is fairly straight forward — and fun! In practice, it takes the form of brainstorming, off-sites, questionnaires, group meetings, huddles often labelled with sexy or aspirational names such as Challenger or Club. Reports and actions plans are produced and then six months later, everyone reconvenes. Trouble is when they reconvene, nothing or not nearly enough has actually happened. Things have reverted back to the old ways.

The test of good strategic planning is seeing positive change, making it happen. The test is getting a range of personalities in your organisation to buy-in to what you want to achieve. As one of the ASX-listed senior managers stated, “Most people want to work towards a bigger goal — something good. Something bigger than the everyday”. He said that companies who are successful in strategy are about “doing your job and more”.

Of course a lot of this has to do with hiring the right people. Finding people who are flexible, open minded, who have the will to improve, re-direct and continually strive for different and better things.

I think a successful strategy implementation — a better future — is about doing things differently. It’s about driving towards a different place, evolving people and implementing different processes. Success is about constantly evolving, breaking through new levels of excellence, comfort zones and seeing a future. It’s about not doing the things we did in the past. It is about increasing discipline and constant evaluation.

The main advice I gleaned was unanimous. Ask three questions:

• Where is the business today?

• Where do I want the business to go?

• How will it get there?

Some of the tips included:

• Get the right people on the bus

• Discipline and accountability

• Trust

• Embrace the opportunity of change

• Engage to the last level

• Empower people

The other success criteria was to check what success looks like? What will we be celebrating when we crack open the champagne? What does success look like spread on the table? On the whiteboard or in the bank?

If you can’t see the bullseye, you can’t hope to hit it let alone aim in the right direction. And if you can’t define where you are heading, how can anyone help you get there? For most, hitting that bullseye is what makes us leap out of bed each morning.