Strategy development and implementation are two distinct disciplines, but they are inseparable entities. Taking the time to plan strategy implementation ensures all the development work will have the desired results. Understanding these differences is key to transitioning a business towards its ultimate goal and optimises your chances of success.
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Turning strategy into action is an artform – one alternately known as strategy implementation or strategy execution. 

It’s also the point where a lot of strategies fail to get off the ground. That’s because the two disciplines – development versus implementation – require very different skillsets, mindsets, not to mention more resources and more time. 

So, what are the key differences, and how can you manage the transition to optimise your chances of success?

> RELATED ARTICLE:  Common points of failure to avoid when implementing your strategy

1. What vs How – the key difference between strategy development and implementation

Strategy development is big picture thinking. What direction is the organisation heading in; what outcomes could be achieved; which do you most want to pursue; where do you see the business in 5 to 10 years? These are high-level questions that require a birds-eye view of the organisation – that much sought-after ability to see the forest for the trees. 

When you’re developing strategy, it’s all about what can be done. Strategy implementation, on the other hand, is how to make your strategy happen. It’s the difference between saying: we’re going to plant a forest, and actually creating a site management plan, including what, where and when to plant, and with what resources.

Strategy implementation requires you to translate intent into detailed plans, but also into organisational change. What needs to be done over the next 12 months (and in the following years) to facilitate the 5- or 10-year vision? How will the operating model work under the new vision? Who is going to originate the activity, and how will it be managed? What are the drivers and incentives for organisational change? This is a much more ground-level discussion that requires you to get into the details of who is doing what, which capabilities are needed to turn the plan into reality, and how to break it all down into manageable stages. 

Understanding that development and implementation are two separate, but interrelated, activities enables you to distinguish and define the requirements for each – keeping that big sky vision, while managing the ground-level work and transition activities that will get you there.

Putting it into practice: Where is the activity going to happen that brings each strategic initiative to life? Specify which teams/individuals will ‘own’ these activities to ensure accountability and engagement. Create a 1-year implementation plan, and ensure you have the resources and capabilities to make it happen.

2. Looking in vs looking out – time to get introspective

Developing a strategy involves a lot of looking out. You analyse the market, looking at what’s happening right now, expected future trends, regional and geographic differences, and evaluate the external variables that impact the path you will choose. It’s big picture thinking, again, and it’s very much driven by the potential offered ‘out there’. 

Strategy implementation is far more introspective. Now that you’ve determined the path ahead, you have to look within the business to understand what needs to be done to make those strategic choices a reality. This means, first of all, having a really clear understanding of your business as it stands. What is it at A (the starting point), and what does it need to be at B (the end goal)? What will need to change, and how are you going to make that happen?

This might mean having to make significant changes to the operating model, which describes how a business should be operated to achieve its goals, or it might just mean upweighting some previously overlooked capabilities. 

Putting it into practice: To begin work on your Target Operating Model, take an audit of internal capabilities, including people, processes, technology and systems, to evaluate strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. Break it down to ensure you understand where the gaps are and how you are going to fill them.

3. Expanding the circle – broadening engagement with the strategy story

To be successful, strategy development requires a tight circle of focused decision makers, typically drawn from the C-suite and senior stakeholders. These are the leaders best placed to have conversations around the organisation’s future because they have the broadest view of the business in action: 

  • How it sits in the market
  • How it interacts with customers
  • And how it perfroms compared to competitors

Implementation, on the other hand, requires much broader engagement. You need the engagement, confidence and faith of the entire business – with everyone moving in the same direction – to make progress.

How, then, do you engage everyone in the process? First and foremost, getting the messaging right is crucial. There is a balance to strike between giving everyone too much detail (and losing their attention) and not giving them enough information to bring them into the vision. When employees don’t share their higher-ups’ vision, they disengage from the process. They might continue with business as usual – preventing that forward motion from happening – or, worse, if they no longer understand their role in the business, they might stop doing anything at all. 

Ask yourself: What does each individual need to know to play their part? How will you communicate that? Whose responsibility will this communication be?

With the messaging in place, it’s crucial to ensure that workloads and priorities are clearly aligned to strategy goals. Tie tasks to outcomes with performance measures such as Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), which give individuals and teams known goals to work towards and a way of checking on progress. OKRs are flexible enough to be continually refined, so consider the timeline of your objectives and how often you intend to check in. 

Putting it into practice: Create an internal communications strategy that’s focussed on getting as many people ‘on the bus’ as possible. Share the high-level vision, and especially the ‘why’, so that everyone understands why change is necessary and the positive outcomes that will follow if it’s done right. Reiterate the messaging every time you engage in goal-setting activities, to demonstrate how each task contributes towards the overarching strategy.

Plan to succeed – strategy implementation is a discipline

There is a common view that strategy execution is a linear process, with a straightforward beginning and end. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as setting a series of tasks and ticking them off one by one. Successful execution requires a combination of a good strategy, the right organisational structure, and effective management. Without each of those core pillars in place, strategy implementation will fail. By treating strategy implementation as its own critical capability, however – with leadership focus, clear tasks and responsibilities, and a predefined method for measuring progress – you can course-correct if things begin to go awry. 

Strategy development and implementation may be distinct disciplines, but they are inseparable entities. Taking the time to plan strategy implementation ensures all the development work will have the desired results. When we build strategy implementation plans, we work with businesses to ensure that they adopt a nuanced and adaptive approach to execution that aligns with the specific challenges and context of each situation. In this way, implementation underpins strategy and moves the business towards its ultimate goals.

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strategy implementation vs strategy development